Ansu Fati, what is racist, and who gets to decide

Not sure who needs to hear this, but here goes:

White people don’t get to decide what is racist.

After the Barça Champions League match, a 5-1 victory in which 17-year-old Ansu Fati scored a lovely goal, a columnist for the third-largest paper in Spain compared the way Fati runs to the way Black immigrant street vendors run from police.

Let’s just let that sit for a moment.

As a paid wordsmith, you have, like most writers, a rather large vocabulary at your beck and call. You can write quickly and eloquently on a number of topics. The words that you muster to describe how a Black teenage phenom runs is … that.

Antoine Griezmann, Fati’s teammate, was the first to call the journalist on it. Ousmane Dembele has also spoken out. But none of the captains. And it’s worth noting that Griezmann had his own past complexities because of a blackface incident. The silence from other teammates is deafening. The club, apparently, has decided to stop talking about legal action now that the writer has “apologized.” And that mea culpa was more of an “up yours,” stating that “if anyone was offended, blablabla.”

“If anyone was offended” doesn’t offer contrition. It doesn’t offer anything except a spit in the face to anyone who WAS actually offended, because the tone of those apologies is invariably, “I’m fine over here, but if you were bothered by it, well … ” And lest any lack of clarity seeps into my writing, let me eradicate that: The comparison was racist. And wrong. And insulting. And shameful.

Ansu Fati has so far had a fantastic career. He’s been capped for the Spain senior side, and seems to break some kind of record every time he scores, and also has to deal with this crap.
But being Black and doing what he does in Spain, it’s likely that he has experienced racism before. The writer himself offered up some “what I meant was … ” about the beauty of how Fati runs, or some such.

Yet the thing about racism is that it’s real. Black folks don’t have to look to find it, or invent it. There’s more than enough of it to go around. And it’s every bit as vicious and hurtful as the people who perpetrate it intend. As a writer who makes a living using words, there are many ways to portray beauty, and the elegance of an athlete in motion, ways vastly more effective than comparing the way a Black athlete runs to street vendors scattering from police. It’s like saying a Black athlete is running like he has a watermelon under his arm, or running like he’s carrying a looted TV set.

Football has a problem with racism. So do a great many countries. The biggest problem with racism is the lack of acknowledgement of its reality and its pain. Racism isn’t like being cut, and bleeding, even if it is, but at a soul level. But everybody, black or white, has been cut. You know exactly what it feels like. But racism, as with sexism or homophobia, is deeply personal. And if someone who doesn’t have any idea what it’s like wants to deny it, or minimize it in the name of getting back to “normal” and eliminating any signs of discomfort, they will do that. Football does that on the regular. The Premiership featured Black Lives Matter on the backs of shirts for a bit. Gesture. Everybody gets to feel better until the next incident that needs to be swept under the rug. Again. One nice thing about the stands being empty is that Black players don’t have to deal with racist insults from the stands. After all in Germany’s lower divisions, fans are back and there has already been a racist incident. Don’t want to waste any time, one supposes, in getting back to “normal.”

But the rush to forgiveness, to “let’s all get back to normal” is the worst part of racist incidents. But it’s also a function of the power structure of the game, which is white. So an apology is a gesture, like armbands, slogans or t-shirts, all of which do about as much as a non-apology. Because racism in a situation like this isn’t about the theft of someone’s humanity. Rather, it’s about the comfort of the folks who consume the game, who run the game. An American legislator recently said that being called racist is one of the worst things that can be said of a person in America. Note the distinction: Not BEING racist, but being CALLED racist.

When an action is labeled racist, there is always the debate. Was it really racist? Generally if you have to ask … And who is the arbiter of that? People looking to defend, provide bromides or get back to normal, or the people who find that stuff in fact offensive. The player himself has also been silent on the matter. Can’t say as I blame him. He has bigger stuff to worry about, like preparing to put Real Madrid to the sword. And maybe the scar tissue that comes from being Black and having to experience things such as that on the regular, has built up to a degree that it becomes just another incident. This, if true, would be the saddest thing, because Fati is just 17.

And this kind of stuff doesn’t just happen by accident. My wife of 30 years is white. She has never had a “whoopsie,” or moment where someone had to ask, “Was that racist?” Ever. Does that make her special or unusual? Nope. But it is noteworthy in the context of the race to forgive, or to suggest that “Well, it wasn’t racist, it was just this or that.” No. It wasn’t. And the sooner we all admit that and get comfortable with dealing with that ugly reality, the sooner we can set about the task of having real discussions about ugly things. But as long as one group of folks is going, “Well, was it really? What if it was just … ” that just means they aren’t taking the incident seriously (why should they? It doesn’t affect them, and won’t affect them), or are so desperate in their personal discomfort that any absolution offered is grabbed at like a life jacket. “A slogan? Perfect. Now we don’t have to have any real talks about it.” Rainbow patches, pink ribbons are too often reality avoidance tactics.

In the U.S., newsrooms have been talking about diversity and inclusion since the 1980s, but still aren’t any closer to truly getting there. Not following the media scene as closely as the U.S. one but paying a bit of attention to a country under consideration as a retirement destination. no such talk is seen in Spain. So you wonder, even if the writer writes this, surely it went through an editor or two. Neither of them said, “Uh … um … ” where a Black editor would have been like, “This is racist. Rephrase.” So out it went, into the world. And here we are.

It was wrong. It wasn’t inelegant, or “what I meant was … ” It was just wrong.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.