How Raheem Sterling Is Shining A Spotlight On Modern Racism

Only once we have developed the ability to recognise and challenge our own unconscious biases will modern racism be overcome, and we will see a level playing field for all – not just for footballers
Simon Stacpoole/Offside via Getty Images

Racism in football is a controversial topic, but it’s one that has recently been brought to the fore by Manchester City player, Raheem Sterling, after he was the victim of racist abuse during a game against Chelsea.

The club was quick to respond, banning the two fans who were filmed shouting racist abuse at Sterling from attending any future games and stating that it was “fully supporting” a police investigation. I welcome Chelsea’s response, and of course, instances such as this must be challenged. This case though, not only highlights the prevalence of racism in football, but also the fact that we only tend to combat racism when it is so overt that it simply can’t be ignored.

It’s wrong to believe that because incidents like this aren’t as common as they used to be, racism no longer exists. We might not tolerate racist language or blatant discrimination against BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) people in the same way that we used to, but at all levels of football, as well as in wider society, racism has evolved to persist in more covert, subtle ways.

This is a phenomenon that psychologists refer to as “modern racism,” and it’s something that Sterling has actually spoken out about himself. Just the day after the Chelsea incident, he took to social media to address the incredibly negative way fellow Manchester City teammate Tosin Adarabioyo purchasing a house for his mother had been reported in the media, making the case that it would have been portrayed very differently for a white player. This is a perfect example of modern racism, whereby a BAME person’s actions are perceived as negative when a white person’s would not be.

It is well-reported that whilst 25% of professional football players are black, there are hardly any black coaches. However, the problem is not just in coaching roles, but in all leadership roles. My own analysis of the 2015-16 season revealed that in the Premier League, there was no black person in any management position.

For those few BAME individuals that do rise to leadership positions, not just in football but in all walks of life, it’s rare that they will receive recognition for their efforts. When a black leader is successful, their success is attributed to factors other than their decision-making or leadership skills, such as being lucky or having a good boss. But when they have a setback, it’s seen as a personal failure of leadership and evidence of incompetence.

This is modern racism in its purest form; an example of black people being weighed down with stereotypes and negative connotations that the vast majority of us don’t even realise we believe. Talking about this at one of the Big Four accountancy firms, a member of the audience told me that the reason there are so many more black players than there are coaches is because it’s a “different skill set.” This, in itself is a shocking opinion to express; that black players don’t possess the necessary skills for leadership. No-one in the audience, including partners of the firm, challenged their racist colleague and when I did I was told that I was creating tension in the room! Nevertheless, it showed that whilst few people will express views such as this, others do not appreciate that the sentiments are racist and the lack of challenge by senior leaders is seen as an endorsement of these views.

Ian Wright recently hit the nail squarely on the head by speaking about the fact that no matter what Sterling does, or no matter how high he reaches, it seems as though people simply want to keep him down. Wright says that it’s as if people don’t want him to achieve success, and that these attitudes are “tinged with racism.” While he was speaking specifically about Sterling’s recent experiences, it seems to me that he has summed up the challenges faced by all BAME people in wider society.

So yes, we do need to eradicate racism on the pitch. But this is only a small – albeit important – part of the problem. The challenge that we face is making these changes stick. Former England player, Stan Collymore, has written that the outcry in response to Sterling’s treatment at Chelsea is hollow. Give it a few days, he says, and the entire scenario will be forgotten. Nothing will change. How, then, can we tackle the racism that people don’t even realise they are guilty of?

We can take some comfort in the fact that it is possible to change our biases, even if we might not previously be aware that we ever held them. It requires us to be honest with ourselves, though. We must challenge ourselves to reflect on our decisions and why we might instinctively expect some people to achieve success; or be surprised by that achieved by others. We must consider and analyse our behaviour and judgements, and be honest as to whether our decisions are based on genuine evidence of an individual’s ability or bias.

I applaud Sterling for addressing these issues. It’s vital that both modern and old-fashioned racism are afforded the same attention and tackled with exactly the same resolve. Only once we have developed the ability to recognise and challenge our own unconscious biases will modern racism be overcome, and we will see a level playing field for all – not just for footballers.

Correction: This post originally stated Sterling used Instagram to address how purchasing a house for his own mother was reported in the media. The subject of that story was in fact teammate Tosin Adarabioyo.


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