Book Review: The Uncomfortable Truth About Racism by John Barnes
Growing up in the nineties and coming to football in the new millennium, I had the impression – naively – that racism in the beautiful game was a thing of the past, that it was consigned to an era of hooligans and hostility and would nary tarnish the sport again. How wrong, how ignorant, I was. Two decades into that new millennium and football – and society – is still marred by disgusting instances of racism. Who can forget the way three of England’s heroes of summer 2021 were racially vilified after defeat to Italy on penalties in the Euros? When the vitriol spewed out, for many it was shocking; but, sadly, for many others, there was also a degree of inevitability. The real questions over age, experience and game time which should have been central to the analysis of that penalty defeat, as well as a celebration of England’s best tournament since 1966 which should have rounded off the Euros, were lost to racist abuse and discrimination that proved just how endemic racism is in society and, consequently, football. It has never gone away, as John Barnes points out in his book The Uncomfortable Truth About Racism as he spotlights these uncomfortable truths and debunks myths about progress and equality.
Books by footballers tend to be in a certain vein: autobiographies discussing their life in and around the game. Whilst some books in recent times have begun to tackle more difficult subjects and footballers have also begun to speak out more on social and welfare issues, Barnes’ book represents a significant departure. He may be a former footballer – and one of the best of all time for England and Liverpool – and this book may touch on football, but this is a book of social and political commentary by a man who has experienced and understands racism first-hand. It is hard-hitting, frank and, as the title suggests, uncomfortable, as Barnes really gets to grips with and tackles one of the biggest social problems in history. Anyone expecting a football-focused commentary or reflection specifically on racism in football will find something rather different as Barnes offers a much more nuanced perspective, looking at football not as the problem but rather probing instead the environment and society that shapes those that go on to racially abuse others, be it in football stadiums, in the supermarket or any other place or space. Indeed, Barnes scrutinises the social and political roots that have fixed discrimination firmly into society, making racism both endemic and ingrained and superficial efforts to challenge it largely fruitless.
Barnes offers a thoroughly thought-provoking and engaging perspective and readers will certainly be made to question, challenge and confront their own beliefs and opinions. Even when there may be stances the reader takes issue with, Barnes, to borrow his own phrase, does not shy away from ‘putting his head above the parapet’. Nor does he avoid taking the counterargument in some existing debates. He confronts the issue of racism head on and in doing so seeks to ‘open up the discussion’. And there are without doubt some really interesting, thoughtful and challenging points throughout that force the reader to engage. Indeed, I found myself thinking a lot about the idea of social conditioning and unconscious bias and querying the role of the individual, in as much as whilst society may shape and condition a person, there comes a point when each person knows right from and wrong and has the power to shape themselves. There are no quick and simple answers to the questions posed in this book or, indeed, the challenge of racism, but what the book does is continue the discussion and engage others.
Interestingly, at one point in the book, Barnes writes, ‘there are three types of people: people who are racists and know it, people who are racist but don’t know or think they are… and people who aren’t racist at all… The people who belong to the first group don’t care and won’t suddenly have an epiphany to stop being racist… the people in the second group don’t actually think they’re racist so they feel it doesn’t apply to them… Finally the people in the third group don’t need to change as they have no racial bias to start with… so overall nothing changes.’ It’s a somewhat depressing thought that those people who would most benefit from this book are those who are the least likely to be changed by it; but there is no question that people who do read it will benefit from doing so. Will this book end racism? No. That goes beyond the capability of any single book, any single person or any single reform. But can it play a part in changing the perceptions of society? Absolutely. Racism has no place in society and no place in our beautiful game and hopefully one day the colour of a player’s shirt will be the only colour that matters.
(Publisher: Headline. October 2021. Hardcover: 320 pages)