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Your Fave is Problematic: Fandom and Marginalized Communities

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Ahead of tomorrow’s clash against Leicester City, the impact of footballers and football on marginalized communities should not be forgotten.

Leicester City v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

Jap.

I had to read the words again because my eyes couldn't believe it. Jap. Jamie Vardy—cult hero and goal scorer extraordinaire—found himself angry at a man of Asian descent and summoned, with the same ease he would find the back of the net that following season, that word. Vardy has been problematic for me ever since. And the unknown struggle has been how I and people like me have wrestled with reconciling our affinity for the sport and its transcendent athletic moments, with the overwhelming lack of respect or acknowledgement of our presence within the fandom of a sport that contains complex personalities like Jamie Vardy.

In 1988, at the age of five, my family immigrated to a little spot in Southwest Los Angeles. Hawthorne, California is an urban neighborhood about 15 minutes (sans traffic) from Downtown. I happened to live on the black and brown side of town, cut off from the large lots, manicured lawns, and general whiteness of the wealthy residents on the other side of the invisible demarcation between our side and theirs; conveniently along the north-to-south run of Aviation boulevard. I was insulated from questions of foreignness, but not immune.

My elementary school experience was largely peaceful, but I remember two instances where I was confronted with how others perceived me. The first was when my mom decided to drop by school and deliver me a hot lunch. It was my favorite: canned corned beef, sautéed with onions and tomato. It's a Filipinx delicacy and one I'd never turn down. My teacher saw what it was and allowed me to open up the warm Tupperware at my desk. The pungent aroma hit the air and I was soon politely exiled to the hallway to eat my lunch away from the other kids.

The second happened on the playground. I can't recall who did it; but I believe it was one of the older kids and over, of all things, ping pong. I may have annoyed them, but whatever the case, the kids told me to go home, called me "chink" and called me Jap. I didn't know what any of those things meant: this was home to me. Did they mean like a "chink in the armor?" I wasn't wearing any! And what in hell was a Jap? I had questions and my parents tried their best to give me straightforward explanations.

Plain and minimal, it took years for me to understand the layers of shittiness in this—to use two ethnic-specific insults that aren't my own is bad enough. To use one with a specific historical context is troubling. When you consider that my grandfather and grandfather-in-law were both veterans of the war, it's nauseating. And so, approximately 25 years later, reading those words come so naturally from a man I was constantly being told I, as a football fan, should care about, I found myself vexed. And not for the first time.

Right now, among the many discussions lead by marginalized communities is on representation. The compounding effects (and detailed discourse) of how biases end up having real world consequences are all necessary, if lengthy, conversations to have. But the concept central to our discussion is how, often, the experience of marginalized communities—and, specifically in this context, people of color (POC)—as consumers and full-fledged participants in a fandom are dismissed or erased. I found myself cringing when I would read through threads of fellow TLO-ers openly rooting for Vardy.

Not because they didn't have the right to be awed by his athletic grace or by his plucky story, but because they were not unsettled by or in tension over his awful behavior. Related, as an American, I have been in silent lament over how little sustained pressure has been placed on the USSF and players such as Geoff Cameron when they espouse or are complicit in upholding poisonous political beliefs, while the protest of people like Meagan Rapinoe are condemned in the same breath. Both are political stances, but only one seeks to be more inclusive, while the other is endemic of nativist ideology on the rise. Only one was condemned. I can't even imagine what it must be for a Spurs supporter who is also a member of the LGBTQIA+ community since the signing of Serge Aurier.

And these are salient points because my experience as a person of color in football fandom —and media at large—have been rooted in being asked to accommodate the uncomfortable reactions of the majority and/or tangle with complicated visions of our sporting heroes and leaders, without that same consideration for our experiences being honored. Mentioning Serge Aurier above, the concerns of fans were drowned out—often by other fans. Worse, some decided to heap abuse their way:

Where, in that, is the solidarity among that fanbase? How do we imagine our own fanbase—especially for a club with the political ethos of LFC—should react?

It's naive, I know to expect such disparate people to agree wholesale on complicated matters such as race. Moreso to expect it to bend towards the minority when the effects of exclusionary language/discriminatory behavior are largely beyond their everyday experience. Yet we do have the ability to challenge the way culture and systems perpetuate this behavior. Reflecting on the recent situation regarding Romelu Lukaku, we know that the response from some MUFC supporters reflects the common dismissal of concerns noted above: banter. Laughs. Meaningless. Tell that to the man Vardy abused. Tell that to me when I was on the school ground.

And when responses like that emerge among the fanbase, this sums up what it's like to be a POC supporter within it:

Football fandom spans the globe and necessarily includes fans from marginalized communities. What a wonderful thing it would be to see the concerns of these fans be recognized and acted upon as if their presence in the stadiums and in pubs and in supporters groups and in forums were all equal to their white counterparts and extended beyond their financial worth. What a wonderful thing if the governing bodies, team owners, and fellow supporters recognized their whole humanity.