It is often preached and seldom practised – principle of empathy. The principle is not supposed to be easy yet social cohesion demands it as does fairness and fraternal ties.
In 2006, a former soccer player in the UK turned down the offer of a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE), much to the confusion of many.
His reason? He did it for black slaves.
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The government had recognised the work of Howard Gayle, a man leveraging his understanding of soccer and the experiences of being a black man in the UK to fight against racism in the game.
The anti-racism charity with which he worked, Show Racism The Red Card, was a huge success in the early 2000s with its partnerships with grassroots sports academies as well as professional clubs.
Gayle and others in the charity also sold their ideas to England’s soccer governing body among other sports bodies. From all indications, Gayle seemed like a man deserving of plaudits.
But when he turned down the offer, his reason was philosophical. He said accepting an MBE would be “a betrayal to all of the Africans who have lost their lives, or who have suffered as a result of Empire.”
The problem was not that he was ungrateful or did not feel deserving of praise. Rather, he was not content with an award authored by the very power that subjugated his ancestors.
The irony of the episode for Gyale was that his honour was in celebration of his fight against a phenomenon literally dreamed up and supported by the said power.
He felt a need to empathise with those who had gone before him even when his patriotism was being challenged by some in the media.
Gayle wrote in The Guardian at the time: “I am British, I was born here and my children were born here. There is no argument to be had about my patriotism. But the empire is something that oppressed black people.”
This was a man whose conscience was speaking quite loudly. And it is conscience created by his own story.
When Gayle started out in 1977 at Liverpool, English football had very few black people it was possible to keep the names of all of them in one’s head. In fact, he is the first black man to have played for the famous English side.
This did not help matters for Gayle and these other men, although it’s not as if more black people would mean less racism. The problem is institutional and Gayle understood.
He noted: “As I see it, this is about the past, but also about the present, because I don’t think there has ever been any recognition of what was done in Britain’s past. The education system told me nothing but lies about Africa. Just the other day I saw a documentary about the fact that so many British families that got rich on the back of the slave trade received compensation when Britain’s involvement ended.”
Gayle felt the imperative could not be ignored if one was set upon fighting racism. But he was not going to force other black people to join him because they would have to convince themselves that it is a fight they are ready for.
Today, Gayle still fights racism in football as he has done for about two decades. One victory at a time when a person is confronted with the truth of the triviality of skin colour to our common humanity.