Last week, Herschelle Gibbs, a South African cricket player, was suspended for making racist comments to the Pakistani crowd. Likely, little would have come of it if the stump microphone hadn't picked up his words and broadcast them around the world. His hearing is today, with the well-respected and much-loved Richie Benaud, commentator and ex-captain of Australia, at the helm.
Now, to be fair, there's NO question in my mind that Gibbs was sorely provoked: some Pakistani fans had been shouting abuse at one of his teammates throughout the day. I went to three of the Pakistan v England Tests last summer, and I know how difficult Pakistani fans can be even to their own, such as calling Sajid Mahmood a 'traitor' because he plays for England. Heck, *I* was tempted to throttle a few. Ask Rach how nervous she was when we were surrounded by Pakistani supporters and I'd get irimtated enough to say something less than charitable about Pakistani men in a stage 'whisper'. Ok, shout, more like. Travelling fans of any nationality can be a nightmare. Gibbs had EVERY right to go over to security and ask for them to be removed.
But that's the key. He had every right to *have them removed from the ground*. Not hurl abuse back at them. Telford Vice writes an excellent letter to Gibbs, beginning with the quintessentially South African greeting, 'Howzit, Hersch...'
In his letter, he nails a point I've never been able to articulate when trying to explain to my friends why I've suspected certain verbal attacks were racist, even when nothing overt had been said:
"I have to tell you that when I heard for myself what you said, I was disgusted. It's not the swearing. Bloody hell, I'm a reporter - we were born effing and blinding, and I'll continue to do so until I b****r off this mortal coil at the age of 112. So swearing doesn't scare me. Instead, it was your harsh tone that struck me most.
There was something close to hate in your voice, Hersch, and that's not a pretty sound."
He's spot on. It's not the words; it's the tone, the look in the eyes, the near foaming at the mouth - the difference between my father calling a driver who has cut him off "a b****rd" and his talking about Partition and referring to Indians as "b****rds". The words are the same, but when he says the latter, his voice has that kind of hatred in it. The hatred that generalises, that depersonalises, that makes it easy to kill.
If we're honest with ourselves, we're all racist in some way, shape or form. Every last one of us is prejudiced against certain classes of people, and the real struggle is to meet each person where they are, no matter what they look like, what group they belong to, or where they're coming from.
I am a racist. Every time I generalise about Muslim/Middle Eastern/subcontinental men - and I do it a lot - I am being racist. It doesn't matter that I was born Muslim, that my parents are Pakistani, that I have experience, so 'I can say it'. I often go on about 'white wannabes' who want to wear Indian clothing, get henna tattoos, and immerse themselves in Indian culture because it makes them 'ethnically aware', 'spiritually in tune' and it's so 'exotic'. I'm right to be annoyed by the falsity of some of them: I know one woman who likes to greet people who are linked to the subcontinent by bowing and saying 'namaste'. When I wore a shalwar qamiz to an ordination, she squealed, "I didn't recognise you, you're in fancy dress!" (Americans: fancy dress = costume. Yes, she's blonde. Yes, she lived - just.) But when I project that insincerity onto *everyone* interested in Indian culture or sneer, "White women can't wear saris", I'm being racist. I am only right, probably only partially, about those *within the realm of my experience*. Everyone deserves to be judged as an individual, with a unique story and personality. When you first meet them, everyone deserves a clean slate.
When one of my closest friends initially introduced himself to me, he spoke to me in Urdu. My first thought? "Who do you think you are, white boy?" Racist. But this time, I chose to *listen*. Turns out he'd spent several years in Pakistan and his Urdu is better than mine. He knows Pakistani culture, good and bad, and truly *loves* it, warts and all, which reminds me why *I* love it. Because of him, I no longer turn my back on my heritage and am free to open the gifts it has given me, rather than stashing them in a dark closet somewhere.
All because I chose to give 'white boy' a chance.
That's the point, Hersch. We all have these prejudices within us, but we are in control of how we choose to act, even under the stress of an international level sporting event. Even when we're provoked. Someone has to take the responsibility to defuse a tough situation, and in this case, that lay with you. You could have chosen words to calm the situation rather than inflame it. When that didn't work, you could have asked security to remove them from the cricket ground. There were other options. You chose a different course.
Choosing that course means you need to accept the consequences: being broadcast around the world, branded a racist and banned for two matches. One does not admit guilt and then appeal. Take your punishment like an adult and show your fans, especially your young ones, that actions entail consequences, and we must accept and learn from them. Chris Broad made the right decision when he banned you. Make sure you learn from it and come out the other side a better man. Then something good will have come of all this.
And next time you're thinking in the prejudice box, poke your head out and look over the top. Maybe even stop and listen, or if the fans are being a bit intense, try to tone it down with some *friendly* sledging.
Who knows, you could even come out with a new best friend - eh, white boy?