Georginio Wijnaldum has been called the n-word. Emre Can has experienced Islamaphobia. None of these things should be shocking given the state of the world, but it is still rather bold and important for these two leaders to speak of their experiences and draw awareness to combating racism in the sport.
By joining in with the Show Racism the Red Card program, the two first-teasers, along w/ former Red Howard Gayle - the first black player to don the Liverpool shirt - and Liverpool Ladies Kate Longhurst and Satara Murray, were able to speak to issues with discrimination to approximately 100 schoolchildren. At the event, Wijnaldum and Can spoke about recent events wherein they encountered racism and racist abuse. Gini began be recounting an incident that occurred while on international duty with the Oranje.
“One day after training we went back to the hotel and when we were in the elevator, Memphis Depay took out his phone and said ‘let’s take a selfie’. He posted it on Instagram.
“The reaction we got under that picture was disgusting. There were people calling us the ‘n’ word.
“At that time it was November and in early December in Holland we have a traditional thing in Holland called Sinterklaas. It’s basically a party for children who get presents.
“A big old white man is on a horse and then the black people help him. In those comments they said we were like slaves and called us *******. It wasn’t nice to see.”
That the nation is still dealing with issues of like blackface (the Black Pete reference) is no less infuriating in light of it being unsurprising for a nation with its own long and prominent history in the transatlantic slave trade.
For Can’s own part, he had to witness his mother endure discrimination at the hands of a former player on a flight from the UK to Germany.
“Two months ago I had a day off and I wanted to fly to Germany. I had to book at the last minute.”
“My mum was wearing a hijab. She was here with my dad. We couldn’t sit together on the plane.
“There were two seats next to each other. My mum and dad wanted to sit together but they had other seats.
“My best mate was there too and he asked the man ‘can they sit there please?’ He said ‘no, show me your ticket’.
“My friend said ‘please, they just want to sit together’ and the man said ‘no’ again. The reason he said no was because my mum was wearing a hijab. It was a bad thing. It was racist.
“It was actually a former player but he didn’t see me as I was at the back of the plane.”
Can’s experience is particularly damning and resonant, as most people of color have had to deal with the awkward knowledge that while a colleague may value their individual presence, they still exhibit problematic racial bias towards their group in general. Dehumanizing behavior is not an alien experience for people of color from majority white spaces.
The candor in the way that all panelists spoke about their experience is important. That they spoke to the youth is even more worthwhile. Because while there had been an expectation that racism was confined to the past, the experiences of Millennials like Can and Wijnaldum - often at the hands of other Millennials - indicates this isn’t a generational problem as much as it is a problem diverse Western societies must encounter. The courage of players to coming forward, especially at a time when victims are often subjected to abuse for making the complaint to begin with, is also a teachable moment.
The biggest takeaway, beyond a better understanding and awareness of racism in general, should be that in a society that athletes - especially footballers - the way England does, it is absolutely damning that Can and Wijnaldum are not able to transcend racism. Sure, they are likely buffered from the worst of it due to their relative privilege. But reading these stories and reflecting on what the typical person of color endures in Britain or America or Holland illuminates how deep this problem is and the real fright for people in marginalized communities.
Occupying safe spaces is essential and hopefully the experiences of Can and Wijnaldum will prove a spark for fans and team officials alike to make conscious efforts to finally stamp out racism in the World’s Game.