The has been a lot of talk about Ron Atkinson’s outburst against Marcel Desailly a couple of days ago. Was he racist? After all, he has done so much for black footballers in the UK. Does one slip of the tongue nullify all that?
A couple of years ago I came read an email on a Christian email discussion group which had a big impact on me, so I kept it. The writer is a US lawyer with a teaching ministry in his Reformed Baptist church. I quote parts of it below. (I have kept it anonymous, and edited it slightly for clarity.) As you will see, he has had to think deeply about the nature of racism:
I was raised in the segregated American South. I grew up in a completely racist culture (as the term is defined). I was taught from birth to believe that the mere fact of being white made me superior to blacks. Much of my family still believes this. So, for me, racism is not an academic question, but an issue of life, that I have had to address in some detail. In this respect, I would also say that racism is a much more complex matter than is normally believed.
In our times, “racism” is almost always (and carelessly) identified as “hatred”, but it is not. A man may believe himself to be superior to another man because of his race, and yet not hate the other man. I know this because it was true in the world I grew up in. I was never taught to hate blacks. Never did my family say “hateful” things about blacks. I was never taught to be cruel to them or to desire that bad things happen to them. I never hated blacks. In fact, there was no emotion involved in the racism around me at all (that I knew of).
Now, hatred often coexists with racism, but it is not necessarily the same. Many missionaries in the 1800’s had concepts that we would consider racist, yet they worked diligently to help and serve the people whom they considered inferior. Many Southern churches that were segregated by race in the US spent huge amounts of money supporting hospitals and missionaries in Africa. They did not “hate” blacks, they simply held racist thoughts about them. Abraham Lincoln believed blacks were inferior, but he cared a great deal about them.
I like to draw a distinction between the two because racism can exist without hatred, and hatred without racism. For example, I was taught to hate the Soviet Union, but I was never taught that the Soviet people were inferior by race. I was taught to think blacks were inferior by race, but never held any hatred for them.
So, back to Ron Atkinson. Does saying “nigger” make him a racist? Perhaps not. Does doing much for black players make him a non-racist? Not necessarily. As the above quote shows, racism is more complex, deeper and more pervasive than we probably realise. Ron may deserve a metaphorical stoning, but who is going to chuck the first rock?