I don’t even remember doing that,” John Barnes says when, near the end of a 90-minute conversation about the deep roots and bruising reality of racism, I ask him about the moment he used his right boot, with deft and contemptuous skill, to flick a banana off the pitch in a Merseyside derby in 1988. That image of Barnes brushing aside a miserable racial insult is one of the most famous in the history of English football. It features in a splash of Liverpool red on the back cover of his new book, The Uncomfortable Truth about Racism, as well as in more sombre black-and-white on the inside pages.
Barnes moves far deeper than that snapshot of racism in football to discuss slavery, colonialism and how race remains such a problematic issue at the heart of contemporary society. He does not even mention the incident in the book and now, back in Liverpool, he explains why it was remembered by so many people who had not lived his life.
“Do you know why? Because it was Liverpool versus Everton in 1988. I had been playing [professional] football in England since 1981 when bananas were thrown on the field every day. I played for Watford against Millwall and West Ham when the same thing happened but those were not high-profile games so the press weren’t paying attention. But Liverpool against Everton made it, all of a sudden, big news.”
Sign up to The Recap, our weekly email of editors’ picks.
Rather than being a transformative moment, the way in which Barnes back-heeled a banana off the pitch was his routine response to a depressingly familiar occurrence. But Barnes himself, a brilliant footballer who is now an admirably thoughtful man willing to ask searching questions about race and society, was never depressed by the absurd prejudice of the banana-throwers.
“As much as people may focus on that moment as something unique or iconic, it wasn’t. Cyrille Regis [the striker who played for West Brom and other clubs from 1977 to 1996] said he could open a greengrocers with all the bananas that came on the field. It really meant nothing to me at all.”
When he was 20, in 1984, Barnes scored one of England’s greatest goals when he lit up the Maracanã by slaloming though the Brazil defence before he stroked the ball into the net. Barnes mentions that game when I ask him if he can pinpoint the worst moment of racial abuse in his career. “It wasn’t the worst because I was laughing at this idiot on the way to Brazil, but it might show an interesting insight. Some National Front supporters were on the plane with us when we flew to Rio. One of them was sitting just behind us because we were on a commercial flight. We didn’t even fly business class those days. These supporters were funded by the NF to follow England. We would see the National Front flag draped over their seats in the Maracanã. We had all the football journalists on the plane and no one said a word.
“Fast-forward 10 years and suddenly anti-racism programmes are starting and those same people who said nothing in 1984 are shouting from the rooftops. It’s the same today. There is lots of talk whenever there is ‘a racial incident’ but nothing really changes. Have you seen on Sky Sports that every time Gary Neville comes on in an [anti-racism advert] he says: ‘I’m in [the fight against racism].’ For the next six days we’re going to be in until the next big football match. But what about next month and next year? Nothing happens until the next incident when they go: ‘This is terrible. We must do something.’”
Barnes has written a book which reiterates that racism is embedded in society rather than just football. For the 57-year-old Barnes the insidious influence of colonialism, which so degraded black people around the world, persists. He also argues that class is just as divisive as race.
John Barnes: ‘I was seen as the voice of reason on race. I haven’t changed’
“The only way to destroy racism is to destroy capitalism,” Barnes writes. At the same time he is too much of a pragmatist to suggest some idealised socialist state will suddenly emerge. Barnes, instead, finds hope in the aim we can still be educated about the way we all carry ingrained prejudice – whether in terms of racism, sexism or issues of class, gender and religion.
“We need to talk about it educationally,” he says. “When we talk about indoctrination over a long period of time you cannot then say, all of a sudden, ‘Oh, I’m cured of my bias.’”
Barnes’s urgency in talking about race was intensified after the Sewell Report was published in March. This study by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities came as a blow because, for Barnes, “the little gains made in the last 10 years could disappear now that the official government verdict is: ’Nothing to see here regarding racial inequalities due to systematic or institutional bias.’” He looks briefly deflated. “Lots of people think I prefer the old days because at least I know who is racist. I know who I can and can’t get a job from.”
In the bad old days, on the plane to Rio, would he have said anything to the National Front supporter? “No. I don’t even engage with people like that because face-to-face he would have been different. I’ve been to football matches where they’re shouting racial abuse and you go up to them. They say: ‘Oh, no, Barnesy, I was only joking.’ It’s the same today with [racist] people on Twitter. If I said ‘Fuck off!’ they’d abuse me. If I just go, ‘Ha ha, don’t worry about it, mate’ they’ll say: ‘Barnesy, you’re all right, mate, you’re great.’”
Barnes explains that even white people he likes have shown their innate racial bias. “They’ve said ‘I don’t see you as black’ or ‘I see you as normal’ as if that is a compliment. They can’t say: ‘I see you as a black person’ because in their minds, subconsciously, that equates to them seeing me as inferior. Why can’t they see me as black and normal? Why can’t they see me as the same as them or, maybe in some cases, even superior?”
He points out that while outraged attention is paid to verbal racism, the damage caused is less than that done by the silent pillars of prejudice within society. “You can’t see or prove this racism. To black people it’s happening every single day of their lives. There are invisible banana skins and unspoken words which are much more damaging.”
Barnes does not believe that wearing a Kick It Out shirt will change anything – in the same way that the idea of a football team walking off the pitch would not rip out racism rooted in society. “A bus driver does not have the option of walking off the bus and saying: ‘I’m not putting up with this’. They would be out of work and find that nobody cares about them.”