Sport

The racist abuse of Black football players is the vilest manifestation of the ‘good immigrant’ myth

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As a second generation immigrant to England, I have had a host of positive experiences when it comes to feeling welcomed and comfortable. I live in London, it’s nice to feel that I am part of a hugely diverse community. It often seems to me that I could be from anywhere and still belong – and I genuinely do feel this way most of the time. 

Yet as soon as England lost the Euros final to Italy on penalties, I braced myself for the onslaught that I knew would inevitably come. With three of England’s Black players – Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka – missing their penalties, the racism was anticipated well before it arrived.

And arrive it did, with a fury. A mural of Marcus Rashford in Manchester was defaced, and Twitter erupted with a stream of vile, racist comments directed at the players. It is hard to imagine how these young men must feel; it’s difficult enough to stumble at the final hurdle and keep ploughing on – harder still when those who ought to support you turn against you. 

But sadly, this horrific racism was something I think every ethnic minority person was prepared for. As soon as England lost, I felt a sinking feeling in my heart, knowing that the worst of England (and Great Britain) was about to rear its ugly head. I knew that criticism of the players (often from people who play nothing more than armchair football) was going to be unleashed with real vitriol – and that much of this vitriol would be racist and directed at the three young Black players. 

It is good to see how many people have rallied round in support of the players, condemning the racism they have faced and also emphasising how proud we all are of them. But it is nevertheless exhausting to keep seeing the predictable racism unfolding just as we expect it to. As non-white Englanders, what many of us want is to be pleasantly surprised. We want to be surprised by an absence of racism. Instead, each time something like this happens we prepare for the onslaught and the resulting condemnations of that onslaught, sometimes from politicians whose rhetoric and policies have paved the way for it. 

Those who challenge the racism directed at Black footballing talents are doing the right thing. But sometimes it is hard not to see echoes of the ‘good immigrant’ myth inextricably interwoven throughout this discourse.

The ‘good immigrant’ myth is one that holds some immigrants up as ‘good’ or ‘deserving’ of success in contrast to others who are ‘bad’. It holds that the ones who are ‘good’ achieve their status because of extraordinary service to or achievements in their adopted homeland. Those who live normal or average lives, or who don’t assimilate exactly as expected, are often tarnished with the label of ‘bad immigrant’.

All three of the young Black footballers who missed their penalties have recent immigrant heritage, and each one of them has been extremely successful at a very young age. But their success comes with a price. Each one of them has been labelled as an outstanding example of the UK’s success with diversity; they have all been held up as role models (which they undoubtedly are). But these men are successful for their footballing skills and – especially in Rashford’s case – social consciences. They may be better than your average person at football and at social activism – but this does not make them ‘better’ immigrants or more ‘worthy’ immigrants than your average first, second or third generation entrant to this country. 

Because when people who are immigrants or non-white are lauded specifically for being successful examples of an immigrant and/or non-white person, every time they don’t quite meet the expectations of a watchful audience, they are lambasted by a vocal minority that sees them as having failed in their duties as a ‘good immigrant’.

Essentially, immigrants and/or non-white people become valued only for how they can make a positive contribution with their presence; without this, they are deemed unworthy and undeserving by a hostile cabal that doesn’t believe we should really be here.

Increasingly, this is something I notice in English society. And it doesn’t just come from that loud group who are happy to be overtly racist. It’s an attitude that is shared amongst many sections of society. Growing up, I remember people praising my family for being such ‘well-integrated’ immigrants. My dad, as a doctor, was always lauded as someone who had come from somewhere else and given his all to the NHS. This praise wasn’t unwelcome, but it is the flip-side to an attitude which defines an immigrant’s worth by their contribution to their host country. This attitude holds that we need to actively contribute to a better society in order to be deserving of our places here. Never mind the fact that many of our forefathers were displaced in their own homelands by British colonial rule. 

Hardening attitudes towards immigration have further contributed to these hostilities. The idea that only ‘highly-skilled’ immigrants who get enough points in some arbitrary test deserve to be here is one of the reasons the ‘good immigrant’ narrative has flourished in recent years. The political reframing of huge numbers of desperate asylum seekers as ‘illegal’ has added to the sense that immigrants and foreigners are people who come to the UK to cheat our systems. As many footballers have pointed out (and as a number of prominent Tories have too), our government is complicit and indeed instrumental in creating a society that refuses to allow its ethnic minority citizens and residents to truly feel welcome. 

Ultimately, the good immigrant narrative tells non-white people that we will have to keep on ‘earning’ our place in this country, and that in some people’s eyes, we will never truly belong. We will always be either models or malingerers – but we will never be allowed to simply just be.

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