Migration, that leitmotif of black history, is always a leap of faith. This Black History Month let’s remember Mamoudou Gassama, a migrant from Mali, who in 2018 scaled four storeys of a Paris building to rescue a little boy dangling from the wrong side of a balcony. Rewarded with French citizenship, his heroism made him sufficiently acceptable to receive all the liberté, égalité and fraternité on offer.
Is that all it takes? Although I chalk this as a win for Monsieur Gassama, they clearly do things differently across the channel. In England, you must score a penalty in the European Championship final to be accepted. But Jadon, Marcus and Bukayo missed, and as a small minority leveraged the power of social media to amplify hate, the gods of football surveyed with malicious pleasure the aftermath of their capriciousness. Plus ça change. On appointment as England manager, Gareth Southgate recalled his decisive penalty miss against Germany in the semi-final of the 1996 European Championship, describing it as his worst experience. If nothing else, the insults he received confirm that non-racial invective is possible (and morally permissible). Twenty-five years later, the outpouring of support for three more players eligible to star in a Pizza Hut advert was heart-warming. The peaceful anti-racism demonstration at Marcus Rashford’s mural filled me with hope for a future where black people are accepted unconditionally.
In 1962 John William Charles became the first black footballer to start for England at any level, turning out for the under 18’s against Israel in Tel Aviv and scoring in a 3-1 win. Nowadays, a black player proudly wearing three lions is unremarkable, and goals from Jadon, Marcus and Bukayo would have made English history. The nation united around the Euro 2020 final, a game where a ball struck by an England boot was supposed to hit the back of the net more times than the same projectile despatched by the Azzurri, prompting the cathartic erasure of years of hurt. But as the spectre of a penalty shoot-out materialised, two certainties became, well, certain: it wasn’t coming home – and a miss by a black player would attract racist abuse. So as the first of three walked lonely to the spot, I embraced the obvious metaphor, beset by random evocations of ambiguous crimes I was yet to be accused of; double consciousness déjà vu. Please don’t let the suspect be black. Because if he’s black ‘they’ will hold it against us as a race. Our acceptance is conditional upon not conforming to negative stereotypes. Or upon doing something extraordinary – campaigning for hungry children or carrying a counter-protester to safety, for example. Black Britons are often held to a different standard: most human when we are superhuman, our actions transcending blackness. Although we call nowhere else home, we are condemned forever to be ‘good immigrants’, our virtue extolled when we excel and our humanity denied by racial animus, when, based on some arbitrary standard, there is a perception that we have not. In a year when mental health – and not just of our sporting heroes – has been in the spotlight like never before, the online attacks against the Wembley Three seemed more harmful; more perverse.
So no celebration this year. Not if black excellence is posited as prerequisite for acceptance. I have as much right to fall, fail, or miss a penalty as the next non-black man, sans racisme. Anything less denies me the ability to make mistakes and the opportunity to learn from them.
Type ‘Oprah Winfrey quotes’ into a search engine and amongst other exhortations you’ll discover she was raised to believe that “excellence is the best deterrent to racism or sexism”. I disagree. Whilst there’s nothing inherently wrong with excellence, relying on it to deter racism or sexism simply burdens the victim. Think about the mediocre, the ordinary, the average – most of us, if we’re honest – whom for reasons of race or gender may experience racism or sexism. The solution can’t be to absolve the perpetrator of responsibility for their choice and expect the recipient to do better and ‘become excellent’ in the hope that it won’t reoccur. Efforts perceived as less than excellent cannot justify disparagement based on race. And who decides what is excellent? To be fair, Ms Winfrey didn’t opine that this is the only juju capable of warding off bigotry; maybe it works for billionaires. The trope of black excellence means different things to different people but however it’s weaponized, it shouldn’t determine one’s worth. I don’t represent all black people and my success or failure indicates nothing intrinsic about race. So, to anyone out there striving for excellence as a means of gaining acceptance, let me assure you that you’re good enough already. I categorically refuse to be excellent. It’s difficult enough just being me.