by Yasmin Gunaratnam and Karim Murji

I’m not a racist, I have good friends that are black and anyone that knows me knows I’m not like that.” Councillor Jeffrey Tucker

‘One of the crucial properties of contemporary racism is its denial, typically illustrated in such well-known disclaimers as ‘I have nothing against blacks, but . . .’.  (Teun A.van Dijk)

Talking about race, trying to not talk about race or to come across as a racist is a tricky business these days. People like Havering councillor Jeffrey Tucker can tie themselves in knots. Tucker is said to have been losing sleep over a proposed merger between back office staff from Havering and Newham Councils. He is alleged to have said that Havering’s predominantly white workforce would find it ‘uncomfortable’ to work with the ethnically diverse workforce at Newham. It would be like “An African team and an English team together”. This was followed by a series of encoded racialised observations about other differences between the boroughs,

Newham’s streets aren’t clean like our streets. Their shops are open all hours with no control. Our residents understand we have to take our curtains down and wash our windows, but go around Newham and look at some of their curtains and they’re stuck to the windows. You look at the streets and they are filthy. You look at the shops and they aren’t clean like our shops.”

Councillor Jeffrey Tucker
Councillor Jeffrey Tucker

It will come as little surprise that Tucker supplemented these comments with “I’m not a racist, I have good friends that are black and anyone that knows me knows I’m not like that.” Most us will have some experience of these kinds of statements that usually come with the discursive eraser  ‘but…’ in relation to racism. The ‘but’ serves to both negate what proceeds it and like a troupe of trumpeters heralds the inevitable racism that follows it.
Discourse analysis, an interdisciplinary field that is concerned with the study of language, has identified a fascinating range of different strategies that people use in managing race and racism in everyday interactions. Using the work of Teun van Dijk, Yasmin Jiwani and John Richardson have categorised some common racist disclaimers. Disclaimers are backhanded rhetorical manoeuvres involving ‘positive self-presentation and negative other-presentation’, for example,

 Apparent Denial: ‘I have nothing against immigrants, but … ’

Apparent Concession: ‘Of course some Muslims are tolerant, but generally …’

Apparent Empathy: ‘Of course asylum seekers endure hardships, but …’

Apparent Ignorance: ‘Now, I don’t know all the facts, but …’

A point that recurs throughout studies that have researched race talk in naturally occurring situations is that there is often a broad spectrum of racialising discourses at play and these can carry contradictory elements. In order to understand the multiple meanings that circulate, researchers argue, we need to pay close attention not only to people’s intentions but also to how language is used in specific situations to produce certain effects. This means that attention moves from the individual to what words do in a particular setting.

Drawing upon these insights we want to look at the recent use of the word ‘monkey’ by the England football manager Roy Hodgson in a reference to a black player in the team. Although the furore about Hodgson’s choice of words lasted less than a week the social reaction to it offered two polarised and antithetical narratives, neither of which promote a nuanced understanding of the changing machinery of everyday racism.

The story about Hodgson was widely covered in the media. The common version of events is that during the half time break Hodgson made a remark about the Tottenham player Andros Townsend that included the word monkey. Initially it was suggested that this was a joke that had been misinterpreted. Hodgson was drawing on a NASA gag about a monkey in space where the hapless astronaut is advised to ‘feed the monkey’ to survive. Hodgson’s remark was interpreted as the manager instructing other players to feed the ball to Townsend.

Reactions to Hodgson’s joke have been divided. For some, the incident is trivial and nothing to do with race. For others, the comment is yet another example of the continued power of racist undercurrents in contemporary life, particularly away from the public eye. This polarisation tells us much about the politics of race and racism today. We are offered an either/or option: (i) it’s an over-reaction, ‘political correctness gone mad’, an insignificant matter taken out of context by overly sensitive, touchy people or (ii) it is yet another example of the extent of causal and unconscious racism in the UK and the failure of authorities – the Football Association in this case – to take racism seriously. It’s about racism being ‘swept under the carpet’.

The first reaction is not exactly a denial of racism. Rather, as a narrative of progress it acknowledges that racism exists but maintains that substantial progress has been made. The second view is a narrative of continuity or of no-progress. This suggests that changes that have occurred are superficial and racism in its deeper structures and forms remains intact.

In the narrative of progress the use of the term monkey can be stripped of racist connotations. It was part of an anecdote derived from NASA that can only be understood in context and is unrelated to the fact that Townsend is black. Indeed when the story broke, Townsend himself immediately tweeted to say that no offence had been intended by Hodgson and none had been taken by him personally. Thus the FA and many media commentators could deny racism by stressing that Townsend himself had not been offended.

andros townsendMeaning in such instances appears to be confirmed by referring to the intention of the speaker and/or the view of the recipient. ‘Good’ people may say the wrong thing but as long as they don’t mean it, racism can be denied. For Hodgson, his remarks wereinnocentand his defence of his use of language also served to highlight the ordinary dangerousness of modern race politics.

It should make me cautious” Hogson said “but it’s always going to be very difficult when it comes to innocent remarks that you cannot possibly imagine will be construed as they were’’.

This is a variation of the kind of disclaimers identified earlier by Jiwani and Richardson, but in this case the perspective of the ‘victim’ of racism also became a sort of gold standard of evidence.

Racism, once so prevalent and commonplace in the game, especially in the crowd, has largely been eliminated as can be seen by the anti-racist campaigns that football clubs have signed up to such as theKick it Out campaign. Racist ‘banter’ has declined or virtually disappeared and the censure of instances of inappropriate language – such as the BBC TV pundit Alan Hansen calling a black player ‘coloured’ – and the more egregious cases of John Terry and Luis Suarez in the past year – shows the action the FA will not tolerate racist language.

This narrative largely individualises racism as a matter of inter-personal communication, even if that means miscommunication sometimes. It treats cases such as the Hansen, Terry and Suarez as exceptional and/or occasional aberrations. It removes the wider social context in which words have histories and chains of meanings, so that the intention of the speaker and sometimes the feelings of the victim become the only issues at hand.

Karim Race cartoon_118500057_nClearly, in this case, it is not just a matter of the intended recipient because others present may also ‘hear’ words differently from their intended meaning. Indeed one of the unresolved issues in the Hodgson story is that it was leaked to the media by someone else, perhaps another player in the dressing room who presumably did feel there was something inappropriate about referring to Townsend as a monkey.

There is also the opposite view: that such remarks are indicative of a deep-seated and perhaps institutionalised racism within football and in society. While the use of the term monkey in this case was specific, it is connected to a range of other examples – other cases of racism, the lack of representation of black people in the upper reaches of football, and racial discrimination and inequality in society. So a single instance becomes a microcosm of bigger structures and processes.

In direct contrast to the narrative of progress, this viewpoint says there has been either no or very little progress in tackling racism. Instead of ‘individualising’ the event, it imbues it with the historical weight of racism. It is more than the intention of one person. And because racism is so deeply embedded in our social structures it can be expressed in unconscious and unintended ways.

Protesters with leaflets 'No Colour Bar' against illegal colour bar operated by two Willesden letting agencies
Protesters with leaflets ‘No Colour Bar’ against illegal colour bar operated by two Willesden letting agencies

A further and intriguing aspect to this outlook is expressed in a Guardian comment piece by Joseph Harker. Harker argues that the (over-) reaction to the incident reveals the gap between ‘real’ racism and ‘celebrity’ arguments about wealthy footballers. The media find it easy to talk about racism (or non-racism) in relation to the monkey comment but this obscures more serious forms of racism. Harker’s argument draws on the findings of a BBC investigation that came out in the same week in October. This revealed continuing and stark discrimination against black and Asian people in housingAll of this is interesting in providing more insights into public and media representations of racism, but we also want to examine the implications of such narratives for anti-racism. In a now classic text written in the early 1990s It’s Racism Wot dunnit’, Phil Cohen has made explicit some of the complicated consequences for anti-racist movements of making racism into an all or nothing matter. For Cohen, simplistic discourses of racism can position members of the oppressed group as having privileged knowledge and a narrative role in adjudicating on matters of racism. This is not to devalue experiential knowledge, rather Cohen’s point is that if we set ourselves up as a sort of de facto political intelligentsia on the sole basis of our social identities, we risk co-option. We can also ride roughshod over with-in group differences, ‘discontinuities in the here and now’ and ‘the pain of lived contradictions’. We can become Cohen argues a self-righteous ‘imagined community of resistance’. From Cohen’s perspective,

‘Such triumphalist narratives can be empowering in the symbolic sense that they invest ethnic minorities with special powers of knowledge and action. They break the signifying chains which have so often bound the project of emancipation to a strategy of cultural assimilation. Yet this radical autonomy of means and ends is itself dependent upon a circumscribed and self confirming discourse of origins and destinies. It is like turning to the end of the story before you begin reading it, to find out if the baddies got their just deserts, or the good guys won. Or as one of my students once put it to me, ironically, when I was still preaching this gospel, ‘I know, Sir, it was racism what dunnit’.

As recent cases such as Hodgson’s monkey comments shows, the polarised nature of contemporary race debates lives on in either the ‘political correctness gone mad’ or ‘institutionalised racism obscured’ narratives. The real challenge is how we might start to develop new narrative responses to racism. For instance, how might we respond differently to Jeffrey Tucker’s narcissistic tirade in ways that decode the racism in his statements, respond to his fearful fantasy of dread and show something of the continuities and uniqueness that underlie the racialising discourses in this case?

In order to challenge racism effectively we should also be careful of reductionism, shouldn’t we?

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Yasmin Gunaratnam is a writer and academic, interested in illness, death, migration, the body and feminism. She teaches in the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths College on research methods, culture, representation and difference and feminist theory. Yasmin is the curator of Media Diversified’s academic space. Her latest book Death & the Migrant (Bloomsbury Academic) is about transnational dying and care in British cities. Buy books She’s on twitter @YasminGun

Karim Murji is an academic who works on culture, ethnicity, race and racism, specifically in relation to identities and belonging, and policing, diversity and policy.  He works at the Open University and is an editor of the journal Sociology. His latest book, edited with Gargi Bhattchyyrra, is Race Critical Public Scholarship (Ethnic and Racial Studies special issue, 2013, Routledge, 2014). @km49

This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing edited and curated by Yasmin Gunaratnam.  A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.

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6 thoughts on “3D Racism – Denial, Disclaimers and Doubt

  1. I agree that context as well as the actual words counts Akwesi. And like Joseph Harker, you’re right to say that the media find it easier to talk about racism as an individualistic rather than as a social or collective issue.- or to put it another way, to talk about racism of individuals rather than the state. The migrants who died around Lampedusa happened at around the same time as the Hodgson comment – so like the cases you mention, there is a racism that kills, or a racism of bare life. Drawing attention to those things is important but can it be done in a way that doesn’t sound like ‘my issue is more important than your issue’… because that ways lies a game of point scoring that doesn’t get us anywhere, I suggest.


    1. Agreed. When it’s left to the media to arbitrarily decide which issues deserve attention, it can often encourage conflict between competing “issues” that ultimately serves the status quo. A better approach, of course, would be solidarity between all parties, but that’s easier said than done!


  2. Hi Krishnan, that’s great! I’ve never cited Tolkein beofre but that fits perfectly in the case of ‘…but some of my best friends are’.


  3. I broadly agree with this piece which really excellently describes the complexities around the perception of racism and its discursive space. However, I feel that it is important to point out that when Phil Cohen talks about the dangers of the oppressed “as having privileged knowledge and a narrative role in adjudicating on matters of racism. This is not to devalue experiential knowledge…” he is displaying the ‘apparent empathy’ ploy that was previously described in the piece. Oppressed groups DO have privileged knowledge and a narrative role in identifying and describing their oppression and to imply a doubt of this with “This is not to devalue experiential knowledge” is plainly contradictory. It is precisely because of an institutional devaluing of experiential knowledge why we are still fighting so hard. The middle ground between “overreaction” and “nothing has changed” cannot be reached until we actually begin to value OUR experiential knowledge by seriously bringing it into the arena of discursive analysis and critical reflection. Just because our knowledge sets us up as important and authoritative narrators of our own experiences on the “sole basis of our social identities” does not mean that our experiential knowledge does not deserve equal critical and discursive consideration alongside the dominant narrative that seeks to re-construct our social identities to conform to its own agenda.


  4. Great piece.

    I agree with the research that advises ’paying close attention to a person’s intentions, as well as how they chose to use language in specific situations’. The comments from Attorney General Dominic Grieves – for example – didn’t personally come as a surprise, as his previous actions have spoken even louder than his recent words.

    I also agree that the media chooses to scapegoat certain issues. I suppose it’s easier “to be seen to be” tackling racism by debating celebs like Suarez and Hodgson, rather than debating the murder of Mark Duggan, Jacob Michael and Azelle Rodney (among others).

    Like MLK said, we need to get the language right.


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