Outside the Matchroom Stadium. Photo: Getty
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It’s not you, Leyton Orient: why a sexist song means I’m walking away from my football club

After tweeting his disapproval of a sexist song sung in the stands, James McMahon found himself on the receiving end of a social media onslaught.

There is a football song you may have been unlucky enough to have heard if you’ve ever attended a British football match. It’s not the worst – if you believe a certain sort of Tottenham fan, the Met Police are wasting their time in Portugal and know exactly where Madeleine is. And that’s not to say that Tottenham fans aren’t without being a victim of the same sort of bile. The elements of the West Ham fan base who hissed throughout the two clubs’ encounter two Novembers ago – the hiss resembling the sound of a gas chamber, Tottenham being a club famous for Jewish support – know that, I’d hope, somewhere in their souls. As for Brighton fans? I honestly don’t know how any Brighton fan can be bothered with going to games any more, it can’t be fun having your sexuality dictated to you by thousands of strangers every Saturday.

Yet people can be bothered, because football fandom isn’t largely about choice. Club allegiances are bound to family ties. Emotional ties. Catchment, to a sadly dwindling extent. Even in this age of football gentrification, when you’re told where to sit and God forbid if you want to stretch your legs, it informs social groups. Being a football fan is a commitment to something you have little control over, but follow with the conviction akin to something you might. This is why when I say I’ve decided to stop following my team (well, my local team anyway – as a South Yorkshire-born man living in Leyton, east London, I somehow juggle space for both Leyton Orient and Doncaster Rovers in my complicated heart), it should mean that it hasn’t been a choice so much as a violent separation of heart and mind.

I went to see Orient vs QPR in a pre-season friendly on Tuesday night. It was fun, to a point. Joey Barton had done something pretty eccentric with his hair. Then, some people sang a song. The song. The song that has been sung for years and years and years and goes, “Oh East London, is wonderful, Oh East London is wonderful, full of tits, fanny and Orient, Oh East London is wonderful”. Not the worst song, but not one I can find any merit in singing in 2014 either. Perhaps the father of the little girl sat in front of me on Tuesday night, who on request, had to explain to his child what words he most likely hoped she wouldn’t have to hear until she’d grown into a person who could hear whatever words they want, on her own terms, will agree with me. I didn’t want to ask. He looked pretty much done throughout the rest of the game.

I admit it. I snapped. Then I left early. And, as is the modern way, instead of filling out a form that may or may not exist, I tweeted how embarrassed I was to be a Leyton Orient fan whenever that song was sung. And then over a period of four days, everything I loved about Leyton Orient – the club I turned to in 2007 upon moving to London, faintly lost, very lonely, so grateful for the sense of community, less of a hobby than a lifeline – was torn from me. The tweet I woke up to this morning, declaring, “Leyton Orient don’t need fans like you now that we’re rich!” (after a fairly uneventful 20 odds years, give or take a few ups and a few downs, Orient were recently bought by ambitious Italian multi-millionaire waste mogul Francesco Becchetti). It was a sentiment that hurt me far more than a tweet should have the power to. When I was sat on the train up to Hartlepool or down to Plymouth to see the team play I never thought I was so… disposable. I always thought fans were lifeblood, owners were custodians.

For the past two days I’ve been deluged with hundreds of messages of abuse on Twitter, on Instagram and the Leyton Orient Messageboard (the unofficial one, the club took down the official one last month after years of problems with right-wing polemic). They have said I “look like a nonce”. I’m a “fat cunt”. All of which have been justified by saying, “it’s just banter”. Apparently, people like me are “ruining football”, that what I said is “political correctness gone mad”, that I shouldn’t be offended because I’m “not a woman”. And then, as if to hit the nail squarely on the head, they found my girlfriend on Twitter and tweeted her asking if she “takes it up the arse”. The question begs, if a man can receive this kind of abuse for questioning this kind of misogyny, what on earth would a woman be on the end of…

I’m quite idealistic about football at the best of times. I had punk polemic burnt upon my fandom during Doncaster Rovers “troubled” late 90s period where we picketed games and staged mid-game protests (the chairman burnt down the mainstand, they only caught him because two ex-SAS men left first-gen mobile phones on the floor – their last text, to him being, “the job has been done”) I believe in football as a source for good as much as I believe it’s the greatest game ever invented. It’s why I increasingly enjoy going to watch Clapton FC in the Essex Senior League, and standing with the Clapton Ultras under their dilapidated scaffolding. They sing the same song as the one I was offended by incidentally, only they change the word “tits” to “pie” and “fanny” to “mash”. Funnily enough, the world didn’t stop when they first did that. They also sing songs about feminism, socialism and Palestinian liberation. And just because they’re inclusive and progressive in their thinking, doesn’t mean they all don’t have an absolute hoot every week.

Like Clapton, I always viewed Leyton Orient as a special club. A different club, one that bore Laurie Cunningham, the most pioneering black footballer player of the 1970s, who sent (and lost) the most young soldiers to fight in the First World War. And, in many respects, I can still view Orient this way. I met many brilliant people through the club; clever, humble, emotionally savvy people. Nurses, poets, plumbers, politicians and teachers. The players are decent men, who’ll stop you on the street and talk to you in a way that has been long lost from the summit of British football. And yet, what has touched me most, are the hundreds of tweets and messages from Orient-supporting women, saying, Wwe always hated this song, we just never dared say it – do you see why now?”.

It’s going to break my heart walking away from my football team. But it’s not you, Leyton Orient, it’s them.

You can find James on Twitter @jamesjammcmahon

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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.