My extended family is very proud of its abilities with humor, from the pun-laden, eye-roll-worthy guffaws of my father to the cutting sarcasm of my brother and aunt. At family gatherings, dad jokes mix regularly with incisive social commentary. I remember a joke that my grandfather used to tell when I was a kid that made me laugh, that I thought was a clever play on words. There are dozens of variations, but a quick search turned up this version, which closely mirrors my grandfather’s.
A word about my grandfather: he is a serious man, whose inner demons have fought a running battle with the rest of him for nearly nine decades now. He’s the first person in his family to achieve a college degree, a trained chemist and a self-taught farmer. He also lives in southern Kansas, a state not known for its love of diversity. He forbade his daughters from dating black men in the 1960s. One wonders what he thinks of his grandson’s wife, an Indian-American woman. One wonders what he thinks of his other grandson’s wife, a Jewish woman, or if he knows that Jewish cultural tradition dictates that his great-granddaughter, my daughter, is also Jewish.
One wonders whether my grandfather recognizes that “engrish” jokes are unacceptable, whether he has ever reflected on the “Chinaman” of his joke. One also wonders when I stopped telling that joke to my friends and whether or not I did so because it’s not a complex joke or because it’s racist. I can still hear that joke today and a little flare of happiness lights up in me because it is a connection to my past, to my grandfather. It is, to my knowledge, the only joke my grandfather has ever told me and it is something we’ve shared in a world where sharing things with my grandfather is exceedingly rare. And yet, it is wrong. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bad joke or artfully crafted: it is racist and it is wrong. It should not be told again.
It can be hard to look in the mirror, take a deep breath and say, out loud, that you have done some racist things, that you have thought racist things, and what’s more, you might be able to have this conversation with yourself again in 10 years about your actions tomorrow. It can be hard to look at your loved ones and see the terrible things they have done or thought. I love my grandfather and I don’t want to vilify him. I want to say that he is a gentle and loving man. I want to say that he studies history and stands at the edge of rivers and looks out quietly across the water. I want to say that his hands shake and it makes me afraid. I want you to think well of him, not ill.
In August 2015, Jamie Vardy sat in a casino in England and repeatedly racially abused a man. A journalist, Jonathan Liew, took exception to the fact that few to no media outlets were mentioning his racism while glorifying his run of Premier League goals scored and celebrating his rise from lower tier football to “the best league in the world”. Liew first tweeted this, received a fair amount of stick for it, and subsequently wrote this. Vardy has apologized with a typical statement of contrition that has all the hallmarks of someone who’d like this little problem go away, not actually face up to the mirror and think.
As far as I can tell, the entire transcript of Vardy’s apology is the following: “I wholeheartedly apologise for any offence I’ve caused. It was a regrettable error in judgement I take full responsibility for and I accept my behaviour was not up to what’s expected of me.” It’s so short that style guides don’t even recommend that I put it in a block quote and it’s as sidestepping an apology as I’ve seen. The brevity, however, isn’t particularly important. In fact, I’d prefer the entirety of the second sentence be removed to make it more of an actual apology. The words “regrettable error in judgement” and how they’re “not up to what’s expected of me” is about as “oops, I got caught” as you can make it. Leicester City, for their part, have helpfully lifted the rug for his sweepings, though maybe “substantial fine” does mean what it says.
Beyond Vardy himself, though, are those who would treat this as a mere slip of the tongue or, worse, explain it away as not offensive through some convoluted leaps of faith from racist term to didn’t-mean-it-that-way to it-can-totally-be-a-term-of-endearment. However, Vardy’s term for someone described in media as “an East Asian man” is racist, whether the speaker of such a term considers it racist or not, and particularly so when it is lumped with venomous rage. As with my grandfather’s joke, using language designed specifically to reference race is meant to either confer lower status on whoever the term is aimed or to remind them to whom they are speaking.
Furthermore, as Jonathan Liew accurately puts it, “Yes, we all make mistakes. But my drunken mistakes tend to involve falling asleep on the night bus rather than racially abusing a stranger.” The same could be said about anger-induced statements. Dissimulating after the fact with weird statements like, “well, where I come from, it’s a term of endearment” is not only false—it’s not a term of endearment where you come from—but also a see-through way of saying “I don’t get it because I’m racist.” Going the term of endearment route is tantamount to claiming that it is the speaker who gets to decide whether or not a term is offensive to the subject and that, obviously, is a load of the finest grade manure you can get your hands on.
Imagine a scenario, then, in which Jamie Vardy were to encounter an opponent—nevermind his Japanese teammate, Shinji Okazaki—on the field, use such a term, and then claim that it was just how you speak to people around you back home. Imagine a scenario in which he not only refused to apologize, but further antagonized that opponent at their next encounter by refusing to shake his hand for having had the temerity to call Jamie Vardy out on racial abuse, perceived or otherwise. This seems unconscionable, but—and by now surely you see where this is going—of course FC Barcelona has a player on their books that did exactly that: Luis Suárez racially abused Patrice Evra, refused to apologize for it, claimed he’d used a term of endearment, and then refused to shake Evra’s hand at their next meeting. (And, if you haven’t read it or need a refresher, here is the FA finding about the incident)
Replace the main character of my grandfather’s joke with “Negro” and you can see why that might be problematic. However many times Suárez was accused of using the term (6), he admits to using it once, but as a term of reconciliation. Suarez’s stance that he meant it only how he uses it with people back home and his teammate, Glenn Johnson, is pretty much the same as claiming that Shinji Okazaki who should be flattered that Jamie Vardy has taken notice of his skin color. Evra gets to determine whether or not Luis Suárez used an offensive term or not, not the other way around.
That can sound problematic if your judicial sense is steeped in finding excuses for poorly thought out expressions, but it’s hardly debatable in wider society. It’s not that Suárez should have been banned for longer or even what the ban that took place was, but rather that Suárez has yet to come around on the idea—at least publicly—that what he said was wrong or could even be construed as wrong, not because it got him in trouble, but because he used a term that turned out to be offensive to the subject, even if that term was misunderstood across linguistic and cultural barriers. It would be one thing if Suárez had turned around and said “That’s offensive? I’m really sorry, I didn’t know that. Please forgive my ignorance.” It would be another for him to put on a shocked face and deny all charges, slowly coming around later to the idea that yeah, actually he did say some of the stuff that he was accused of, but you know, not in that way. Definitely not that way.
People make mistakes. Liew is totally right about that, but it’s the way in which those verbal mistakes are approachedafterward that often matters more than most of those mistakes. Suárez is obviously prone to outbursts and given to intensity and that may be a major source of his on-the-field abilities, but it might also be something he needs to think more seriously about. Whatever happened between him and Papakouli Diop in the first leg of the Copa del Rey match against Espanyol, Suárez was angry enough to challenge Espanyol’s players after the match in the tunnel according to the referee. If that sounds deranged, that’s because it is. And it’s not the first time we’ve seen Suárez lose his cool. Sadly, I don’t think it’s the last time either.
And here we are, then, with Suárez holding the keys to another successful season (there’s no doubt in my mind that he was the missing piece of the puzzle that unlocked last year’s Tripelete 2.0) for a team that I love to watch. He’s a fantastic player, but we’re in Leicester City territory again: if we hold Suárez accountable for his actions, if we make sure that he faces his demons, we may lose a valued member of a team we support. He does a job, he plays a sport, he is meant to entertain, not be a role model. Except in our own lives, one assumes and hopes, we hold ourselves to a standard that sees us constantly improving, constantly learning from our surroundings and adapting to situations in which we find ourselves. It is one thing to say, as Suárez did, “Where I come from it is normal to refer to people in this way by reference to what they look like. There is no aggression in referring to somebody in this way and there is certainly no racial connotation,” and it is another entirely to fail to recognize the society and reality around you. Maybe Suárez does think that his terms were inoffensive, but that is meaningless because he is not the subject. He may have a demonstrable point regarding the use of colloquial terms, but that does not make these terms any more correct or any less racist simply because they’re in widespread use.
Let us return, briefly, to my grandfather. When I was a baby, my mother’s cousin (thus my grandfather’s niece through his brother), married a black man. It was, for my extended family, kind of a big deal. First, because it was Outrageous. And second because, once they met him, everyone totally thought he was the bee’s knees (and they still think that, 20-some years later). I was too young to have opinions on anything at the time, so I’ve never lived in a world where my grandfather hadn’t course-corrected on at least part of his racism. This is important not simply because it makes me more capable of hanging out with my extended family without angry thoughts, but because it shows a willingness to change. It is also something that makes me question myself on a regular basis.
It is important that we consider the facts as they are rather than as we would like them to be. It is not the role of a fan, sitting at home, to toe the party line, to support the players come hell or high water. Fans in the stadium, during a match, can play that card if they wish, but blind faith is hardly a positive quality in another human. Indeed, from my vantage point at this computer, it is the duty of fans to question the club hierarchy and the club’s commitment to the values it espouses in giant letters across the stadium’s seats: mes que un club.
Jamie Vardy, Luis Suárez, and my grandfather are all people who are loved by their families, who are hard-nosed when it comes to overcoming obstacles, and who have made mistakes. I have made mistakes. We atone for those by changing our attitudes and roles, not through half-assed apologies. Suárez has never apologized to Evra in private or in public and, one assumes, never will. In a sense that is fine — I doubt my grandfather has ever apologized to any Asians he has met or to any black men whose amorous approaches to his daughters were rejected (by them) because of his rules — but a continued defense that “that’s just how we do it at home, it’s not offensive” is possibly indicative of his attitude towards opponents and fellow human beings.
Beyond the details of each case lies the fans’ willingness to buy and parrot whatever their current roster produces. While it is fun to jeer opponents (especially madridistas and pericos!) during or surrounding a match, us-vs-them mentalities are hardly a good thing overall. It may be nice to associate with like-minded individuals, but if the cost is our basic decency, the consequences outweigh the possible rewards by quite a large margin. To rant against the disgusting signs and chants that Espanyol fans recently subjected the Barcelona players to and then try to portray our own side as completely respectful and undeniably open and affirming is to fall prey to the insidious nature of sectarianism. To decry Vardy as a racist and then angrily denounce accusations against Barcelona players is to forget that the mirror is always looking back.