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Pepe Reinas racist blunder: a question of black and white?

The withdrawal of a controversial recent TV advert featuring the Liverpool soccer player apparently highlighted differences between how racism is seen in Spain and Britain. But where does a bit of fun end and racism start?

Liverpool FC recently found themselves embroiled in a racism controversy for the second time in the last few months. Their goalie, Spanish national squad player Pepe Reina, came under fire from British anti-racism group Operation Black Vote for starring in a TV ad which they deemed to be racially offensive.

The advert – for insurance company Groupama depicts Reina meeting with the king of an African tribe who decides to take the goalie for his queen, a joke on his surname. Following complaints lodged by OBV, the campaign was pulled from Spanish television.

Unfortunately for Reina and Liverpool, the ad in question came right on the tail of huge controversy caused by their Uruguayan footballer Luis Suarez’s negrito outburstto black Manchester United player Patrice Evra during a heated exchange. In that case the FA argued that, however Suarez may have intended it, such language had no place in British football.

Understandably, the Association was talking from within the context of English football where it has fought long and hard to eradicate racism from both the pitch and the stands.

The Reina case, meanwhile, is a less straightforward issue and one that throws up a number of questions about both present-day Britain and contemporary Spain. It is debatably less to do with racism and more a matter of cultural inconsistencies.

Admittedly, the style of humour portrayed in the Groupama ad is one which, as OBV Director Simon Woolley argued, harks back to a bygone, less PC era: simplistic, facile and even nave. But is that the same as racist?

In his criticism of the ad, Woolley, a black Briton, described it as racist on so many levels.

How would the Spanish feel, he added, if the English stereotyped Spanish people as backward and stupid?

Perhaps Mr Woolley has never seen Andrew Sachs’s popular portrayal of a Spanish waiter in classic UK comedy Fawlty Towers? Sachs’s ‘Manuel’ was at best, stereotypical, and at worst, backward. Yet rarely has the character been viewed as racist. Could this be because being a Spaniard in the UK has never been a race issue in the same way that being black or Asian has?

Mr Woolley accused the advert of being offensive to black people. Yet, as one reader of The Weekcommented, the ad “is not about black people, it is about a lost tribe in Africa.” Are the people portrayed in it any more representative of Mr Woolley than an eskimo is of a white European?

On holiday in Gambia a few years ago we learned that Gambians called whites two-bob, a reference to the amount for which white traders sold African slaves.

Although a sad reminder of a shameful period of history, it was generally said without resentment and, certainly in the case of children, in complete innocence. Incidentally, Gambians made little distinction between western whites and blacks; being two-bob was a matter of culture and comparative wealth rather than colour.

The case of Reina, meanwhile, is unusual given that it was a UK-based group that forced TV corporations in Spain to pull an ad not even aired on British screens. Presumably there was little outcry from within Spain. So does the concept of what is racist depend on cultural context?

Claiming the moral high ground

As Brits, our developed sense of political correctness is inextricably linked to our country’s particular history and experience of colonization and subsequent large-scale immigration; something through which the Spanish have not lived.

While there may be something to be said for countries with a long experience of immigration like the UK, the States and Canada acting as guiding lights for countries like Spain where inward migration from such a diverse collection of countries and cultures is relatively new, are we not entering dangerous territory once we claim the moral high ground on questions of political correctness?

As a Brit living in Spain, I have often been struck and even offended by the lack of sensitivity towards ethnic minorities. Not least back in 2008 when the Spanish Olympic basketball team thought it was funny to make slitty eyes in imitation of the Chinese.

But I have also learned that my reactions are the result of my own cultural upbringing. Even the British sense of what is correct has evolved during my lifetime. What 35-year-old doesn’t remember a clapping game with the line ‘eyes like a Japanese, bend down and touch your knees’? I grew up in a class of children from various backgrounds, including Japanese. But back in the early 1980s it occurred to few of us that we were being offensive. It was a lesson learned over time.

However incorrect the Spanish may be, they are a long way from the kind of segregation seen until relatively recently in the States or the experience of the black characters in Andrea Levy’s Small Island thoroughly recommended reading. As immigration into the country continues, they will learn their own lessons of acceptable and unacceptable language and behaviour with regards to racial and ethnic minorities. But it is crucial they be allowed to do so organically and in their own time if they are not to fear censorship and accusations of racism which ultimately create more division than unity.

Debate vs dogma

Ironically, the commotion caused by the Evra-Surez ruckus and the Liverpool player’s subsequent match-ban likely served as ammunition for racist football fans. Similarly, you don’t have to search too hard on the internet to see that groups like The British Resistance who take issue with the news that Bradford now has a Muslim mayor have used the Reina case to fuel their nationalist rhetoric.

So there are perhaps some lessons to be learned in Britain too. By labelling such faux-pas as Reina’s ad as ‘racist’ are we not in danger of limiting the rich vocabulary of English to the political acceptability of things? And by using the fruits of our experience as a doctrine with which to shame others, do we not run the risk of turning debate into dogma?

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