Mihir Bose: Fight against racism is too important to be derailed by tabloid sound bites

The problem with race these days is that the whole subject too often gets reduced to a tabloid presentation with the result that England manager Roy Hodgson, a cultivated man of wide culture and sensitivity, ends up by being absurdly labelled as racist. We can all accept that Roy Hodgson made a mistake in repeating an old NASA joke about the monkey in his half time talk as an illustration to remind English players that they should get Andros Townsend involved in the play as often as possible.

Unlike my generation, which is also Hodgson’s generation, most of the English squad are, probably, not all that familiar with NASA and its space activities, let alone know what a big part it played in our lives. For us the first man in space and first man to walk on the moon are events we shall always remember.

It has also been suggested, as Tory grandee Marquess of Salisbury once said of Ian McLeod, that Hodgson was “too clever by half”. But while Salisbury meant it as a put down and helped destroy McLeod’s political career, in the case of Hodgson, given the normal intellectual dross he has to deal with, if that was indeed the case then he should take it as a compliment.

But whatever his reason for saying it the idea that the use of the word monkey makes Hodgson a racist is absurd.

However this is where we come up against the whole question of race and what constitutes racism. Not long ago it was widely accepted that racism meant that a person thought his skin colour or genes gave him an inherent superiority. Then racists proudly advertised their racism, now even people who belong to neo-Nazi parties say they are not racist. Such openly declared racism was also the basis of the long European domination of the world. It is interesting to observe that some of the greatest of European minds accepted the theory that the Europeans were the master race and made no apology for it. To them the whites races were so supreme that all others had to bow down to them.

Indeed many non-whites also accepted this idea. I was fascinated to discover in a recent book dealing with Gandhi’s life in South Africa that he accepted there was a racial hierarchy. In this league table of human beings, if we can call it that, Gandhi believed Europeans were at the top, Asians came second and Africans third. Over time his views evolved but that is how he started off.

We have come a long way and we like to think there is now a level playing field where no one should be discriminated because of his or her race. We also should not racially abuse anyone. However, in accepting such good practise we seem to forget that different races bring a different historical baggage to this level playing field.

So for a person of African descent, whose ancestors were taken as slaves to the Americas or the West Indies, the historical baggage of racism they carry is very different to someone whose ancestors were colonised, rather than enslaved, by the Europeans. While I grew up in a free India memories of British colonial rule was still strong and the term we considered racially very abusive was native. This is because the British rulers of India described Indians as natives and did not use the term as a compliment. For the British any Briton going “native” was considered to have betrayed the British rulers of India and British clubs and institutions which debarred Indians often had a sign saying ‘Natives Not Allowed.’

The word dog was, and is still, considered derogatory in India and I remember when after a dismal Indian cricket tour of England the English papers called Indians the “dull dogs” of cricket the Indians took it as a racial insult. It revived all their old memories of British rule.

Also the worst form of insult in India is throwing slippers at someone. This is a general put down not only in India but much of the Middle East and explains why the Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at President George Bush when he wanted to protest about the American invasion of his country.

However monkey for us in India was never a derogatory word, Hindus worship the great monkey god Hanuman, and I can remember being called a cheeky monkey when I was young and taking it as a compliment. I can see why in certain cultures monkey can be seen as an insult but to make a general case for it seems to be extraordinary. Also if the monkey in the NASA joke is to be considered racially abusive then what happens if you tell someone ‘to get the monkey off your back’ or you talk of the three wise monkeys. Are they also to be considered racially abusive?

All this has been worsened by the fact that in our desire to make sure the playing field is level we seem to confuse race and nationality. So I have been taken to task when I have referred to a person’s nationality and even been called a racist. But to call someone let us say a Portuguese or Irish is not racist since both countries have people of many different races. I could at best be accused of xenophobia, and even then if I had condemned an entire nation, but I cannot see how I could be a racist.

The problem is many seem to think that to point to any difference is to discriminate. That is and should not be the case. Human beings are diverse, such diversity should be celebrated. What is wrong is if diversity is used as a weapon to promote one particular race or community. I am aware that is what humans have done throughout history but we have changed.

In any case Hodgson, whose taste in music, arts and books, makes him an exceptional football manager, was clearly not trying to differentiate. I feel that Hodgson used the NASA monkey joke as a way of making sure the players remembered what to do. He wanted to be different and he, presumably, thought to say just pass the ball to Townsend would make less of an impact than a joke the players would almost certainly remember.

Now he will be remembered for having had to apologise for a racial joke he did not make and did not intend to. This is not only a pity but it underlines how in our desire to make sure we are not racist we can often stumble down a route that makes this great cause look stupid.

Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. He has worked for various media outlets and launched the Inside Sport column for the Daily Telegraph. Now a freelance journalist he has written 28 books. His latest book: Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World was published by Marshall Cavendish for £14.99. Follow Mihir on twitter @mihirbose