Reginald D Hunter. Photograph: Getty Images
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Kick the racism out of football, don't kick out the discussion of racism

Reginald D Hunter's set at the Professional Footballers' Association awards dinner, and the response to it, shines a light on one of the great linguistic arm-wrestles of our time.

So this has actually happened. The Professional Footballers' Association, or PFA, booked Reginald D Hunter, the comedian, as the main entertainment for their annual awards dinner; and now, after Hunter has duly delivered a typically forthright show, the PFA want their money back. This, for all kinds of reasons, is not a good look.

The first reason is one of plain and common courtesy. It is rude, if not unpleasant, to hire a performer to adorn your ceremony and then publicly criticise him or her for being too offensive. It is particularly unpleasant when the most cursory inspection of his material would have made him a contentious choice for the event at hand.

The event in question was no ordinary dinner: it was a dinner at the end of two seasons where the issue of racism in football had been discussed at length and yet to unsatisfactory effect. Both Luis Suarez, of Liverpool, and John Terry, of Chelsea, had been censured by the Football Association for their use of racially offensive language. And now, at the end of all this, the PFA booked Hunter to perform: a man who has largely made a career from intelligently exploring the discomfort that exists around racism in contemporary Western society. 

Now, we don't know for sure what Hunter said during his routine. What we do know is that his set was liberally sprinkled with uses of "the N-word", which is to say, the word "nigger". This is a word which gives me extreme disquiet to type, since it conjures images of burning crosses on lawns, men riding the streets in white hoods, and black men hanging from trees. (See, for example, Claude Neal.)   

I hate this word because it reminds me of a prejudice that I wish were long gone. But that’s the whole point of Hunter’s act. He is shining a light where many of us no longer wish to look. Much as we might try to move on from or ignore it, racism is with us still.  Black and Asian police officers, for example, have only recently stated their beliefs that the Metropolitan Police Force is still institutionally racist. As Jimmy Gator comments in the film Magnolia: "We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us."

I suppose what I am trying to say is that Hunter is not to be primarily faulted for bringing up issues, however uncomfortably, which are the most pressing in our current social discourse. The PFA could have chosen any number of bland, uncontroversial comedians to fill this berth. Hunter was a subversive choice, and having booked him the PFA should have stood by him. Most concerning of all, though, is the suggestion in several quarters that Mr. Hunter's use of the word "nigger" is somehow just as offensive as if a member of a lynch mob had used it. This is a false equivalency, and a dangerous one. 

Hunter uses this word to expose the discrimination that exists in a society that often complacently considers itself post-racial. He uses this word rather as a surgeon might use a scalpel without anaesthetic: it is surely painful, but its deep incision ruthlessly exposes the tumour. On the other hand, a lynch mob uses this word as the accompaniment to, well, a lynching.

“Nigger”, meanwhile, is a word that many black people now use as a term of affection, of solidarity, of sorority or fraternity.  Hence Jay-Z and Kanye's "Niggas in Paris". It is a word that black people are still trying to reclaim from the people who wished to break them with it: it is one of the great lingustic arm-wrestles of our time.

But here’s the thing. I think that the PFA knows this. I think that it made a terrible mistake and is retreating on the basis of anxiety over backlash rather than on the point of principle: a stance which ultimately serves the issue of racism in football no good at all. It seems that rather than kicking racism out of football, the aim is instead to kick the discussion of racism, as Mr. Hunter would propose it, out of football.  And that, all in all, is an appalling shame. 

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war