Have you heard the one about the Uruguayan, the Frenchman and the bunch of somewhat baffled Englishmen…?
Yesterday’s announcement that Liverpool FC’s Luis Suarez is to be banned for eight games and fined £40,000 over an incident during a league game between Liverpool and Manchester United on 15 October in which its alleged that he, in effect, racially abused/insulted United’s French fullback Patrice Evra raises a few interesting questions, not least in terms of the suggestion that cultural misunderstandings may, or may have played an important role in this particular incident.
Liverpool’s defence of Suarez, as set out in its official statement, is intriguing inasmuch as throws in a quasi-legalistic argument…
We find it extraordinary that Luis can be found guilty on the word of Patrice Evra alone when no-one else on the field of play – including Evra’s own Manchester United team-mates and all the match officials – heard the alleged conversation between the two players in a crowded Kop goalmouth while a corner kick was about to be taken.
Before going on to call in question the veracity of Evra’s allegation/evidence to the FA inquiry…
LFC considers racism in any form to be unacceptable – without compromise. It is our strong held belief, having gone over the facts of the case, that Luis Suarez did not commit any racist act. It is also our opinion that the accusation by this particular player was not credible – certainly no more credible than his prior unfounded accusations.
After which we get a lengthy excursion into the ‘He can’t be racist because of my own ancestry, and some of his friends are black’ defence…
“It is key to note that Patrice Evra himself in his written statement in this case said: “I don’t think that Luis Suarez is racist.” The FA in their opening remarks accepted that Luis Suarez was not racist.
“Luis himself is of a mixed race family background as his grandfather was black. He has been personally involved since the 2010 World Cup in a charitable project which uses sport to encourage solidarity amongst people of different backgrounds with the central theme that the colour of a person’s skin does not matter; they can all play together as a team.
“He has played with black players and mixed with their families whilst with the Uruguay national side and was captain at Ajax Amsterdam of a team with a proud multi-cultural profile, many of whom became good friends.
“It seems incredible to us that a player of mixed heritage should be accused and found guilty in the way he has based on the evidence presented. We do not recognise the way in which Luis Suarez has been characterised.
Before finishing up with the ‘but what about what the the other guy did’ gambit…
We would also like to know when the FA intend to charge Patrice Evra with making abusive remarks to an opponent after he admitted himself in his evidence to insulting Luis Suarez in Spanish in the most objectionable of terms. Luis, to his credit, actually told the FA he had not heard the insult.
So, the overall claim is that is all just down to a bit of on-field sledging* which got of hand when Evra threw in the complaint that he’d been racially abused despite, seemingly, giving as good as he got in all other respects.
*The term ‘sledging’ comes from cricket and refers specifically to the practice of using a combination of verbal witticisms and, sometimes, verbal abuse to wreck the concentration of a batsman and the term is by no mean synonymous with abuse. Some of the finest sledges of all-time rely purely on genuine wit of which the acknowledge master was Steven Gascoigne, aka Yabba, a legendary heckler at the Sydney Cricket Ground who, amongst other witticisms, coined the oft repeated “Send ‘im down a piano, see if ‘e can play that!” and what may be the ultimate putdown for any bowler, “Your length’s lousy but you bowl a good width!”
Other sports have their own names for this same practice. In basketball its called ‘trash-talking’ while ice-hockey players refer to it as chirping, however, arguably the most famous, or maybe infamous, example of this practice comes from boxing and, inevitably, from Muhammed Ali who, during a brutal 1967 points victory of Ernie Terrell, repeatedly regaled his opponent with the words ‘What’s my name Uncle Tom’ in response to a pre-fight incident in which Terrell had referred to Ali by his former name, Cassius Clay.
Before getting to what Suarez is alleged to have actually said to Evra, it has to be said that if Liverpool FC wish to play this out as nothing more than a bad case of cultural misunderstandings then they really should have not tried to play the mixed heritage card as part of their defence of Suarez.
Unfortunately, for the club, that’s an argument solely on what are contemporary British conceptions of race in which there is no particular sense of a class divide between mixed race individuals and those who regard themselves as being just black. Any distinctions that can be drawn here are purely cultural and, if we’re honest, increasingly meaningless as people are free to choose which aspects of their notional cultural heritage the wish to adopt or ignore. Where there is something more concrete by way of social/cultural divisions within the UK’s black communities, it tends to be based an individual’s geographic origins, i.e. whether their family came to the UK from the Caribbean or from Africa, and not on the extent to which they may, or may not, have a mixed heritage.
In Central and South America, things are rather different due to the cultural legacy of the Spanish Casta system, a complex and intricately stratified caste system based on primarily on race which has had a marked influence on cultural attitudes to race in the region and, to a considerable extent, still plays a role in determining one’s social class and social status in society even if the system, itself, hasn’t been rigidly enforced since the end of the Spanish colonial period.
Regardless of Suarez’s personal views on race, his cultural background is one in which being of mixed heritage and, in particular, being two or more generations removed from a black ancestor, in no sense automatically precludes the possibility of an individual harbouring racist attitudes towards individuals of the same race/ethnic group as their ancestor. That doesn’t tell us anything about Suarez’s actual attitudes towards race, of course, but it does serve to illustrate the fact that his club is unwisely trying to have their cake and eat in in deploying the ‘mixed heritage’ defence while, at the same time, claiming that this entire incident can be written off as nothing much more than a cultural misunderstanding.
And so we come to the question of what Suarez actually [allegedly] said to Evra and it would appear that the offensive term in question is ‘Negrito’, a diminutive form of the word ‘Negro’ which, according to some people who’ve looked closely at the tape of the incident, Suaraz apparently repeated several times.
Casting around on a few Liverpool FC fan forums, the main line of defence that’s being deployed – after stating that the forum does not condone racism of course – is taken directly from the Wikipedia entry for the word ‘Negro’ as follows:
In Spain, Mexico and almost all of Latin-America, negro (note that ethnonyms, names of nationalities, etc. are generally not capitalized in Romance languages) means “black person” in colloquial situations, but it can be considered to be derogatory in other situations (as in English, “black” is often used to mean irregular or undesirable, as in “black market/mercado negro”). However, in Spanish-speaking countries such as Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay where there are few people of African origin and appearance, negro (negra for females) is commonly used to refer to partners, close friends or people in general independent of skin color. In Venezuela the word negro is similarly used, despite its large African descent population.
It is similar to the use of the word “nigga” in urban communities in the United States. For example, one might say to a friend, “Negro ¿Como andas? (literally “Hey, black one, how are you doing?”). In this case, the diminutive negrito is used, as a term of endearment meaning “pal”, “buddy” or “friend”. Negrito has come to be used to refer to a person of any ethnicity or color, and also can have a sentimental or romantic connotation similar to “sweetheart,” or “dear” in English (in the Philippines, negrito was used for a local dark-skinned short person, living in the Negros islands among other places).
In other Spanish-speaking South American countries, the word negro can also be employed in a roughly equivalent form, though it is not usually considered to be as widespread as in Argentina or Uruguay (except perhaps in a limited regional and/or social context). In Brazil, it heavily depends on the region. In Rio de Janeiro, for example, where the main racial slur against black people is crioulo (literally creole i.e. American-born African), preto/preta and pretinho/pretinha can along extremely informal situations be used the same ways as negro/negra and negrito/negrita in Spanish-speaking South American, but it heavily changes in the nearby state of São Paulo, where crioulo is considered an archaism and preto is the most used racial slur against black people, thus all kind of use of the preto word can be deemed as offensive.
So the suggestion is that we should see the meaning of ‘negrito’ as ‘nigga’ rather than ‘nigger’, which might just about wash if Suarez was engaging in a bit of affectionate banter with a close friend or teammate but really doesn’t sit well with the context in which this particular incident took place, i.e. two opponents insulting each other, each with a view towards ‘psyching out’ the other.
Sorry but that’s not particularly convincing – the context of the incident suggests that ‘negrito’ was intended as an insult and not a term of affection, so we need to look for some other possible meaning for the term.
The Wikipedia entry does throw up one possibility with its reference to its Filipino usage – “negrito was used for a local dark-skinned short person, living in the Negros islands among other places”. This closely mirrors the formal scientific usage of the term ‘negrito’ within the field of anthropology:
A member of any of various small-statured, indigenous peoples of Africa, the Philippines, the Malay Peninsula, the Andaman Islands, and southern India.
If you need a cultural reference point or two in order to make sense of that designation then feel free to choose from Conan Doyle’s second Sherlock Holmes novel, ‘The Sign of Four‘ in which Jonathan Small’s companion, Tonga, is an Andaman Islander:
He stretched his hand up, and took down a bulky volume from the shelf. “This is the first volume of a gazetteer which is now being published. It may be looked upon as the very latest authority. What have we here? ‘Andaman Islands, situated 340 miles to the north of Sumatra, in the Bay of Bengal.’ Hum! hum! What’s all this? Moist climate, coral reefs, sharks, Port Blair, convict-barracks, Rutland Island, cottonwoods–Ah, here we are. ‘The aborigines of the Andaman Islands may perhaps claim the distinction of being the smallest race upon this earth, though some anthropologists prefer the Bushmen of Africa, the Digger Indians of America, and the Terra del Fuegians. The average height is rather below four feet, although many full-grown adults may be found who are very much smaller than this. They are a fierce, morose, and intractable people, though capable of forming most devoted friendships when their confidence has once been gained.’ Mark that, Watson. Now, then, listen to this. ‘They are naturally hideous, having large, misshapen heads, small, fierce eyes, and distorted features. Their feet and hands, however, are remarkably small. So intractable and fierce are they that all the efforts of the British official have failed to win them over in any degree. They have always been a terror to shipwrecked crews, braining the survivors with their stone-headed clubs, or shooting them with their poisoned arrows. These massacres are invariably concluded by a cannibal feast.’ Nice, amiable people, Watson! If this fellow had been left to his own unaided devices this affair might have taken an even more ghastly turn. I fancy that, even as it is, Jonathan Small would give a good deal not to have employed him.”
If Holmes isn’t to your taste – and why not? – then the diminutive inhabitants of Skull Island in Peter Jackson’s remake of ‘King Kong’ fits much the same anthropological template as the Andaman Islander in ‘The Sign of Four’.
If this is indeed the intended meaning of Suarez’s insult – and I’m not at all convinced that it is – then the nearest English equivalent would be ‘Pygmy’ which at least has the slight virtue of being somewhat ambiguous in its common English usage, i.e. if its used as an insult its generally intended as reference to stature, as in ‘intellectual pygmy’ and not as a racial epithet.
To be honest, I don’t buy this interpretation of ‘negrito’ at all – its all rather too literate and highbrow for the football pitch.
So, if we’re not to interpret ‘negrito’ as either a term of endearment or as an insult more suited to the Oxford Union than Old Trafford, what are we to make of Suarez’s reported remarks?
The answer, I suspect, lies in taking this question back to first principle and looking at the actual etymology of the term ‘negrito’.
Negrito is the Spanish diminutive form of negro (black person) and, as such, the literal translation into English would be ‘Little Negro’ or ‘Little Black Person’, much as the nickname of Manchester United’s Mexican striker Javier Hernández Balcázar (‘Chicarito’) translates as ‘Little Pea’ – his father, Javier Hernández Gutiérrez, was also a professional footballer and sported the nickname ‘Chicharo’ (‘Pea’) due, apparently, to his having green eyes, all of which make for a refreshing change from the more usual Geordie diminutive* ‘-za’, as in Gazza, Wozza, etc.
*Adding ‘-za’ onto a name to create a nickname is genuinely recognised as a formal diminutive of Geordie origin, one that combines a degenitive (‘-z’ instead of ‘-s’) and an assimilative (‘-a’ instead of ‘-er’) – no, seriously, this is actually true.
If we consider that ‘negrito’, i.e. ‘little negro’ is being used here specifically as an insult then this suggests that the closest match in English is likely to be the word ‘Boy’, and not just any old ‘Boy’ but ‘Boy’ spoken with an instantly recognisable drawl, one entirely characteristic of the South-Eastern United States. The kind of ‘Boy’ one associates with stereotypically fat Alabama Sheriffs and men wearing white robes and head-coverings when it ain’t Halloween.
That’s not an exact rendition, of course. I don’t doubt that the use ‘negrito’ as an insult in Latin culture lacks the historical and cultural weight of ‘Boy’ as its used in those parts of the United States where many cleave to the notion that ‘The South will rise again’ but it does, I suspect, capture the general connotations of Suarez’s insult more closely than any of the alternatives that have been put forward to date. It’s essentially a cheap shot and one from which one cannot reasonably infer anything about Suarez’s personal views on race and ethnicity without further corroborating evidence fo racist attitudes in other contexts, so it would be wrong to label him as a racist on the back of this one incident.
That said, and speaking as West Brom fan who’s old enough to have very vivid memories of the blatant racist abuse that was directed towards some of my own club’s all-time greats; Cyrille Regis, Brendan Batson and Laurie Cunningham, who was by far the most naturally gifted footballer I’ve ever seen, I have no sympathy whatsoever for Suarez who simply should not have used Evra’s ethnic origins as the basis for an insult, even if it was intended as a nothing more than cheap shot with no genuine racist intent behind it, as does appear to have been the case – and, by the same token, I’ve got no real patience with Liverpool FC’s efforts to play down this incident.
Both Suarez and Liverpool would be better served by taking it on the chin, accepting the ban, and by starting work on rebuilding Suarez’s personal reputation – a little contrition and 12 months voluntary work for the Kick Racism Out of Football campaign would seem to be the order of the day.
We’ve come a long way from the days when black footballers in Britain would be routinely greeted with monkey noises and a hail of bananas from the crowd and although it can’t be said that the stands are entirely free of racism, at most clubs, the racist idiots are very much in the minority and are, more often than not, made to feel entirely unwelcome by genuine supporters.
That, for me, is exactly as it should be, both on and off the field of play, so unless it can be shown that Evra has lied to the FA about exactly what was said to him then, for me, there are no excuses to be made for Suarez’s conduct – if the best you can do by way of sledging an opponent is make comments about his ethnic background then I’d suggest you keep your mouth shut, concentrate on your own performance and leave the banter to players who can deploy a bit of genuine wit.