This week on the High Performance Podcast, the former England footballer Gary Lineker revealed he had experienced racist abuse from other footballers during his career. Candidly, he stated, “I was this tiny geeky kid, with darkish skin and I had pretty much racist abuse although I’m not, I’m as English as they come.” His comments have attracted derision from a variety of commentators, who laugh at the idea that a public figure we largely understand to be white could claim to have experienced anything close to racist abuse. Unfortunately, those negative reactions demonstrate a lack of understanding about something that should be fundamental to any anti-racism approach: race isn’t biologically real.
Since the summer of 2020, when conversations on race sharply increased due to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, it has become increasingly clear that many people’s understanding of race – however well-intentioned – appears to be rooted in absolute, fixed ideas about identity that cloud their ability to see nuance. It is perfectly possible to see how someone like Lineker, who has olive skin and somewhat ambiguous features, could have been perceived as deviant from whiteness and therefore racially abused. One of the biggest pitfalls in the fight against racism (something not helped by the shallow discourse of social media) is believing there is anything innate or real about whiteness, or any race, when there is not. The boundaries of who is or isn’t white are flexible, and are dependent on how people are perceived by others in the wider social context.
A similar line of thinking was exposed last year when the actor and host of The View, Whoopi Goldberg, suggested the Holocaust wasn’t about race because Jewish people are white – a statement she subsequently and unequivocally apologised for. While, in some contexts, the prevailing view is that Jewish people capable of being racialised as white are white, it is clear that in other contexts they weren’t racialised as white at all (such as in Nazi Germany). At various points of Western history, Irish and Italian people have been regarded as not white; and in the 1930s, when there was a labour shortage in the US, Mexican people were regarded on the census as white. The boundaries of who is “white” are blurred, and when we seek to guard too rigorously the boundaries of who can take on what identity – and therefore who can experience racism – we only further entrench racial categories that are not innate. Ironically, the result is the further perpetuation of racism. As the American author Ta-Nehisi Coates simply puts it: “Race is the child of racism, not the father.” The fiction of race is created to facilitate racism.
Yet I do have sympathy with people of colour who may have been surprised by Lineker’s comments – many of us feel ground down by the racism we have personally experienced, and we’ve all had instances where it felt like people racialised as white falsely claim to know first-hand the deleterious impact that racism has. It is also possible to construe Lineker saying “I’m as English as they come” as problematic – though I have no personal problem with him stating he’s ethnically English. But the long-term solution, if the ultimate aim is to live in a racially liberated society, can’t be to reinforce racial categories and boundaries so much that we end up reinforcing our own oppression, while failing to see how race itself has no innate existence at all.
In a social media landscape in which we are constantly encouraged to inhabit a rigid form of racial identity politics, the words of the writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin ring true: “Our passion for categorization, life neatly fitted into pegs, has led to an unforeseen, paradoxical distress; confusion, a breakdown of meaning. Those categories which were meant to define and control the world for us have boomeranged us into chaos; in which limbo we whirl, clutching the straws of our definitions.”