JOHN CARLIN. The Universal Sin

The rich countries of the world sometimes go over the top about racism, and in doing so, cheapen examples of real racism. The latest example involves the Portuguese football player with Manchester City, Bernardo Silva.

There is a tendency in certain circles to think that racism is a white monopoly. If those who thought so had been with me in South Africa in early September they would have been surprised.

The cruellest racism in that country is no longer that of other times. Today blacks insult, hate and kill blacks. The dominant news during the week of my visit was that hordes of South African blacks had murdered twelve foreign blacks in Johannesburg, in addition to assaulting many more and in some cases burning their businesses. There was rage throughout the rest of the continent and some reprisals. Nigeria withdrew its ambassador. The Zambian national football team cancelled a planned match in South Africa. The President of Rwanda cancelled an official visit.

The phenomenon is not new. I was in Johannesburg covering this same story a decade ago, but with many more dead. The experience has given me some perspective. Being an African immigrant in South Africa means that many live in terror. Being in Europe is sometimes hard, but not that hard.

From South Africa I travelled to Cádiz, where I spoke with a Hindu businessman who told me that racism in his country was much worse than what his people suffered in Europe.

During the conversation I remembered that a few years ago I was in neighbouring Bangladesh interviewing Rohingya refugees, the Muslim ethnic group persecuted by the Myanmar authorities as the Christians were in their day by the Romans, only much more severely. I remembered the attempt of the Hutus in power to exterminate all the members of the Tutsi tribe in Rwanda in 1994, a genocide that left one million dead. I also recalled the killing of indigenous people in Guatemala during the 1980s, and more recently those of Christian Copts by Muslim fanatics in Egypt.

There is no monopoly on racism. We are talking about a universal sin. With the important difference, perhaps, that today in the countries we call “Western,” they are more aware of the evil, flagellate themselves more about it and are doing more to fight it. It has even reached the healthy extreme that the worst thing you can be called is a racist.

But sometimes, out of ignorance and fear, things happen and people create a serious injustice when they are really trying to avoid it. Such is the case of the Portuguese Manchester City player, Bernardo Silva, accused of racism when he sent a tweet with photos a few days ago. The gentlemen who rule in the Football Association (FA) have stuck their noses in the matter, and if Silva does not convince them of his innocence in the next few days, they might penalise him with a six match disqualification. According to the English media they might also punish his coach, Pep Guardiola, for defending him.

Silva’s alleged crime was to send a tweet with a picture of his team mate and good friend Benjamin Mendy as a child next to a drawing of a chubby black boy, the image on a chocolate brand called “Conguitos.” Silva’s alleged joke was that the two – Mendy is black – looked alike. But Mendy was not offended at all, as he was the first to acknowledge.

On the other hand, the gentlemen of the FA, several English journalists and at least one NGO did choose to take offense. Now, the intelligent and multilingual Silva, the most popular player wearing Manchester City’s multinational colours, faces a penalty and, much worse, to carry the stigma of racism for the rest of his days. The funny thing is that the FA has continued to make an issue of the matter even though Mendy himself has come out in defence of Silva and so has the Englishman Raheem Sterling, another black player with Manchester City. But neither Sterling, nor Mendy, nor Guardiola could prevent the FA from losing the opportunity to show the world its exquisite and superior racial sensitivity.

Where does all this come from? The root, I think, is a mixture of guilt and sanctimonious moralism that comes, at least in part, from the perception that racism is only something that whites do to blacks. Hence this vision of the world requires the pressure to be constantly on the alert to the possibility that any target, especially if he is a public figure, has crossed the line and committed an imaginary or real transgression against a black person, always a vulnerable potential victim.

What Silva’s moral executioners do not understand is that they demonstrate a deep paternalism: if Mendy does not feel that he is a victim, if it did not occur to him that Silva’s joke was in bad taste, it is that he is too stupid to see it, poor thing.

What they do not understand is that the sanction they propose for the Portuguese player hides a dark irony. They are racists deep down if they believe that associating a black person with a cartoon of a black boy is itself offensive. What? Is it ugly by definition to have African features? It is as if a black friend sent me a tweet with my photo next to a drawing, for example, of the angry Captain Haddock from the comic strip Tintin, and wrote that I looked like him. My reaction would be the same as that of Mendy and Silva: nothing objectionable about it.

Mendy may also agree with me that by shouting “racism” over such trivial things they cheapen and reduce the importance of real racism. Once again, going over the top, generating unnecessary problems, and inventing dramas where there is no need, defines today’s times in the rich countries of the world. There are no nuances, there is no sense of humour. Stupidity rules, and the worst kind of stupidity, solemn stupidity.

The good thing now, the really good thing would be for the FA to punish Guardiola for defending his player. Because then they would have no choice but to punish Mendy and Sterling for having done the same thing. And there the double morality, the lack of judgment and the small mindedness of those who defend the FA would be revealed. By striving to demonstrate their virtue to the world, they only fall into ridiculous contradictions. If I were Silva, I would leave England now. If I were Guardiola, I would think about it.

John Carlin is a journalist, author and columnist for both English and Spanish language newspapers. His main areas of interest are international and national affairs, food and football. He is the author of a number of books about Nelson Mandela, and writes regular columns for La Vanguardia and Clarín, (Argentina). This column appeared in Clarín, Argentina, on 5 October 2019, and is translated by Kieran Tapsell

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4 Responses to JOHN CARLIN. The Universal Sin

  1. Jessica Pegis says:

    The Conguitos snack packaging doesn’t show “a chubby black boy.” It shows a racist caricature of Black Africans (Congolese–hence the name) and doesn’t even look like Benjamin Mendy as a child aside from SKIN TONE. That’s the point. Apparently, any Black person would be a dead ringer for this stereotype.

    Early iterations of the same packaging showed “a small, naked, pot-bellied, spear-bearing African native with enormous lips,” according to Palardy (“The Evolution of Conguitos: Changing the Face of Race in Spanish Advertising”)

    Palardy continues:

    “In one of the earliest Conguitos commercials, released in the seventies, “Anuncio Conguitos: Tribu color,” there is a cartoon image of tiny Conguito warriors marching across the screen, set against the backdrop of a jungle. Accompanied by a persistent drum beat and exotic music, the warriors march on while a large white hand whisks them away, one by one. When the leader of the Conguitos realizes all of his troops have vanished, he shouts out (supposedly in his native tongue, though it sounds like he is merely repeating an invented word that rhymes with Lumumba, the last name of the first democratically-elected Congolese prime minister, who was assassinated in
    1961), drops his spear, runs away, trips over a rock, rolls, and morphs into an actual Conguito candy, which is then devoured with delight by a white Spanish woman.”

    C’mon. This thing is so racist, it stinks.

  2. DON OWERS says:

    Perhaps we should be more selective in terminology. What we call racism is often a mixture of greed or desperation, ignorance, fear or primitive survival instincts from tribal life where strangers were the enemy .

  3. Bill Maher has a humerous take on the same theme:

  4. Jim Kable says:

    I don’t know any of the particulars of the case in point but other examples seem not necessarily to be racist but of linguistic or religious or caste differences. No less tragic. That old “them” and “us” divide. The writer might well come to Australia and check out the Intervention in the NT or the racism implicit in the treatment of asylum-seekers here – the Biloela Family, Nauru and Manus – and many other examples – names like Abbott and Morrison and Dutton especially spring to mind – similar to the British Home Office hostile treatment of the Windrush generation – Cameron and May and Rudd – that was/is racism. Or the racist assumptions and careful “not looking” policies of the South Australian government in the time of the Downer family ascendancy in the 1880s and 1890s as massacres galore took place across their jurisdiction then of the NT and its Gulf region especially. Read Tony Roberts on that score. Australia’s rich/wealthy “old families” built on the murders snd dispossession of Australia’s “ancient families” not yet properly or appropriately dealt with, either!

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