Let me begin by saying two things. First, I’m not really into sports. Second, my spouse, Kip, is a soccer aficianado, and because of that I sometimes learn about the inspiring things that can happen in the world of sports, one of which took place a couple weeks ago at a soccer match in Italy.
The game was being played by two Italian teams, and on the visiting team from Milan was a player, Kevin-Prince Boateng, who is a German-Ghanian. Whenever he got the ball, some of the fans in the stands would start making racist taunts. Finally, Boateng had had enough. He threw the ball into the stands at the hecklers, pulled off his jersey and walked off the field.
That alone would have made for an inspiring tale of personal courage, but it wasn’t the end of the story. Soon all his teammates followed him off the field, then the players on the home team did as well.
In a previous post, Hoodies, Menorahs and Rainbow Flags, I wrote more extensively about the power of nonviolent solidarity, and the event that took place in that Italian soccer stadium was one more example of how effective it is. Boateng’s teammates refused to play in the presence of racist behavior, even if the attacks weren’t directed at them personally. They took collective action rather than leaving Boateng to stand alone, and as a result they lent their support for a candid, public conversation about racist attitudes.
I firmly believe that when injustice is happening, we have more power than we sometimes realize. The game of oppression relies on people playing their assigned positions: perpetrators, victims and bystanders. Because the perpetrators and victims are often locked into intractable patterns of belief and behavior, the bystanders can make a huge difference if they’re willing to relinquish their safe neutrality. Once they determine that they’re no longer willing to stand by while others are targeted, they inevitably shift the dynamic and the outcome.
I’m looking forward to the day — and it will come — when it’s the white players who take the initiative, when as soon as anyone of color is taunted or dehumanized they pull off their own jerseys and walk off the field, because racism is a game in which we all lose, it’s a game none of us have to play, and it’s one we all have a role in stopping.