David Wild seeks to understand Luis Suarez…
“The case with (Patrice) Evra was all false. I was accused without proof. But that’s in the past. I was sad at that moment, but I’m happy today… All the other things were like a movie that people in England believed in.” – Luis Suarez, February 13th 2014.
It’s difficult to escape one’s past. When you consider the shining media spotlight that is focussed on contemporary world football’s glittering stage it can seem completely impossible.
Since the events between Suarez and Evra on October 15th 2011 that saw allegations and admission on Suarez’ part of racial abuse the striker has been tarred with one of society’s most unacceptable monikers. That of the unapologetic racist.
“I knew what I did and there is a kind of football law that says, ‘What happens on the pitch, stays on the pitch and that’s the end of the story.'” – Luis Suarez, 8th Feb 2012
But what happens on the pitch cannot be divorced from the rest of reality. To say that racism is not racism in a particular circumstance allows an unacceptable excuse for an intolerable behaviour. In a way that allowing bullying on a school playground because it ‘builds character’ is deplorable, a dissociation of the sports field from society should be equally unacceptable. Once the intent to harm has been established, the venue is of no consequence.
‘The word “negro” is utterly unacceptable. Even one mention is one too many.’ – Henry Winter, 4th January 2012
Suarez’ initial claim was that “in my country, ‘negro’ is a word we use commonly, a word which doesn’t show any lack of respect and is even less so a form of racist abuse” and is similar to the way that they would call Dirk Kuyt ‘blondie’ in Liverpool training sessions.
This point is seemingly ratified in La Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, the most authoritative dictionary in Spanish language, which claims that ‘negro/negra’ is ‘commonly used to refer to partners, close friends or people in general independent of skin colour’ However it is not as simple as the word having a completely different meaning. There is considerable room for doubt when it is used in a certain intentional context, even in Uruguay.
Suarez was though, backed to the hilt by his countrymen, with claims in “El Pais” that the UK media was engaged in “hypocrisy” and “pseudo-moralism” in misunderstanding the possibility of an inoffensive context to the word from the Uruguayan’s perspective. The national director of sport, Ernesto Irureta claimed that “this ban is exaggerated, absurd and out of place”, expressing a belief that Europe was passing blame for it’s own societal problems on a man with a radically different cultural upbringing; imposing an extreme judgement on a “poor kid who had not studied to be a diplomat”.
The difficulty is in trying to perceive where to draw the line. It is in no way as simple as saying that they are wrong and we are right when it comes to the perception of the word ‘negro’ because this misses all sorts of cultural and semantic nuances. What is explorable is the concept behind the words, namely when the word is used in order to judge a person in a perceivably pejorative manner by the colour of their skin, as was seemingly the case with Suarez/Evra.
“A lot has been made about different cultures and what is deemed to be racist abuse there,” said Taylor. “But the point is, if it isn’t wrong to make reference to somebody’s skin colour [in another country] in this way, it should be. – Gordon Taylor
Gabriele Marcotti believes in making a distinction between two different racist types namely:
“Those who engage in racist acts [who] may be inveterate racists who are prejudiced and actively discriminate against those of a different skin colour. Or they may simply be people who do it to wind up opposing players or fans or to seek attention or to show how bad-ass they are, but, in real-life they are in no way prejudiced.
This again seeks to dissociate racist words and actions from actual prejudices. It forms the notion that a heat of the moment decision to pejoratively mention the colour of a rival’s skin can be lessened in it’s seriousness by context. The difficulty in ascribing to this belief system is in defining intent. How do we differentiate the two without the insight of mind reading? It cannot be practically administered and so the two cannot be separated. A racist word has to be thought of as being backed up with an actual prejudice.
The two major negatives to Suarez’ side of the story are his unapologetic nature and his inhumility. It is arrogant to impose cultural values on a person but it is equally arrogant to reside on a continent for 8 years and refuse to adapt to society’s linguistic and cultural sensitivities in such a brazen manner. There are two questionable stances competing for a moral high ground, hence why there is a grey area as to the defensible nature of Suarez’ actions.
The easiest way for the situation to be righted would be for a bigger man to admit an understanding. For Suarez to accept that what he said was unacceptable for him to say in the societal framework he now occupies or for society to accept that Suarez may not have meant what he said in the context that they think. But the veil of perception of both parties is so strong as to not allow them to admit the other’s point of view, and in the case of the Uruguayan, his reluctance to try and rebuild bridges leads him to look dishonest or deceptive.
On the one hand if European society admits that what Suarez said was acceptable, in the eyes of the majority it sets back years of work in fighting racism because of the perception of the word ‘negro’ in European minds.
Alternatively, if Suarez were to admit that what he did was wrong then he may feel as though he would betray his own cultural heritage by admitting to the flaws within Uruguay’s linguistic sub-systems of colloquialisms and slang, as well as its societal structures. In the past Uruguay has often been a trail blazer when it comes to the inclusion of black footballers and people of colour within their teams and societies, often ahead of other more traditionally considered ‘enlightened’ countries across the Atlantic and within South America.
At the same time, that doesn’t mean that in reality Uruguay is the racial utopia that some Suarez apologists have attempted to paint it as in the aftermath of their hero’s transgressions. To be black in Uruguay is to still suffer inequality of opportunity when it comes to education, poverty and employment compared to national averages for other groups. It’s worth noting that the vast majority of voices attempting to dismiss ‘Negro’ as an acceptable term have come from Montevideo’s predominantly white middle-to-upper classes, who are largely of European descent and well-represented in influential positions within the media and power.
While they can be easily heard and broadcasted to defend their countryman’s right to say a word offensive in other territories, similar coverage has not been afforded to their black compatriots and their thoughts on the subject within their own borders.
‘Negro’, we are told, is a harmless word used as a pet name or nickname, but the fact that terms used to describe whiteness or white skin are not used with similarly patronising connotations gives weight to the idea that this supposedly innocent term still relies on the condescension of black Uruguayans. It’s worth noting that campaigns currently underway in the country to clear Spanish dictionaries of overtly offensive phrases such as “trabajar como un negro” (roughly translated as “to work like a black person”).
The context and additional actions involved with his outburst also cannot be ignored when considering his motivations. At best, this was a hyper-competitive individual indulging in a moment of intentionally hurtful gamesmanship in an attempt to try and unsettle his opponent.
Arguments and personality spats are regular occurrences on the football pitch after all, and could be described as football’s answer to cricket’s sledging, but if this accepted as alternative motivation for Suarez, it still implies intent. If we take the social context of Uruguay and the linguistic and societal debates raging around language and meaning in words such as ‘negro’ then this must be at least considered to have been with the intent to get underneath Evra’s skin by making reference to it and belittling the defender’s race in doing so as we cannot know otherwise.
If Suarez truly believes the non pejorative context of the word he said to Patrice Evra then this does remove the intent for hateful judgement. Without the intent to harm a ‘hate’ crime loses its vital element of hate. But as we said before, a racist word has to be thought of as being backed up with an actual prejudice because we cannot know otherwise.
Society can still only judge racist words in a literal manner, labelling the person who said them without remorse as a racist and Suarez can not hide behind a defence of ignorance while he resides in Europe. We can only try to explain and understand perhaps why Suarez so vehemently refuses to apologise for something he may, in his own mind, not have said in an offensive way at all.