Monday Musing: Zidane and Racism

Asad Raza has written an excellent commentary here at 3QD today on the Zidane headbutt incident at the World Cup final, and I just want to add my two cents now. We still don’t know exactly what Marco Materazzi said (and did) to Zidane to make him lose his trademark cool, but out of the cloud of rife speculation two candidates materialize repeatedly: that either Materazzi must have hurled racist slurs at Zidane, or that Materazzi insulted Zidane’s family. Before I examine these two possibilities, let me say something about what I do not believe happened.

It is not possible, in my opinion, that Zidane deliberately chose a moment when the referee was busy elsewhere to headbutt Materazzi, believing that the attack would not be noticed. It is absolutely obvious to me from having repeatedly watched the video that Zidane’s actions were the result of sudden rage, which, as I can well remember from my own hot-tempered youth, always takes a few seconds to swell after the moment of provocation. Zidane could not possibly have looked around to make sure all the officials were busy, and if he were calculating so clearly, he would have known that a stadium full of people (not to mention the billion plus around the world) were watching, and he would have remembered what was at stake. No, that was clearly a moment of uncontrollable anger, the kind when the blood rushes to your head, you feel a kind of heat, your face turns red and throbs, and then you lash out. There is nothing you can do about that kind of mental storm. It is a moment of temporary insanity, not something subject to choice. And it is clear, at least to me, from the video that Zidane tried to trot away as the anger rose, but lost control and turned around…

As for Materazzi insulting Zidane’s mother (and all the possible variations on this theme), it is very unlikely that something like that could or would inflame Zidane. The reasons are twofold: first, these kinds of insults have become so common in everyday discourse that they have lost all their teeth. It is now possible to address a close friend as “Yo, Mofo…” But second, and more important, for an insult to really injure its victim there must be an asymmetry preventing the person from just yelling the insult back. It is then, when the person insulted feels he cannot reply, that he replies physically. And this is exactly what racist insults do. If a white man yells the N-word at a black man, there is no equivalent word that the black man can yell back. By using this word, the white man is essentially taunting the black man by reminding him of the abuse that he, his ancestors, his whole race have have to endure at the white man’s hand, and how he is impotent to stop it. It is like someone taunting you that he raped your mother, and you knowing that it’s true! History denies the black man the opportunity of responding in kind, and the only choice left may seem to be to demonstrate that one is not so impotent after all, that one can hit back. This, that it relies on a history of oppression and injury, and on asymmetrical relations of power, is what is so insidious about racial insult, and why we are so careful to avoid its double-injustice in decent society.

Racism is prevalent in Europe. England has its Paky-bashers and the Germans their hateful skinheads. The Italians are routinely prejudiced against their own darker southern citizens. And Spaniards, to their shame, have recently brought racism explicitly to football. This is from Wikipedia:

Luis Aragonés became Spain’s coach in 2004. During a training session with the national team, a Spanish TV crew caught Aragonés motivating Henry’s Arsenal teammate José Antonio Reyes in a strange way (“Give him the ball, and then show that black little shit that you are better than him.”) The incident caused an uproar in the British media with calls for Aragonés to be sacked. When Spain played England in a friendly match at the Bernabéu later that year, the crowd was hostile. Whenever black English players touched the ball, large segments of the Spanish crowd began to make “monkey chants.” The Spanish football federation — the RFEF — eventually fined the coach €3,000.

When I visited France about ten years ago, the helpful guidebook to Paris I had bought pointed out that “If you look like you might be an Arab, expect some hostility on the streets of Paris.” Naturally, this made me a little nervous, and in a ludicrous attempt at not looking Arab (which I am not, but I am brown and Muslim), I went around everywhere wearing a necktie! I can only try to imagine what a lifetime of dealing with racial insults and very real prejudice must do to a person’s spirit. Given the history of what France did in Algeria, is it so shocking that a person of Algerian descent would be sensitive to racial taunting?

As I write this, some reports are already filtering in that indeed Materazzi racially assaulted Zidane. Frankly, nothing else makes sense. If Materazzi had insulted Zidane’s family, Zidane could have replied in kind; but if he attacked Zidane racially, then Materazzi got what he deserved, and should be punished further. Am I excusing Zidane? If he was racially insulted, yes I am. Zidane could not help himself under the circumstances. I would excuse Zidane for the same reason that a prosecutor will, under certain circumstances, decline to bring charges against a man who comes home to find his wife in bed with her lover and, in a moment of temporary insanity, kills him. In this, there is an acknowledgment that there is not always a right and wrong in everything. Sometimes, a man loses rationality. That is just human nature. Deal with it. (Or hate all men.)

And as Western nations continue to dominate and oppress the third world by economic as well as military means and the cynical manipulation of governments, as they continue to wreak havoc on the environment, as the injustices of extreme inequality in the distributions of wealth continue to grow, it is to be expected that some will be driven to irrational anger, and will break the rules. And hit back. You can’t just show everyone a red card.

Lindsay Beyerstein has a great critical response to my argument here.

Have a good week!  My other Monday Musing columns can be seen here.