It was at the League One play-off final on Sunday when I experienced it for myself. We were getting ready for the game, going through the now familiar pre-match ritual of players taking the knee, when there was a roar across Wembley. A section of the crowd, not nearly half but much more than an isolated pocket, were booing as hard as they could. After seconds of shock I started to clap, as did a number of other people. It was the only thing I could think to do to drown out the noise, but it was too late.
The booing had happened before, at the FA Cup final and at the final matches of the Premier League season. It happened again on Wednesday night, when England played Austria at the Riverside. The expectation must now be that it will continue. The booing is not shy and not half-hearted, it is a clear and vocal protest, and it signifies an important moment.
That would be: an important moment for white people. On the one hand you have people booing a symbolic call for racial justice. I don’t have the precise figures, but I’d say these boo-ers were white. On the other hand you also have a lot of other white people, me included, who will hear this noise and be shocked. They’ll be shocked because they want to believe England isn’t a country where people are fine with holding racist values. They can largely get away with thinking like that because it hasn’t been made explicit at volume by thousands of people at a time.
Black people or Asian people or people of other minority ethnicities might be inclined towards a wry chuckle at such a confession. Racism is not hidden from people of colour. It has been hidden by and from white people though. What the booing of the taking of the knee does is make it very clear to everyone that some white people in England are against anti-racism. That’s a racist view, and it is time for those who consider themselves anti-racist to make their feelings heard just as loudly.
Now a quick cursory detour to the cover story that some people (on Twitter, most likely) will argue: that this booing is somehow a political protest; that it’s not about attacking anti-racism but some failed attempt at a political party. For the record: Black Lives Matter was blocked by the Electoral Commission from registering as a party because it was “likely to mislead voters” into thinking it was allied to the Black Lives Matter movement, which it was not.
Taking the knee, meanwhile, is not related to this non-existent party either. This point has been made clear, painfully at times, by everyone from the players to the head of the Premier League and, on Wednesday, by Gareth Southgate too. It’s a duff fig leaf and if you’re the sort of person who wants to hide behind it then I’ve got a self-harming deal with the UK’s biggest trading partner I’d like to sell you.
Wilfried Zaha doesn’t take the knee. His reasoning for doing so is because he feels it’s not enough of an anti-racist action. And this is where white people come in. Anti-racism, even for those sympathetic to the cause, has become something comfortingly passive. It’s conducting a quick mental inventory where you run through the opinions you hold and decide: yeah, I’m not a racist. Campaigners are clear, however: this is not enough. To be anti-racist is to act against it, to speak up when it happens in your home, your pub, your office and your country.
Such has been the nature of white racism until recently that it tended to be something that was said quietly, among sympathetic audiences. Now, we see that people no longer feel the need to stay quiet. They will be loud in their racist beliefs. This is the time to respond. If you are at a football match and players take the knee, you need to cheer as loudly as you can.