I’ve never been much of a big football fan. I put this partly down to living in a household of women where football wasn’t something we gravitated to. Plus, I never felt I could be part of football culture, aware from a young age that the sport was associated with being white working class. The only time you’d find me watching was during AFCON (African Cup of Nations) or the World Cup.
That all changed this year as the England team blazed their way through the Euros. Though I didn’t start following things properly until the semi-finals, I found myself actively trying to keep up with how the team were doing. And when we eventually made it to the finals, I knew I had to see the match and support England. As my friends and I talked about where we’d watch it, we came to the collective decision that it wouldn’t be in a pub setting.
And not just because of Covid. For Ashleigh Ainsley, 28-year-old co-founder of Black Tech Fest being a Black football fan is knowing that going to a game could result in racist altercations. “You might not want to go to certain away games because you know the fans are quite hostile and there aren’t a lot of people there who look like me,” says the longstanding Arsenal fan. This is partly why Ainsley also chose to watch the final with friends, rather than at the pub.
Like me, Sophia, 25, wasn’t much of a football fan before this Euros campaign. “I never imagined that I would ever jump up and down screaming at a game of football,” says the MA student from Bristol, who preferred not to give her full name. “I’ve never liked its associations with toxic nationalism, hypermasculinity, and racist hooliganism,” she adds. However, she got invested in this particular England team, she says, because of who they are and what they represent.
“They won my heart when they were inadvertently dragged into the culture war,” she tells me. “I closely followed what was going on with England’s Black players on and off the pitch – from the government’s response to Marcus Rashford’s campaign to feed hungry children and the team’s decision to take the knee, to racist media coverage of Raheem Sterling and Bukayo Saka’s expressions of Black boy joy.”
For Grant Igbokwe, who has been into football since a young age, this current England squad is special because its Black team members are so relatable. “A lot of these players come from south London like me, so it’s nice having people I can identify with,” says the 23-year-old teaching assistant and Man United fan.
Even so, supporting England in the Euros did leave him conflicted. “Part of me didn’t want England to do well because of the way that football fans see Black players,” says Igbokwe “At the same time I want players like Rashford and Sterling to do well because I want success for Black football players.”
Towards the end of Sunday night’s final – following the exhilaration of the first half, the frustrations of the second, and the agonies of extra time – I, like many others, was following the online conversation on Black Twitter. We all knew that, if we lost, somehow we’d get the bad end of the stick.
By the time penalties came around, Ainsley says he immediately sensed what would follow if the Black players didn’t score. “When Bukayo got called up to take the kick I thought, ‘Oh no, don’t do this to him,’” he recalls. “Having seen Sancho and Rashford miss their goal, I knew that these players would be abused. It wasn’t a surprise to see the aftermath that followed.”
“We’re allowed a seat at the table as long as we excel at every moment, don’t dare challenge the status quo, and don’t expect to get the recognition we deserve.”
Sophia was devastated for the Black players who had carried their team through to the finals, but also concerned for those supporting them. “I anticipated the racist vitriol they’d receive the moment they stepped off the pitch and I knew that Black fans would receive backlash for the loss,” she says.
Not one of us was shocked at the abuse that Rashford, Sancho and Saka received – the torrent of racist slurs on social media, the monkey emojis, the defaced mural. We already know the realities of being Black in Britain.
“It confirmed that we’re allowed a seat at the table as long as we excel at every moment, don’t dare challenge the status quo, and don’t expect to get the recognition we deserve,” says Sophia.
Igbokwe echoes the sentiment, saying it isn’t just football fans who feel this way about Black people, that racism comes from all types of people in the UK. “I know that Black people are only celebrated when they’re doing something great for the country and, if I’m not, that I’ll get racially abused,” he says.
Our value in this country is based on our performance. When we’re winning, we’re British heroes, but when we don’t perform well, suddenly we’re othered. And ultimately, says Jo Boffey, a relational counsellor and psychotherapist from north London, this affects how Black people see themselves.
“It can result in Black people hiding parts of themselves as ultimately, racism is about violence,” Boffey tells me. “When we’re confronted with violence, we have to take care of ourselves as it puts us in danger. We see more Black people choosing to identify themselves with their family’s country of origin – for obvious reasons, it is safer to identify with a group that accepts you as you are.”
This idea, that Black people need to perform to be valued in the UK, their own country, affects the way Sophia moves through life, she says. “My friends and family joke that I’m a workaholic and an overachiever, but it’s the result of being conditioned to feel that I must prove my worth to have any value in this society. Black people are consistently told that we are disposable.”
Ainsley believes it forces Black people to play up to other people’s expectations of them, by masking or adapting their behaviours in ways that can be tiring, but also damaging in the longterm. “Being your authentic self challenges people in ways which makes them so uncomfortable, and in turn that makes you uncomfortable, so we have to perform and code-switch in a way,” he says.
“We’re entitled to feel like we belong here. But the establishment is trying with all its might to make sure that we never truly do.”
Right now is a difficult time for Black people and we must practise self-care, Boffey urges. “Social media can be quite a divisive place to be, so notice how you feel when you’re logged on and consider taking a break. Look after yourself by sharing how you feel with people who care about you.” As Audre Lorde, self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”, put it: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Black people in the UK continue to struggle with their identity, and weeks such as this one make it harder still for them to claim their British identity. No wonder some of us identify as being Black in Britain, rather than being Black British.
“Britain is all I’ve ever known,” says Sophia. “Black British history and culture is British history and culture. Black people have built and sustained Britain since slavery and colonisation. We’re entitled to feel like we belong here. But the establishment is trying with all its might to make sure that we never truly do. I suppose I do feel Black British, but there’s a very uneasy tension there.”
• This article was amended on July 19, 2020, to correct Grant Igbokwe’s name.