Lockdown wrap: Black Lives Matter – an Oxford United perspective

On Thursday, I woke in the night feeling a bit overwhelmed with All The Things. If it wasn’t the pandemic, it was the recession, if it wasn’t the recession, it was civil rights unrest. 

This week I could write about the EFL’s ongoing ineffectiveness, but they’ve been ineffective, so not much has changed. Then I thought about the Black Lives Matter movement. I thought long and hard about it; maybe I could celebrate Oxford’s black players, but would it be too tokenistic and trite? It’s a bit ‘white privilege’ to feel like you have a licence to judge.

Then I saw comedian Desiree Burch talking about how overwhelming it feels to change society, she suggested that reflecting on your own views and actions was a heck of a start. So I did, and this is what I came up with…

When I first started watching Oxford United there was a player called Joe Cooke who captained the club for a period. My tactical awareness was limited; sometimes he played up front and sometimes centre-back. He was physical, fast and strong, but the real reason I knew his position was because he was the only black man in the team.

Joe Cooke might have been the first ‘real’ black person I was aware of. I knew people like Pele, Muhammad Ali and Cyril Regis but they were other-worldly, in rural Oxfordshire, there were very few black people around. Cooke might have been Oxford’s first black player, certainly one of the first. In every sense he stood out.

A few years later, when I started going to The Manor regularly we were spearheaded by striker Keith Cassells. Cassells scored a bucketload of goals, the fans sang a song to the tune of a British Airways advert about him. He was physical, fast and strong. And black.

Cassells moved to Southampton; then came George Lawrence. Lawrence was a powerhouse, his thighs, smothered with Deep Heat, shone under The Manor lights. He would maraud down the wing, terrifying defences. The roar as he attacked down the flank lives with me now. Lawrence was physical, fast, strong. And black. 

Later would come Chris Allen; silky across the grass. There was a joke about having to put a Unipart advertising board up so he knew which direction to run. He was a whippet; physical, fast, strong. And black. More recently, there was Chey Dunkley, one of my favourite players from our promotion season – physical, strong, fast. And black. 

Over 40 years, it’s been a recurring theme; the adjectives used to describe black Oxford players were often physical. But with Cooke there was Shotton, with Cassells; Foley, Lawrence had Brock, Allen had Beauchamp, Dunkley had Wright. These players were usually described as technical, clever or leaders and were all white.  

I genuinely loved Cooke, Cassells and the others, they provided some of the most exciting times as a fan. Dunkley’s goal against Wycombe, his Cruyff turn at Wembley. Lawrence terrifying Manchester United and Arsenal on famous nights at The Manor. I have preconceptions of them, they’re all positive, but they exist.

It’s the preconceptions where the issue lies. Imagine tiny fragments of preconceptions building up over centuries. Imagine them often being negative and being held across millions of people; not just the physical, but cultural; preconceived ideas about criminality, violence, intelligence and rationality all fusing together, building a picture of what we think a black person is.

Then imagine this being enforced, then reinforced over and over. Packed down under layers and layers of preconceptions until it becomes a rock, a solid, undeniable, fact. Then imagine it being confirmed by people you trust, people with similar misconceptions – friends, family – and the governments and institutions here to represent and look after us. Over and over again. Right up to the point where you can kneel on someone’s neck and kill them and somehow justify the act in your head.

Most people never get to that point, of course, but most, myself included, judge people based on the mess of their experiences. I have watched a disproportionate number of strong, physical and fast black people playing football. That is big part of my experience of black people and, unchecked, could form a big part of my preconception. It is my responsibility to challenge those experiences deconstruct what my brain thinks it knows. 

We all do it; we all judge things based on preconceptions. It’s how the brain processes things quickly – it takes a quick snapshot, applies a liberal dose of preconception and decides on an action. People dismiss their own views as being unfettered by preconceptions. ‘All lives matter’ is the sobriquet used by those opposing the focus on black people. It sounds logical and correct, but it ignores the evidence that black lives appear to be preconceived as significantly more disposable, in other words, they matter less. 

My preconception of physical, strong, fast black footballers is fairly benign but not to be ignored. Sprinter Linford Christie spoke about how a media obsession with his ‘lunchbox’ – a bit of a joke, but ultimately a racial stereotype – drove him to distraction. Differentiating people based on the colour of someone’s skin is what creates racism. Most white people don’t abuse or attack black people, but we’re all bombarded with information that drives us to pre-define what a black person is. That’s very likely to influence your actions and the actions of others.

It’s not always violent, it’s not always abusive, it’s not even always negative, but those preconceptions are evidently wearing, debilitating, frustrating and exhausting. I’ve been in work situations where people have pre-judged me with little opportunity to challenge or prove them wrong, it’s maddening. Imagine that, but handed down over centuries, chipping away until the anger boils over and there’s little to lose from taking action, which is where we are today.

I need to check my preconceptions constantly and attack my illogical conclusions, recognise the narrowness of my experience and that those experiences, though no less ‘real’, are not the same experiences as others. And despite all that, despite driving my subconscious into my consciousness and picking those thoughts apart I still have preconceptions based on race. And that is not to apologise for people’s racism and excuse them from their actions, it’s to promote the idea society moulds you long before you realise it’s having an effect on how you act. There is a responsibility on us all to challenge those ideas, break them up and push them aside. It’s a life’s work. 

When I reflect, one of the reasons I really like Chey Dunkley during 2015/16 is not his physicality, it was his backstory. He once described himself as the club mascot because he couldn’t get a game, his first start that season against Bristol Rovers was shaky and he should have been sent off, but he’d posted pictures pre-season working on his fitness, he was studying for his degree, I liked him because of how hard he was working to get to where he wanted. By April he was doing Cruyff turns at Wembley and the next month scoring against Wycombe to win promotion. It’s such a great story, I so want him to play in the Premier League.

Anti-racism rhetoric can come across as preachy; it’s easy to dismiss it as ‘woke’ or politically correct. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that even if you’re tired of the ethical and moral arguments, if you feel you ‘get it’ and wish people would stop scoring moral points, there is a perhaps an additional point that pre-judging people is generally ineffective. 

I don’t want to judge the motivations of racists and apologists, but I can categorically say that I have a personal responsibility to keep my pre-conceptions in check and adjust my behaviour. My experience of black people and black culture is only positive, my upbringing and environment has encouraged me to be accepting of things I haven’t experienced and be liberal towards others. I know that every time I’ve tripped up and prejudged people based on broad brush ideas of gender, sexuality, nationality or ethnicity, I’ve been wrong – not just morally and ethically wrong – though that as well – but materially, objectively and factually wrong.

Cassells became senior award winning policeman, Lawrence a football agent, Allen a professional coach retained by three of the best managers we’ve had – Wilder, Appleton and Robinson. Chey Dunkley has a sports science degree from the country’s top university in the subject. Smart, capable people, not just physical, strong and fast people. 

Perhaps you don’t pre-judge people, but when I stop and think, I know as much as I don’t want to; I do. Judging people on their appearance is natural, but it’s also an ineffective way of drawing conclusions about them. But, there it is, pre-judging – racism – I’m certain it exists in all of us to some extent and impacts the lives of many people, which is why it’s important to keep explicitly reminding yourself that black lives matter.