COLUMN: Spain’s Racism Paradox -The “Non-Racist Country” With Racists in The Stadiums

In his notorious press conference last week, Vinicius Junior pointed out what seems to be the fundamental contradiction of the current debate about racism in La Liga: “I am sure Spain is not a racist country, but it is a country where there are many racists, and they go to football stadiums.”

Since he is the superstar of one of the two biggest clubs in the country and is outspoken on the issue, Vinicius has become the lightning rod for discussions about racism in La Liga. However, he is far from the first case and will not be the last.

While many Real Madrid fans support Vinicius in his efforts against racism, last month, there was also a group of supporters who gladly launched racist and xenophobic abuse at Peter Federico, a Spanish-Dominican player from Madrid’s own academy who is currently playing in Valencia. The same Valencia club whose players walked off the pitch when their teammate Mouctar Diakhaby was getting racially abused but where a group of fans were also involved in one of the most prominent incidents of racism against Vinicius. Many Valencia fans also hit back against their own player, Yunus Musah, after he spoke out about the racism he saw in the stadium back then.

Similarly, last year Sevilla had to expel one of their fans from the stadium for abuse towards Vinicius, yet this weekend in Getafe’s stadium, their own player Marcos Acuna, as well as coach Quique Sanchez Flores, were called ‘monkey’ and ‘gypsy’, respectively by opposition fans. On that note, Real Madrid fans at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium yelled ‘Vallecanos, junkies, and gypsies’ for so many years at Rayo Vallecano fans, who the latter ended up appropriating the chant and singing it themselves in a satirical way.

If you dig into the news archives, you could write whole textbooks that chronicle racist and xenophobic abuse in Spanish football stadiums. I hope the examples I mentioned also show that Spanish clubs include people who are victims as well as others who are perpetrators. Their players and coaches have suffered racist and xenophobic abuse, yet the same clubs also have groups of fans willing to discriminate and abuse the opposition. It is vital to point this out so we don’t let this discussion fall into the typical ‘my club vs your club’ tribalist antics. This is not a problem of one club but a problem that is spread throughout the country.

However, despite the prevalence of this issue, the response of a significant part of Spain has been to avoid taking collective responsibility. Vinicius’ teammate and one of Real Madrid’s captains, Dani Carvajal, responded in a way that represents this exact mindset:

“I don’t think Spain is a racist country…I, who come from a humble neighborhood in Leganes, who’s grown up with all kinds of kids, of many nationalities, I’ve never had the slightest problem. It happens that people go to football to vent their rage and anger, and they insult with what they know hurts a player, in this case Vinicius with racism. I hope those people can never enter a football ground again.”

While Carvajal starts similarly to Vinicius’ statement – I don’t think Spain is a racist country – his response inadvertently downplays the abuse Vinicius has received the last couple of years.

Several voices in Spanish media are doing their best to downplay the racism. This week, journalist Miguel Gutierrez at La Libreta de Van Gaal did an excellent yet harrowing compilation of Spanish media responses to Vinicius’ press conference that tried to downplay the abuse or, in a feat of dangerous cynicism, even accuse Vinicius of faking his tears for the sake of his upcoming Netflix documentary.

Carvajal and many Spaniards might be correct in stating that the overt racists are a tiny, loud minority. To me, however, when Carvajal and other Spaniards repeat, like a mantra, that ‘Spain is not a racist country’, it is also a way of absolving themselves of responsibility.

No one wants to be labeled as the bad guy, nor do they want to feel like they are enabling the bad guys. Sometimes, you get the impression there are sectors in Spain more offended by the accusations of racism against their country or club than by the damage the racists do to people of colour with their abuse.

However, not being one of the bad guys also comes with responsibilities. It’s not enough to say you are not racist; you have to be explicitly anti-racist and create a hostile environment for the racists in your club and country. The crowds at football stadiums are terrible at doing this, partly because the racists are taking advantage of the crowds to remain anonymous, but also because we have normalised this kind of abuse in football stadiums for decades.

From a personal angle, I’m in my thirties and have been going to football stadiums since I was five years old. Witnessing discrimination has been a not-infrequent part of my match-going experience, from Honduras to Mexico to Spain to the Netherlands. From the infamous Puto chants done in Mexico and Central America to racist abuse against Afro-Honduran players to PSV Eindhoven fans attacking the offices of an LGBTQ+ organisation on their way to the stadium. Football, particularly men’s football, has historically been an unsafe environment for women, the LGBTQ+ community, and people of colour, not just in Spain but all around the world.

For many people, witnessing this abuse without speaking up about it is also normal. It happened to me when I went to a stadium in Madrid a couple of years ago, for example. I was on my own in the stadium and failed to speak up against a fan who threw several racist, xenophobic, and homophobic insults at Athletic Club players throughout the whole game. I was afraid of confronting him and his buddies. As it happened to me in that instance, there’s likely a significant but silent group of people in stadiums who disagree with what they see but refuse to speak up. We have to do better, and the clubs must also foster an environment where reporting this behaviour is normal and expected.

In Spain, the regulatory framework does not allow La Liga to impose punishments for racism. They can only report the incidents to the police, even though that does not seem to yield great results. For example, according to El Pais, Spanish prosecutors have received 18 different cases and reports for racist chants towards Vinicius, but none of them have been convicted, and at least five of them have been dismissed because the perpetrators in the stadium were not identified.

The difficulty of punishing individual perpetrators is why we often hear discussions of measures that punish the clubs or end the ongoing match: stadium bans, points deductions, walking off the pitch. I do not know how well these solutions will work, but what should be clear at this point is that we, as a collective, are not doing a good enough job at making stadiums and football, in general, hostile to discrimination. Thus, it also shouldn’t surprise us if the punishments also go to the collective.

If people think that it’s tiresome to read yet another ‘woke’ column on racism or listen to the latest discussion on racism on the radio again… Imagine how tiresome it must be for the people who are on the receiving end of this abuse every week, when all they want is to focus on the sport they love.

Vinicius mentioned this too in the press conference, saying “the only thing I want is to keep playing and that everyone has a normal life.” Footballers like Vinicius would prefer to be talking about football rather than racism. I would have preferred to write a column about the football we saw this week, instead of having to write about racist incidents. However, as long as the problem of racist abuse in Spanish stadiums remains unchallenged, we will have to keep talking about it until there are better solutions and better collective efforts to address it.

José C. Pérez can be found on social media here, and if you’re hungry for more, find their excellent work here.

The post COLUMN: Spain’s Racism Paradox -The “Non-Racist Country” With Racists in The Stadiums appeared first on Football España.

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