Why is it racist to say Jews are careful with their money? Why is it racist to say Asians are good at maths? Why is it racist to say black men have 24-inch penises? Guys, these are compliments! Your lot are never satisfied, are they?
And so to some Manchester United fans’ chants about their striker Romelu Lukaku, which a totally encouraging number of people simply cannot see are racist. To be super-clear (and apologies to those who realised this in 1964 or whenever): any assumption about someone made solely on the basis of that person’s race is racist. It may also be banter – but it is racist banter. And if anyone’s still struggling with the logical underpinnings of that incredibly simple rule of thumb, we’ll be diving deeper into why in a minute.
For now, Kick It Out have written to Manchester United asking them to act on the Lukaku chants, explaining: “Racist stereotypes are never acceptable in football or wider society, irrespective of showing support for a player.” In 2014, a YouGov analysis of Manchester United and Manchester City fans asked the two groups to describe themselves from a list of over 200 personality traits. With United fans, the one that came out top was “adaptable”. So do let’s hope they’ll swiftly adapt to not singing songs about Lukaku’s cock size.
Hang on – before we continue, I should stress: not all Manchester United fans. An unquantified minority of Manchester United fans. A minority who have almost without doubt completely lost their shit in the past if anyone tried to stereotype them in some way. As troublemakers, say, or people who live in Surrey. Yes, it’s a particular irony that those voicing distaste about the Lukaku chant are now being accused of oversensitivity by a certain strand of quick-to-temper football fans, who absolutely cannot stand to be generalised about themselves in any way. I mean, they really wet their pants about it.
If it relates to their own tribe, there are few more sensitive and chippy policers of language than some football fans. Fire up the internet and start anything other than the most positive sentence with the words “All fans of X club are” and you would be accused of appalling bias, hatred of the club, laziness, and a variety of unprintables besides. It is absolutely right that phrases like “a section of fans” and “a minority of fans” appear in news reports relating to the less savoury incidents that occasionally attend the game. But I sometimes feel they need to feature in special highlighted type in case arguably the most oversensitive group in society thinks someone’s accusing them, personally, of whatever it is. Not all United fans. Not all Chelsea fans. Not all England fans. Not all men.
But back to Lukaku, and this one-eyed notion that stereotyping someone in a manner perceived to be complimentary is somehow problem-free. As huge amounts of psychological research has found, the trouble with supposedly positive stereotypes is that they tend to be accompanied in the minds of those who hold them by distinctly less complimentary ones. Time and again research papers have showed you couldn’t have one without the other: people who saw Asians as great at maths also thought they were cold and remote, and terrible drivers. If we may boil this tendency down to a racist drama in three sentences: Why is it racist to say Jews are careful with their money? It’s a compliment, for God’s sake. Bloody hell, trust the Jews to find something to complain about.
And so with the Lukaku chant. I’m afraid we have to ask ourselves something about those Manchester United fans chanting their great big compliment at Lukaku: what’s the likelihood that the only stereotype those people hold about black people is that they have enormous penises? Honestly, what are the chances? Zero, is the answer to that, whether or not they even realise it.
As the aforementioned social psychologists repeatedly find, those who are positively stereotyped in one department are negatively stereotyped in others. For instance, you don’t get people to assume you have a superior penis without them also quietly assuming you have an inferior brain.