During Sunday's match between Villarreal and Barcelona, a Villarreal fan threw a banana at Dani Alves, the Barcelona player, in an example of clear racist abuse. Straight away, Alves picked up the banana, ate it, and proceeded to help Barcelona to come back from a two-goal deficit to win 3-2. Alves spoke out afterwards, lamenting attitudes to race in Spain (a decade ago, Luis Aragones, then manager of the Spain team, called Thierry Henry a “black shit”) and urging that FIFA do more to tackle racism.
In the fallout, teammate and fellow Brazilian Neymar took to Instagram to show support, launching the hashtag #weareallmonkeys, which many prominent footballers and celebrities joined in with.
The hashtag initially began as an act of solidarity between Brazilian teammates; a beautiful but flawed gesture. It seems so simple to unite against racism with the banana as a symbol, but it misses what the banana was symbolising. It is an attempt at solidarity, but half of those in the photos will never be called monkeys by anyone. Those people do not need to reclaim the insult, they need to fight the abusers.
It then spread beyond people of colour, with a few Italian MPs, various Europeans and white people joining in. Showing support and solidarity is always welcome but again, we are not all monkeys because those people will never face that slur. Eating a banana is easy for them, but their job and responsibility is to go further.
Luis Suarez joining in highlighted the futility of the hashtag. Here is a man who has used racially abusive language towards Patrice Evra, consistently insisted he did nothing wrong, and recently claimed the case against him was false. He apologised to everyone except his victim, and is now using a hashtag to show unity along with Say No To Racism. It may be that he sees the racism in throwing bananas, but not in taunting a man about the colour of his skin, but they are equally as heinous and both racist. The dismissal of the latter makes it harder to properly tackle racism. There was no hashtag campaign for Evra's abuse by a colleague, but plenty of abuse of Evra himself by Liverpool fans. Most recognise monkey chants as wrong but other types of abuse are not only still tolerated but, in the case of Liverpool Football Club's Suarez t-shirts, institutionally defended. All this serves to do is highlight that in football, tribalism still trumps equality.
Finally, Alves's reaction has been lauded as ‘the best’ reaction in some places. This is extremely troubling. Alves chose to react by eating the banana, but what if he had thrown it back at the crowd? Or walked off the pitch and refused to play? Or confronted the racist? Are all these reactions deemed inferior? The truth is there is no ‘best’ reaction to racism. Everyone will react differently. Exalting Alves’s response over other’s helps those who wish we ‘weren’t so angry’ when we fight racism.
A better show of solidarity would have been to pressure Villarreal, other clubs, UEFA and FIFA to take harsher sanctions against any club with racist fans whilst resolving to educate those around them. They currently giver larger fines to players who wear sponsored underwear than they do to clubs that have racist fans.
Villarreal identified and banned the fan for life within 24 hours, with help from the fans, and that is to be commended. But when the incident occurred, other fans merely watched. Standing by whilst bananas are thrown and people are racially abused is just as bad as being the abuser. Inactivity fuels the ability for these incidents to continue. The sanctions meted out by Villarreal at the very least needs to be followed up by a FIFA ban across all stadiums in all FIFA nations, and come with an honest inspection of racism in the whole sport.
Support and solidarity does not require the co-opting of an experience. Reclaiming a word only works with the oppressed group - only some of us get called monkeys. It's time to wake up to why, and to realise and combat all forms of racism that permeate through football and society. The fight against racism should be proactive, not reactive.