The Ferdinand brothers and the perversity of elevating racial abuse
On 23rd October 2011, during a football match between Chelsea FC and Queens Park Rangers (“QPR”), John Terry of Chelsea said the words “black c*nt” to Anton Ferdinand of QPR. Ferdinand is of Black Caribbean and Irish heritage. Terry admitted that he said the words, but averred that they were preceded by words to the effect of “I didn’t call you a…”. He was charged with an offence under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, aggravated by Section 28 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. Last week, District Judge Riddle delivered a verdict of not guilty.
Much has been written on, inter alia, the decision to prosecute and the unpleasantness of modern professional football. My interest, however, has been piqued by two remarks made in connection with the matter – firstly, in examination-in-chief, Anton Ferdinand said “when someone brings your colour into it, it takes it to another level and it’s very hurtful”. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-18760180).
Secondly, Anton’s brother, Rio, re-tweeted a tweet which said “Looks like Ashley Cole’s going to be their choc ice. The again he’s always been a sell out. Shame on him.” Rio responded: “I hear you fella! Choc ice is classic! hahahahahaha!!” Cole is a teammate of Terry’s, who the Defence called as a witness at trial. He is also black. Most interpreted the comment as a suggestion that, like the Choc Ice brand ice cream, Cole has a black exterior and a white interior. The Urban Dictionary defines it – alongside other somewhat creative definitions – as “a black person who acts like a white person”. For his part, Ferdinand has since claimed that it is “not a racist term. Its a type of slang/term used by many for someone who is being fake.” For the purposes of this post, I will assume that the well-established definition was at the forefront of Mr. Ferdinand’s mind.
Most observers would not dispute the logic behind the first statement. It is a commonly-held presumption that racial abuse is more serious than abuse that does not account for the abusee’s racial background. This much is generally reflected in sentencing policy, where racial motivation frequently constitutes an aggravating factor. The basis behind elevating racial abuse above non-racial abuse is fundamentally virtuous; racist language represents corrosive and arbitrary thought, which – in theory – has no place in a civilised society.
However, why is racial abuse, per se, more offensive to the abusee than non-racial abuse? Why, to paraphrase Anton Ferdinand, is calling another person a “black c*nt” more offensive than simply a “c*nt”? That people generally dislike being categorised according to their physical characteristics is self-evident; we prefer to be judged on our personal, or emotional, characteristics, which provide a more accurate method of defining who we truly are. Nonetheless, the reality is that Mr. Ferdinand’s black skin is merely a product of his genetic makeup, and unalterable in exactly the same fashion that all of our physical characteristics are. Although I have no doubt that being black is culturally significant in modern society, it is, essentially, a physical characteristic, and akin to eye colour, hair colour, hairline shape, allergies, etc. In theory, then, we should be no more offended when another abuses us with reference to our skin colour than any other genetically-determined, physical traits. In fact, it occurs to me that, from a logical perspective, we should be more offended by abuse that focusses on our personal, or emotional qualities or behaviour; those are the qualities that are unique to us, that we can alter, may have invested in, or are, indeed, proud of.
But, in the main, we are not. Insulting someone for being – for example – unattractive, or small, is not perceived as serious as insulting another on the basis of the colour of their skin. I suspect that the reason for this can be attributed to long-standing cultural trends. Concentrated migration into certain areas has led to the emergence of tightly-knit communities who are defined, partly, by race. Racial characteristics – chiefly, skin colour – became indicative of one’s membership to that particular community, and, therefore, skin colour represented a core aspect of one’s identity.
In this way, Anton’s position is perfectly understandable, and broadly representative of social norms. His brother’s remarks, on the other hand, illustrate how perverse that position can be. Implicit in the “Choc Ice” term is that those with black skin are somehow unique, on a personal level, from those with white skin. This is plainly nonsense and, counter-intuitively, a concept that serves to perpetuate the misguided idea that black individuals are somehow distinct from white individuals. I believe that this vein of thinking derives from the prevalence of skin colour as an integral aspect of one’s identity – because being black is of critical importance to Rio Ferdinand’s identity, he presumes that Ashley Cole, another individual with black skin, will, or should, conform to his attitudes and behaviour.
Rio Ferdinand has been a powerful advocate for anti-racism, and the impression one gets is that he is committed to eradicating racism from sport and society. While he should be commended for such an intention, I fear that the way in which he – and others – conceive of race undermines it on a fundamental level. If society, and anti-racism campaigners, are to successfully combat racism – be it overt, implicit or institutionalised – all in society must start to think of skin colour as a physical trait, and of racial difference as genetic variation. One cannot seek to construct a racially ‘colour-blind’ society, while, simultaneously, prizing their own, individual, racial characteristics as principal features of their identity. This means that those representing the anti-racism lobby, and anyone interested in anti-racism, must resist the familiar instinct to elevate racial abuse to (per Anton Ferdinand) “another level”, however counter-intuitive it might seem.