Immigration and racism on the pitch at Euro 2020

    Jun 23, 2021

    OTTAWA—It’s Euro 2020 and frankly, it’s a welcome reprieve from Canada’s existential crisis brought about by weeks of racial tragedies. 

    Sports, in addition to pop culture and fashion, are accessible ways to contextualize the greater societal and political issues, and European football is no different. Conversations around immigration and racism play out on the pitch, so it’s no surprise that when activism reignited in football, following the murder of George Floyd, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) had no choice but to relent. England players have been taking the knee before every match in the tournament, even braving the wrath of their fans to do so. As the browning of Europe continues, the conversations around those tensions are reflected on the pitch. 

    As with immigration, for the recipients of that flow of talent, the benefits are easy to see. Whether it’s the skillful, unselfish play of the Belgian team and the statesmanlike finish of their talisman, Romelu Lukaku, or the alacrity of the French superstar Kylian Mbappé, whose greatness is buttressed by the leadership in midfield of Paul Pogba, these European nations continue to draw their dominance from the resources of Africa and the Middle East. 

    (Let’s not talk about the English team, cause yikes.)

    It is within this context of football and footballers reflecting on-the-ground social realities that TSN Sports decided to stock their pre- and post-game in-studio commentary with old white men with English and Scottish accents, as they have done since they started broadcasting football matches. Turtle Island has spearheaded most of the on-the-ground calls for action, but like most of the intractable boardrooms in Canada, the executives are either unwilling or incapable, or both, of making any meaningful adjustments to reflect growing calls for change. 

    Accents are another form of discrimination. Second-language speakers endure negative stereotypes and racist attitudes, which are described as “the sound of racial profiling” by Valerie Fridland, professor of linguistics at the University of Nevada. Fridland references a study that found “listeners were able to determine speakers’ ethnicity as quickly as the first word said in the phone conversation at around 70 [per cent] accuracy.” The negative stereotyping associated with it is where discrimination lives and breathes. In the trial of George Zimmerman, who admitted to killing Trayvon Martin, a key prosecution witness had an African-American accent (colloquially known as a “blaccent”). As Fridland’s post points out: “She was ridiculed as inarticulate, not credible and incomprehensible, and, due to unfamiliarity with the dialect, court transcripts of her testimony were highly inaccurate.” This was perhaps a contributing factor to Zimmerman’s acquittal. 

    However, the contrast also exists. British Standard English and the accent associated with it is widely viewed as superior due to its prevalence and pervasiveness in media, particularly educational media. It is meant to reflect education and breeding, which are gateways to upper-class, white society. In the case of TSN, it is meant to reflect an assumed superiority of knowledge of football that could easily be eclipsed by someone like Julian de Guzman—the first Canadian player to play for the Spanish La Liga and who was Deportivo de La Coruña’s Player of the Year. TSN brought him out once or twice to fill in for the white British men whose background in the sport, much less success in it, is suspect. But they’re British and white, so they’re automatically viewed and treated as superior (de Guzman is a dark-skinned Black man). 

    It’s hard for Canada to cut Mommy’s apron strings.

    Canadians stubbornly hold onto the embers of colonialism as part of our national identity, which was (the past tense is doing a lot of heavy lifting in this sentence) a structure of Canadian’s immigration system. The Canadian Encyclopedia confirms: “The Canadian government preferred white English-speaking migrants from within the British Empire and from the U.S. At the same time, non-white migrants were denied entrance on racist grounds.” Given this loyalty to Mother Britain, i.e. loyalty to British colonialism and imperialism, it’s no surprise that TSN executives think the only football experts are from the Ol’ Blighty. 

    And when was the last time England won a major tournament? It was the 1966 World Cup, in which they cheated, allegedly, while promoting “fair play.” Since then, they have been cursed—and rightly so—having won absolutely nothing since. In this case, the football pitch continues to delight us (us being those whose cultural linages are tainted by Britain’s colonial project) with the failures of England, offering some semblance of justice the outside world does not. 

    Erica Ifill is a co-host of the Bad+Bitchy podcast.