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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.

Reginald D Hunter. Photograph: Getty Images

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.