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22 October 2021

John Barnes: “Boris Johnson doesn’t know he’s racist”

The former England star discusses his new book The Uncomfortable Truth About Racism.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

“You’ve got a pen?” John Barnes asked me as he reached across the table and grabbed my notebook. He drew a rectangle (which resembled a football pitch) and divided it into three vertical sections. These, Barnes believes, account for all types of people: those who are explicitly racist, those who say they aren’t but have unconscious racial biases, and people who genuinely have no prejudices. “Most of us are there,” Barnes said, plotting a mark right in the middle of the second category. “And he’s there,” he continued, plotting a mark representing Boris Johnson near to the edge of the explicitly racist section but still within the second category. “So, he doesn’t know he’s racist, but he’s closer to the top than others.” 

Barnes, who moved to England from Jamaica with his family in 1976 aged just 12, was one of the most accomplished football players of his era. Playing for teams including Liverpool and Newcastle United, he made over 750 club appearances, scoring 198 goals. After multiple poaching attempts from other home nations, Barnes achieved 79 England caps, scoring 11 goals along the way – including that iconic goal against a stacked Brazilian side in the Maracanã in 1984.

Yet despite all his achievements and accolades – which include two First Division titles and two FA Cups – there is a theme that underlines most of Barnes’s career: racism.

It’s a theme he confronts in his new book, The Uncomfortable Truth About Racism, published this month by Headline. As well as touching on current conversations surrounding racism in football, the book casts a wider net and examines what Barnes sees as driving forces of discrimination – as well as how to tackle them. Part of that means dissecting the difference between what we mean by the terms “racist” and “racially biased”. 

In light of many of his past comments and actions, some would be comfortable describing the Prime Minister as racist. But for Barnes, the picture is more complicated; he argued to me that while Johnson may be more prejudiced than most, he is, in a way, a product (or victim) of his elite upbringing and wider British culture.

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“Winston Churchill wanted to coin the phrase ‘Keep Britain white’, and people say ‘he was a man of his time, everyone’s like that’ – he was more racist than people of his time,” Barnes said. “Boris Johnson is more racially biased than the average person, but the average person is still racially biased. He is more biased because of his upbringing, his attitude and love to colonialism, because that’s the way he’s been conditioned to think.”

Barnes, who is now 57, has had decades to consider the racism entangled throughout British society. Like other black players of his time, he suffered a torrent of racist abuse – sometimes by opposition fans and supporters, but sometimes his own teammates and fans, including those supporting England. “I was shocked at first to see and hear my white teammates ‘abuse’ their Black peers in training,” Barnes writes in his book of his early days at Watford, aged 17. He was equally shocked to see older black teammates “laugh it off and respond in an equally trivial way”, joking about the white players’ “lack of dick size” and “rhythm or ‘coolness’”. He recalls that such “banter battles” were “always won when someone coolly and calmly stated: ‘AT LEAST I’M NOT BLACK.’”

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And yet, despite the “banter” between players or more overt abuse from the stands, both in his book and when we met at a Liverpool hotel, Barnes rejected the implication that he was a victim of racism. “The ‘racism’ John Barnes received was not personal. It’s personal to the group of people that I happen to belong to,” he said. “If I scored a goal for West Ham,” whose fans used to taunt Barnes, “they would not abuse me – so how personal is it to me?” 

I pushed back, pointing out that being black is a core part of his identity. Doesn’t that mean such abuse is personal to him? “I am not an inferior person,” he said. “Therefore, them calling me a n*gger or black-whatever, because they think I’m inferior [doesn’t stick]… because their perception of me [as inferior] is completely different than my perception of myself.” 

Rather than the abuse being directed specifically at him, Barnes argued that it was society’s negative perceptions of black people that made him a target. His status as a wealthy footballer and a member of the “elite” meant that he was the victim not of racism, but what he called “racist incidents”. 

He believes that all black “elites”, once they have reached such status, are “elevated out of their blackness” and are separated from the everyday racism many “non-elite” black people face. Though Barnes “completely empathises” with any footballers who are upset following abuse, the bile directed at black England players after the Euro 2020 final fits his definition of a “racist incident” as opposed to straight-up racism, due to their status. “Racism affects people every day of their life. Racism doesn’t affect Marcus Rashford every day of his life.

“He became elite… and when he scores a goal for Man United – or if he scores every game – he will not get any racism at all. So how real is that?”

He continued: “So for all of the footballers who want to talk about how terrible racism is, blah blah blah; let the average black bus driver talk about racism – he’ll lose his job, because only privileged people can do that.”

For Barnes, the disconnect between issues faced by the black “elite” versus “non-elite” was exemplified by the time a black road sweeper tried to console him over his difficulties of getting a job in football management. “And I said: ‘What job have you got? Where do your kids go to school? Who’s speaking for you?’ No one does.”

But is there not the capacity to be concerned about and address both forms of prejudice? “Do you know what that narrative is like? All Lives Matter,” Barnes answered half-jokingly. In an ideal world, he continued, we would strongly address discrimination faced by black “elites”, but “there’s something more pressing” in the need to confront the daily discrimination faced by the “non-elite”; such issues are more urgent than “John Barnes getting a job as a football manger”, he argued.

There are two underlying messages from Barnes’s book: that class often supersedes racism as a barrier to equality, and that the best way to stop racism is by education and changing negative perceptions – not only of minorities, but those of women and the LGBT+ community. 

The first part of achieving this is to “own” both our personal prejudices and those society has. We need to drop the status quo where we “just wait for somebody to get caught out”, Barnes said in reference to cancel culture. 

Journalists, whom Barnes believes have had a drastic effect in creating and perpetuating discrimination, have a key role to play. “The media has access to everybody… [change] has to come from the top, an indoctrination point of view if you like, because that’s how we’ve been conditioned to think – we have to be reconditioned.” 

But Barnes is doubtful that change will come any time soon. The progress both football and society as a whole have made on race is not down to the changing of hearts and minds, social progressiveness or anti-racism campaigns, he argued, but “because you’ll get banned from the stadium if you abuse people… nothing’s changed.

“You’ve always had these movements, and it just keeps coming around – and we just stay on a merry-go-round… Perceptions are what we really have to change.”

[See also: The Saudis have promised Newcastle United the world. But what do they want in return?]

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