This is a story about two banners. The first goes like this: ahead of Liverpool’s Champions League group round matchup against Belgian-side Genk, traveling fans unfurled a banner on the Liverpool end. That banner showed the face of Divock Origi cropped onto the body of a nude, Black man. It was made by Liverpool fans.
The second banner stated, simply, “We Are Not Racists LFC” alongside an icon of the Liverbird. It was also made by Liverpool fans and is the image used for this article.
I think talking about this issue and both banners is important because not only is the problem of racism a problem that Liverpool fans necessarily still have to work against - more on that in a minute - it’s a problem that permeates the sport of football. Today, as I’m typing this, I’m still receiving notifications based on a tweet that I found of video showing Lazio Ultras marching through Glasgow raising a Nazi salute.
Football has a racism problem.
The specifics of the first Liverpool banner are simple enough: away fans were trying to “honor” Divock, per their account, and thought the banner did it appropriately. Liverpool brass caught wind of the banner and, per a statement released to media, asked to have it immediately removed.
The response from the fan base was quick, if split. Some roundly condemned the banner and agreed with the club’s decision to have it removed while also calling for future bans. Other fans were more perturbed at the backlash against the LFC fans who created the banner. They were, after all, fans of Origi and of the club. How could it be racist, then, if the intent was to praise and not harm?
The issue at hand is that the iconography used - already setting aside how upsetting it is to consider that anyone might think that photoshopping an explicit photograph of a celebrity is somehow going to be seen in any light other than creepy - played on racial stereotypes. That was the crux of the “joke” on display, as it were. Yes, the intent was to praise and to extoll that he is great. However, that praise was expressed in terms that play on racist tropes.
And, I think, people are getting hung up too much on the intent portion and not enough on the consequence portion. The mechanism of this banner’s image hinges specifically on racist stereotypes regarding race and genitalia. That’s the center of the joke. And while I’m not a Black man and have not been subjected to this specific brand of racist imagery, I am a man of Asian descent, which means that I’ve been subjected to what might be considered the correlated, if oppositional version of this racist myth. (As an aside, if you’re looking for a more thorough discussion on this, please see this piece on a scene from the HBO show Westworld that cuts to the heart of the matter. )
And it reminds me that, once more, far too many in the fan bases of European football forget that they count people of color among their ranks. What could that banner have meant to Black fans sitting in the stands? What does it say to them?
The second banner is, while well-intentioned, now looked at in an unfortunate light. Not only because of the rather poor timing and ill-luck of having gone up in the same time and space as the racist banner having gone up. But also because of the response of some Liverpool fans after the fact.
Far too many began to lean on those same questions of intent. How could it be offensive if it wasn’t derogatory? Failing to reckon with how images like this are dehumanizing. Dehumanizing because they distill the entirety of a person, through the lens of their race, down to approximations of their body. There is no longer seeing the fullness of their personhood, only the pieces of them.
And that was what bothered me so much. That for a Liverpool fan base that glories in - and makes money off of - being a group that is drawn of people from all across the world, one would hope that we would move past this. But I am once more reminded that this fandom, and other majority white spaces, wasn’t built with people like me in mind.
Ultimately, I’m not sure what the appropriate punishment should be for the fans involved. I think taking the banner is the absolute least and I would also really hope that people in their circles might remind them how bad an idea it was in the first place. Perhaps the club could facilitate that by asking them to take anti-racism classes and work on some sort of community service project in order to avoid/make their way back from a ban.
But the point isn’t necessarily what happens to those specific offenders as much as a hope that the entire fan base would hold each other accountable for this act. Thankfully, I’ve seen some LFC fans and forums condemn this act. Which is important because the easiest way for us to ensure that we don’t have to apologize for having, say, Nazis in our ranks, is to basically tell those people edging into that behavior to knock it off, and shape up or ship out. Because we are parts of the community and those people, like it or not, identify with us.
If we are truly to live up to the ethos of not letting any of our community walk alone, especially those groups that are marginalized within our own fandom, then we need to use our voices to call in our own when they’ve messed up. And to own that mistake as a fandom. Not by platitudes that obviously miss the ways in which the fandom or the players or the team (per one particularly poorly handled incident involving a specific striker) act out in problematic ways have clearly crossed lines and bounds on race.
But by resolving to be better and then doing precisely that.