Most people who look at Match of the Day host Gary Lineker would have no difficulty recognising that the man is white – and so it’s little surprise that he was mocked after revealing in a podcast interview that he suffered “racist abuse” due to his “darkish skin” throughout childhood and at moments in his professional footballing career.
While he immediately qualified his comments with the assertion that he was “as English as they come” (by which he presumably meant white), many social media users, and some pundits, ridiculed him for supposedly “identifying as black”.
But the mockery is misguided. Lineker’s comments were important and insightful – giving us a glimpse of how race and racism can work.
At play in the backlash is a fundamental misunderstanding about how racialisation – the social process by which people are organised into different categories, based on real or imagined bodily and cultural characteristics – operates. And it’s a confusion that seems to be shared by rightwing baiters and, disappointingly, some socially conscious supporters of racial justice. They hold on to a view of “race” as static and constant throughout time and place, despite the fact that we know racial categories are constantly invented and reinvented: think of, say, the codification of “coloured” as an identity in apartheid South Africa.
First, it’s worth saying that if you look at photographs of Lineker as a young football player, with his dark hair, olive skin, and a wide nose, you can see why he may have been read as something other than “white” and received racial abuse as such, especially as a footballer in the 1980s.
For whiteness to survive, its boundaries must constantly be policed. In other words, many white people will have the experience of being scrutinised for “looking a bit ethnic”, whether that’s because of curly hair, darker skin or prominent features. Even a holiday tan can throw a white person’s race into question, so fragile are its borders.
It has also been strange to see people from all corners immediately rushing to declare that Lineker must see himself as black – which is not a term that he used when talking about this – as if racial discrimination in England is only experienced by those with the darkest skin. Many groups have been let in and out of the club of whiteness: southern Europeans, eastern Europeans, Traveller groups, Irish people.
What’s obscured by the mockery of Lineker’s comments is that discrimination does not need to hit its intended target to function. Straight men have reported aggressive homophobic abuse due to perceived feminine interests or behaviour. Gender policing of womanhood from transmisogynists has had a ripple effect for cisgender women, especially butch lesbian women, who have found themselves challenged in public toilets. Whether or not you actually belong to the identity group you are being perceived to belong to is irrelevant: racists don’t ask for ancestry tests results before determining whether you should taste the ground or not.
Observing that there is collateral damage in racism, homophobia and transmisogyny does not take away or distract from the reality of this discrimination that reaches the “correct” target. Ultimately, Lineker’s experience reveals how racism is based on a lie – despite the best efforts of white supremacists, it remains stubbornly true that identity is a porous, socially determined thing.
Ghoulish rightwingers rushing to dismiss his words and tweet, “Black Linekers Matter” are unremarkable and expected, but it’s worth being graceful to the more sensitive reaction from racial minorities who feel insulted or patronised by this story. Certainly the case of Rachel Dolezal appropriating black identity and claiming to be “transracial”, or the allegations of blackfishing against Jesy Nelson, provide evidence of why many have simply had enough of what can seem to be an epidemic of white people appropriating racial struggle.
But sometimes not all is black and white. In the case of, for instance, theatre director Anthony Ekundayo Lennon, who has a complex personal story of racial abuse and confusion over his heritage, due to obvious “non-white” features presenting since infanthood, the misrepresentation of his story and false equivalence made to Dolezal felt like a missed opportunity for a deeper discussion about race in Britain. But in the arena of social media reaction and reduction, we keep missing these opportunities again and again.
Jason Okundaye is a London-based writer and researcher