Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Blatter's race comments show he's living in the past

There was a point where it all got rather surreal. That was the point when an old white man, who runs an organisation that seems to attract an awful lot of criticism, appeared to accuse a young black man of racism.

The white man was Sepp Blatter, the 75-year-old head of Fifa. The black man was Rio Ferdinand, a footballer who plays for England and Manchester United.

And the surreal moment was when Blatter, or possibly someone tweeting on his behalf, told Ferdinand that the person Ferdinand had called, in a tweet, a 'black man' had a name.

You can see why he'd want to bring it up. It's a brilliant name, the kind you'd be dying to toss into a conversation, maybe even join Twitter to tweet. Perhaps that's why Blatter, or someone on his behalf, issued a photograph of him hugging Tokyo Sexwale. Perhaps it had nothing to do with the fact that Tokyo Sexwale (which isn't, apparently, pronounced 'sex whale') is black.

But it certainly looked, when Sepp Blatter issued the photo with a headline saying 'committed to the fight against racism', as if the Minister of Human Settlements of South Africa had been given his starring role on the Fifa website because of the colour of his skin.

Rio Ferdinand seemed to think so. 'I need the covering eyes symbol!!' he tweeted. 'Fifa,' he explained, 'clear up the Blatter comments with a pic of him posing with a black man...' A 'pic', he didn't need to say, whose message seemed to be 'some of my best friends are black'.

To be fair to Blatter, some of his best friends are black. Jack Warner, who once told an audience that a 'white foreigner' who was trying to interview him was 'trash', and who resigned from his post as vice president of Fifa after being accused of offering bribes, is black. Nor could you really say that Fifa wasn't, in all kinds of ways, an equal opportunities employer.

But he seemed surprised when his comments didn't go down all that well. He seemed to think that he had been 'misunderstood'. He was 'committed', he said, though it might have been nice if he'd come up with a different metaphor, to 'kicking' racism 'out'.

Perhaps when Blatter sees football fans making monkey noises and throwing bananas when a black player comes on the pitch, which sometimes happens in Spain (and which is why one black British player left his Spanish team after one season), he thinks they're just being friendly.

Perhaps, like Berlusconi talking about Obama, he thinks it's funny to talk about a black person's 'tan'. Perhaps he doesn't realise that the world has changed.

It takes time to change a culture and an awful lot of effort. Sometimes people get confused. Sometimes they mix up race and culture and think that if you criticise a culture you're also criticising the colour of someone's skin. They think that stating certain facts - about levels of Nigerian fraud, say, or absent Caribbean fathers, or the lyrics of certain rappers - or even not liking the work of particular artists makes you a racist. It seems to give them a nice, warm glow.

Race has nothing whatsoever to do with culture. It's the thing we can't change, whatever efforts we make. To insult someone for their race, and not for what they do or say, or even for how they play a game, is about as low as a human being can go.

Last week, a black man testified in a London court. He testified even though his father had died the night before. He spoke about the night, 18 years ago, when his friend Stephen Lawrence was killed. He described how some young white men had chased them and how one waved "something shiny" before his friend fell. He said that when his friend got up and ran "blood was streaming out around his neck".

As he talked, Duwayne Brooks cried. When his best friend died, he said, the word his killers yelled out was "n****r".

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