‘Virtue signalling or a sign of change’: how taking a knee can unite both sides of the race debate

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Black Lives Matter protests have, throughout the last year, been both a polarising force and a physical symbol of the systemic racism still painfully prevalent in our society. The action of taking a knee, begun by NFL player Colin Kaepernick, has travelled across the Atlantic and into British sport. Professional footballers, from those in the Premier League right down to League 2, kneel before matches in solidarity with BAME people, showing their support for ending racist abuse within both football and wider society. 

In recent weeks, however, BAME footballers have opposed taking a knee. Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha sees pre-match kneeling as merely virtue signalling, saying that: “Unless action is going to happen I don’t want to hear about it”. This has been echoed across the footballing community, with Brentford and Derby County both refusing to take a knee as it “no longer” has an impact. Former Spurs and England international, Les Ferdinand, added to this, saying that taking a knee represented nothing more than “a fancy hashtag”. 

This apparent denouncement of BLM will come as welcome news to the hordes of fans who believe politics does not have a place in sport. Before Covid-19 removed crowds from stadia, the booing of players who took a knee occurred both in the Premier League and in the EFL. From Exeter to Millwall, Chelsea to Cambridge, fans have vocally taken against shows of solidarity that seek to better the inclusivity of football for spectators and players alike. 

Football crowds have always been a microcosm for middle-English opinion. The debate around taking a knee in football is therefore representative of the debate about racism within society. Just as racism persists in football, it persists in Britain, with race-motivated hate crime having increased year on year in the UK since 2012.  Unsurprisingly, therefore, racist rhetoric exists not just within football, but can be found at national level both in government and in the press. 

Racist rhetoric exists not just within football, but can be found at national level both in government and in the press

In February 2021, Jacob Rees-Mogg criticised London Mayor Sadiq Khan for allowing “loony leftwing wheezes” to persist in the capital, following the creation of a commission to improve diversity in London’s public areas. This article is not meant as an attack on the government, but the danger of the above comments cannot go unnoticed. 

The fact that he believes equality to be a left-wing ideal is, frankly, disgusting. His language makes prejudice a viable political position instead of a deplorable act of abuse, something that carries over into the media. The consistent racial abuse of Meghan Markle in British tabloids, alongside the wrongful labelling of BLM as a “Marxist” organisation, highlights how far Britain is from becoming a racially equal state.  

This high-profile racism is hardly a new revelation or even remotely surprising. We are led by a Prime Minister who called black people “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”. A Prime Minister who cared more about the welfare of a statue than about the murder of George Floyd. A Prime Minister that has failed to deliver justice for the predominantly BAME victims of Grenfell Tower, and has previously declared Islam to be a “problem”.  The government sets the tone for the rest of the country. And as long as they peddle a racist line, the nation cannot progress, no matter the majority opinion on taking a knee.

We are therefore in a situation that many are choosing to see as an impasse. One side believes taking a knee to be merely virtue signalling, an action which is being used to delay the implementation of meaningful change. The other side, coming predominantly from a place of prejudice, believes racism to be a non-issue and therefore does not see the need to even discuss the possibility that Britain is inherently racist. 

If you want rid of social justice movements, you have to support social justice

I tend to agree with Zaha and others. Taking a knee acknowledges an issue without actually doing anything about it. However, I worry that without the physical symbol of support for anti-racism, calls for change will fade just as they have throughout history. 

So what is the right answer? It strikes me that there is a very easy solution. 

If you want rid of social justice movements, you have to support social justice. You have to make these campaigns obsolete. Black Lives Matter exist because we are not an equal society and will continue to exist until we are one. 

Black lives matter. Fact. And whether you take a knee or take offence at those that do, it is a fact that is not going to change.  

Image: Clay Banks via Unsplash

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