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Racial epithets, choice words and the professional space

Warning: this article contains language some may find offensive.

A few years ago a referee in the English football Premier League was at the centre of a controversy because he has been accused of using a racist epithet – the word “monkey” - towards a Chelsea player of Nigerian origin. The referee strenuously denied the accusation. Chelsea FC pressed a complaint to the authorities about the referee (while ironically defending another player - its captain John Terry - from a similar even more serious accusation[*]). The Football Association, the Society of Black Lawyers and the Metropolitan Police all got involved...

The row seemed to me hypocritical.

Referees are the objects of intense and obscene abuse from both spectators and players every week of the season not only in professional games but in amateur and pub Sunday League matches played on every recreation ground in the country. Yet few people seem to think this is a moral let alone an ethical issue.

Abusive language, however obscene and vitriolic, is apparently acceptable inside football grounds and even on the football pitch – which for a professional footballer is a professional space. Add a racist epithet - or even one that could be conceivably construed as racist - and we seem to shift to an entirely different set of values.

Recently, one leading black Premiership player said he didn’t “mind being called a fucking cunt – that’s banter - but being called a fucking black cunt, now that’s a different order completely and totally unacceptable.”

Really? I think this footballer has got his value system very confused - especially that aspect of it relating to the fundamental need for mutual respect - irrespective of one's race or ethnicity.

It reminds me of a time when a teacher colleague of mine was accused by a pupil of using a racist epithet similar to that alleged of the Premiership referee. The teacher had been chastising a boy’s poor behaviour in class and had said, “I’ve had enough of all your monkey business!” and sent him to the head teacher. The boy was black and took offence. When he arrived at the head teacher’s office, he complained. He and his parents eventually got an apology from the teacher after the teacher acknowledged it was an unfortunate choice of words. The accusation, however well or ill-founded, served to conveniently deflect the matter of the boy’s own bad behaviour, which had of course been the original, now completely forgotten, issue.

Personally, I did think it was an error of judgment to use such a phrase to a black child, even if it had been innocently made, as the teacher claimed. In my view, the use of such a phrase has the potential to confuse or upset even the most angelic and well-behaved black child in the school.

However, I do think some children (of any race) will exploit self-serving opportunities to justify their bad behaviour and often try to deflect responsibility for it away from themselves and on to others – and sometimes that will include you too – the teacher. Goodness knows they do it often enough with each other in the playground: “She made me do it!” “It wasn’t my fault!” “He cussed my mum, so I hit him!” etc etc.

In such circumstances, one might be very tempted to confront a child’s hypocrisy, duplicity and false excuses and “to call a spade, a spade.”

My advice is: don’t. At least not with that particular phrase if the child is black, or for that matter any other phrase that might be used to misconstrue your meaning.

Once in a moment of anger, I used a very ill-judged phrase to a pupil. I said: “Stop behaving like a prat!” The next day I had a burly father in my classroom wanting to know why I had called his child “a twat!”

Don’t let a poor choice of words, especially ones spoken in a moment of anger, hand an easy advantage to people who may have an interest in diminishing your authority as a teacher - especially in the domain you need to maintain it.

Goodness knows, it takes long enough to build it up in the first place.

[*]This incident, from the point of view of the victim Anton Ferdinand, is the subject of a BBCtv documentary airing on Monday November 30th 2020.

Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk.

You may be interested in his course in ‘The Foundations of Professionalism in Teaching’ – a 3-module course with over 4.5 hours of HD quality video presentations, additional course reading and materials, self assessment exercises and completion certificates.



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