Identity Through Exclusion? A Lesson from the World of Soccer

Thursday, December 20, 2012

So it's 2012 - almost 2013.  Surely racism is dead now, right?


Supporters of Russian football (soccer) team Zenit St. Petersburg recently published an open letter of sorts where they demanded that the team not add or select players that make up racial or sexual minorities. 

Pay attention to the language and arguments used in the letter.  For starters, when you have to begin your argument with "I'm not racist, but..." you might want to back up and rethink your position.  The more important point is that the group argues that their identity is in jeopardy.  Many other teams in other nations do this, albeit with more stealth and acceptable language.  In England, for example, the FA requires that teams carry a certain amount of "homegrown" players on their active roster.  Without going into too much detail, a homegrown player is basically defined as a player who has spent a certain amount of years in the club's academy (think minor leagues, but for even younger players) before their 21st birthday.  There's no language in the rule that players have to be a certain nationality, but because of the way the system already works, the rule basically ensures that English clubs will have a certain quota of English players.  Racist?  Eh.  Xenophobic?  Oh yes.  Such is the nature of international sport. 

In both cases (that of Zenit and of England), the fear is that "others" will come along and ruin the identity of the organization.  As members of a melting pot (or is it salad bowl?) society, we Americans have certainly seen this attitude.  Perhaps we have even espoused it.  The problem with this kind of thinking is that it is inherently exclusionary.  The Zenit supporters have defined their identity using external factors, and therefore the best way to preserve it is through exclusion of people who are externally different.  Let's go back to the original point: they think they're not racist, even though it's apparent to all on the outside that that's clearly not the case.  It's very easy to convince yourself that you're not prejudiced or biased against a certain person or type of person, but that doesn't make it true.  Rather than simply shaking our heads about the state of the world in 2012 and looking down at our noses at those silly Russians, let's examine ourselves.  What excuses are we making in order to exclude others?


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