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No Space for Race

During 2018/2019 at the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association in my capacity as head of media and communications I'd been including classroom sessions with the  players attached to the national youth teams where emphasis was placed on media training, social media habits and general media etiquette. We’d basically been educating them on what’s right and what isn’t when it comes to what they post on their social media profiles while they’re in competition or camp for the national team as well as away from the sport.

One of the topics being focused on is educating athletes on what is acceptable when it comes to posting banter or jokes about others. In other words,  avoiding situations that could spiral out of control but also not wait for something to go viral as the recent Bernardo Silva tweet about teammate Benjamin Mindy. We want our players to know right from wrong whether someone points it out to them or not.

Silva tweeted an image of Mendy as a kid next to a character on packets of Conguitos chocolates.The Conguitos logo features a number of established tropes frequently found in racist caricature: round bulging eyes, fat red lips, no clothes. The name literally means “little people from the Congo”, and Conguitos adverts from decades ago employ the crudest sort of racial stereotyping.  So while many including Pep Guardiola argued that it was  just a joke shared between two friends, the bigger issue was it had been tweeted to millions worldwide. I had a conversation with former Newcastle United goalkeeper and ESPN analyst Shaka Hislop on the topic as we touched on different aspects that could relate to us here in Trinidad and Tobago and generally the Caribbean region. We really haven’t had major incidents of racism in sport locally or at least none that we seem to recognise or accept  where there’s something that needs to be dealt with. But I recall at an international under 20 women’s tournament at the Ato Boldon Stadium a couple years ago, a local nuts vendor shouting from the stands that “all ya deal with them white girls and show them we doh fraid white people.”

Nobody in the stands seemed to be bothered by  what he said but I noticed the parents of the visiting team and members of the team bench turned around to see who was raising his voice. What do you think the reaction might have been from the home fans had it been a caucasian or chinese person saying “Come on …… show that group of  'negroes' how to win a football game." Now  you see what I mean?  It’s important for our young athletes to know that it’s not actually right to refer to people as “White boy, white man, white girl” or the “d indian” followed by some other remark. Maybe you may say well that’s no big deal here, "What else you want them to say?"  But for me at least, I’ve got to ensure our players know the difference especially to avoid such tweets when they are competing on the international stage and international bodies are monitoring.

In reference to the Bernardo incident, Shaka explained that if it was a joke shared just between the two friends in person or on WhatsApp then maybe it could be their inside joke but once you go public, then you’re looking for trouble because it then becomes about stereotyping and the number of people who are adversely affected, and those on the other side of the spectrum who will use it as justification for their own idiocy.  

"So I asked him about the time in which Chris Birchall was in the Trinidad and Tobago Soca Warriors national football team. While it may be comfortable for "Birchy" and his teammates to refer to him as “white boy” inside the dressing room, they would never use that reference on social media.  “My doing so gives authority to everyone to refer to him as such and he may not be comfortable with that.” “Social media posts and general public posts should mirror the tone one would use with a parent, if you’re a minor, a teacher,if you're a student or your boss, if you're working or even as a politician. In this social media age, people have to start fully recognising that ‘free speech’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘consequence free speech,” Shaka said. The UK Independent stated "Language is a powerful medium through which unconscious bias and prejudice against certain nationalities is reinforced. Research shows that jokes which rely on stereotypes towards certain groups and communities create a climate where discrimination is normalised, shifting the social milestones for what constitutes racism and xenophobia. A society which creates divisions between its citizens is ripe for exploitation. The old trope of “I’m not racist, I have black friends” is often used as a joke itself – a symbol of someone clearly ignorant to their own prejudices. The suggestion that because something is “funny” to one person it cannot be offensive to another is just as absurd." We must be more aware of normalised language and understand the impact that unconscious biases have if we want to live in a country which is equal and fair, and where people like me  or you are not judged – or ridiculed – based on the colour of our skin.

by Shaun Fuentes, an appointed FIFA 2010 World Cup Media Officer, current head of media at the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association who worked as the Team Press Officer for Trinidad and Tobago at the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany.

"I don’t owe any living person my soul, my integrity, my freedom of thought and speech."

- Jackie Robinson



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