Pep Guardiola’s tactless defence of Bernardo Silva showed a worrying ignorance of the nature of racism

The Jonathan Liew column: Guardiola could easily have withheld comment. Or he could have stood squarely behind the player, offering Bernardo his support whilst also acknowledging the offence caused. Instead, he doubled down

Jonathan Liew
Chief Sports Writer
Friday 27 September 2019 11:03
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Guardiola comes to the defence of Bernardo Silva over controversial tweet

“The real power in the world today is in the media, not politicians.” So spoke Pep Guardiola last year, at the height of the fallout from the racist abuse of Raheem Sterling. And so when the Manchester City manager decided to use his press conference at Deepdale on Tuesday night to speak out in defence of Bernardo Silva, he will have been fully aware of the impact of his words on an issue that, with a depressing predictability, is already being co-opted into a tiresome tribal combat. At its heart is a complex debate about offence and intent, about ignorance and historical prejudice, about identity and opportunism, about character and decency. To a large extent, though, it’s also about chocolate-covered peanuts.

On Sunday, Bernardo tweeted two pictures side by side: one of his friend and team-mate Benjamin Mendy as a child, one of the logo for Conguitos, a popular snack freely available in Spain. “Guess who?” ran the caption, alongside a couple of laughing emojis to establish that this was, indeed, a joke. No doubt chuckling heartily to himself, Bernardo tapped on the ‘send tweet’ button and returned to his daily business.

At which point, two separate impulses kicked in, one after the other. The first, which I like to imagine as the prevailing reaction, was a sort of mid-level nausea: an involuntary recoil that perhaps stopped just short of outright revulsion, but still left a bitter aftertaste. The Conguitos logo features a number of established tropes frequently found in racist caricature: round bulging eyes, fat red lips, no clothes. The name literally means “little people from the Congo”, and Conguitos adverts from decades ago employ the crudest sort of racial stereotyping.

But you didn’t need to know any of that in advance. On a simple sight test, equating an amorphous chocolate-covered blob with an actual live human failed by every measure. It looked bad. The fact that Mendy himself – publicly, at least – pronounced himself highly amused made no odds. If you’re tweeting racist imagery in a public forum to 600,000 followers, the reaction of one ceases to be the only concern. Before long the FA had contacted City to demand an explanation, with a potential six-game ban in the offing should Bernardo be found guilty of discrimination.

By which point the second impulse had kicked in, one grounded not in genuine distaste but in the gleeful, vengeful, self-interested outrage of the footballing partisan. The sort largely uninterested in ingrained racist stereotypes and their complex, insidious legacy on wider society; at least, until they present an irresistible opportunity to banter off a hated rival. And so began the game of pile-on from Liverpool and Manchester United fans, the counter pile-on from City fans: the bad-faith bickering of nonentities on the internet, ripping each other to metaphorical shreds in defence of their own phallic tribalism.

Pep Guardiola defended Bernardo Silva from accusations of racism

It was into this seething cesspit of bile and distrust that Guardiola unwittingly trod on Tuesday night. Asked about the FA investigation, he could easily have withheld comment. Or he could have stood squarely behind the player, offering Bernardo his support whilst also acknowledging the offence caused. Instead, he doubled down. “The image is not about the colour of the skin,” he argued. “He took a picture of Benjamin when he was young and he related it to this cartoon, which was quite similar. There are many situations with white people, and you look at a cartoon and the face is quite similar to your face.”

“Bernardo is one of the most lovely people I ever met in my life. An exceptional person. A guy who can speak five languages. It’s because he’s open-minded – nothing about the colour of the skin, nationalities or whatever. One of his best friends is Mendy. He’s like a brother for him. They are joking all the time.”

Let’s try and follow through the thread of logic, such as it is. What Guardiola appears to be arguing here is that Bernardo speaks five languages, is a lovely bloke, and one of his best friends is black, and so what he tweeted can’t possibly be racist. And besides, it’s just the same for white people! If Bernardo’s tweet could be explained away as pure, forgivable ignorance – which is why a quiet word and a couple of hours of diversity training would be infinitely preferable to a multi-game ban – then Guardiola’s intervention was, in its own way, far more worrying.

Because implicit in Guardiola’s defence of Bernardo was the sort of ex-hominem reasoning so prevalent in apologias of racist behaviour: the intentional and disingenuous conflation of a racist act with “being a racist”. The former is quite clearly defined by the 1999 Macpherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, which clearly asserts that racism can be perpetrated unwittingly, indeed entirely innocently, and often under the guise of well-meaning humour. A “racist incident”, Lord Macpherson writes, is “any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person”.

It is the last four words of that sentence that are operative here. It doesn’t really matter if you don’t find Bernardo’s tweet offensive. The fact is that plenty did, and even if we grant a certain degree of anti-City opportunism in the backlash, this isn’t so much a question of virtues and morals as one of basic courtesy. Even if you’re not personally affronted, why invalidate the experience of those who were? Why not be delicate? Why not tread with just a little caution?

Manchester City midfielder Bernardo Silva (Getty)

But then, we live in febrile and callous times, where the hurt of others is at best acceptable collateral damage, and at worst a cynical ploy. And so we end up in a thicket of wilful obfuscations, constructive ambiguities and false equivalences. We end up disappearing down the rabbit hole of whether Bernardo is “a racist”, a term that has no fixed definition, and thus can be endlessly argued and endlessly denied. We are told that wasting time on frivolities like this hurts the fight against “real racism”, which for some reason can only be defined by white people.

And of course, this being City and this being Guardiola, everything gets rolled into a wider snowball of grievance, the ardent belief of many City fans that they are uniquely reviled within the English game, and by the media in general. The truth is that clubs have been downplaying racism for their own benefit for years, whether it was Liverpool disgracefully standing behind Luis Suarez over the Patrice Evra affair, or Alex Ferguson in the 1990s defending Peter Schmeichel’s alleged racist remarks to Ian Wright on the bizarre grounds that Manchester United had run coaching courses in the South African townships. Everyone likes to talk a good game on racism. But when it comes down to it, most people would rather win.

So perhaps Guardiola was simply sticking up for his guy. If so, it was poorly expressed, tactless and insensitive, a galaxy-brain defence of racist imagery on the grounds that the perpetrator happens to speak French. In that respect, it was of a piece with his assertion last year that “my kids go to school with different... Indian people, black people, normal people, from everywhere”. One expects this was simply a case of crossed wires in his third language. Either way, an explanation would be handy.

And whether intentional or not, his latest comments misrepresent the historical and fundamentally asymmetric nature of racism, propagating a number of long-standing myths. That racism can only ever be intentional. That being a really lovely guy is a valid defence against problematic behaviour. That if something isn’t a problem for white people, it shouldn’t be a problem for black people, either.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think Bernardo is a racist, whatever that means. I don’t think Guardiola is, either. But equally, I don’t think these sorts of judgements get us very far at all. As a society, we need to find a way of talking about race that avoids easy demonisation. As a sport, we need to address these issues in a way that transcends tribalism. And so as far as Guardiola is concerned, no stigmas. No labels. No shaming. No witch hunt, no cheap shots, no exemplary punishment. Just a polite request to reflect, and listen, and do better.

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