I enjoyed reading Orla Chennaoui's recent article for Metro on 15th July. She brings attention again to the dominance of whiteness in the 2021 Tour de France peloton and in relation to events of last week in the Football world. Three individual kicks of a football in the right place in the European football championships 2020 final between England and Italy could have seen three black British men exalted as untouchable national heroes for rest of their lives. The incredible racist backlash after their failures to kick a football past the goalkeeper and between goalposts was for me not unexpected. Black people messing with the white man's narrative. How dare they? The epochal white supremacist racist chant “There ain’t no black in the Union Jack!” - a statement of belief embedded in some racist English and British mindsets reared its ugly head and took action. Nothing has changed.
My clear realisation of racist hate directed at the black professional footballer was a critical incident when I watched an England football match on the television. It was a home match at Wembley Stadium. John Barnes was the sole black player on the England team. I remember vividly how every time the ball came to him during the match the dominant majority England crowd booed his every touch. That gross amount of angst and open hate directed at a black man who was only trying to do his best in representing his nation left me with a feeling of great anger.
When watching on television an earlier stage of the 2021 Tour de France, a family member commented: "I see that the black rider from last year is doing well again this year". I chuckled a bit, then of course, explained that Kévin Reza had retired from the sport and it was Nicholas Dlamini who was racing. But how many once-a-year in July cycling viewers would also have been thinking in the same way as my family member? The media narrative that we have been given about Nicholas Dlamini taking part in the Tour de France is one of 'historical revolutionary change'. "The first" black South African to ride in the race. A role model for Black people living in the impoverished townships of South Africa. Communications on how they can also become like Nicholas, by striving to reach heaven, in Europe where all that glitters is gold. Hang on! Apartheid in South Africa ended over 30 years ago, after many great struggles led by black people in their emancipation. Since then, only white South Africans and white people from the African region have been afforded the privilege to compete in the race and even win it. This notion of 'the first' black man/black women is imposed upon the public for fitting the white narrative-history of the sport, as if ethnic representation of black people in the event is now advancing. Well it clearly is not. The announcement of Reza's retirement coincided with the announcement Dlamini's participation. Black face was swapped for black face. Stop the fooling. Black riders are invited and represented as guest actors in the Tour de France world.
My research work stemmed from an interest to know why I hadn’t seen black cyclists representing Great Britain on the road or in Track Cycling at the World Championships or at the Olympic Games. My interest in advancing this research also came from seeing the growing popular interest in cycling following medal successes in Athens 2004; the boom of this interest following London 2012; and particularly the media and commercial representation of British cycling heroes through recognisable symbolic representations of Britain’s golden age of Empire; traditionalism and popular culture all associated with white British ethnic nationalism.
The book Desire Discrimination Determination Black Champions in Cycling is an autoethnography and is published on 17th August by Rapha. I see my experiences that I speak of about John Barnes and the hostilities he faced when playing for England and the experiences of racial backlash given to the three black England footballers who missed their penalties in the Euro 2020 mirroring those of many black British cyclists who have aimed to represent their nation to their greatest ability at the highest level. See the chapters 'Show us your teeth' and 'It wasn't going to happen' for clear examples.
British Cycling made contact with me in December 2018 in the midst of my leading public engagement through anti-racism research work - the exhibitions entitled ‘Made in Britain: Uncovering the Life Histories of Black British Champions in Cycling’. I remember British Cycling saying to me they had always wanted to do something about diversity and inclusion, but did not know what to do, and thank you for beginning this public discussion for us. How can we help you? How can you help us? For me it was simple, let's work together to give greater attention and celebration to non-white cyclists, and particularly to those who have elevated themselves, and graced the national and international scenes of road and track cycling. We need to give these cyclists voice and presence. We need to understand better the experiences from non-white cyclists; through their direct voices; and be cautious of second-hand white authored translations.
On Friday 9th July 2021 British Cycling published their 'landmark' Diversity and Inclusion strategy #Our Ride, and I applauded this. In fact, my name is given in their press release and on their webpage as contributing to the birth of the strategy. The language of transformation given by #Our Ride is a bold manifesto for how a nation of cyclists from a broader national perspective can represented and celebrated.
Still, in considering #Our Ride it seems that underepresented groups in cycling are being lumped together. Both anti-racism and LGBT+ rights are tackling discrimination. But there are distinct difference of experiences and world views between the groups of people of protected characteristics. There may be some criticism for combining the two together in one strategy, rather than aiming to tackle issues individually, and in starting in-depth from a historical basis of knowledge i.e. using the past to understand the present for future approaches to policy and practice. Therefore, for the sceptics, the #Our Ride strategy may be seen as being a gestural-superficial strategy – a knee jerk reaction by the national body for them to be viewed as in tune with recent and current LGBT+ and anti-racist discourses resonating in our daily lives.
However, for optimists, the #Our Ride strategy would be considered as a radical-revolutionary discourse; a forward thinking laying out of how a national sports body wants to transform itself in reaching out and being seen as supportive and attractive to people of multiple ethnic identities and sexualities.
All in all, the responsibility of care, safeguarding and delivering of the #Our Ride strategy lays with the British Cycling Board of Directors, but perhaps more so with our national cycling community. However, the micro-cultures and spaces of this national cycling community are cliquey and come with territorial tribal boundaries. Groups of people segregating by ethnic and gender identities in cycling will always happen. In fact, segregation in cycling by distinctive ethnic, gender and religious identities are being endorsed as inclusive and for greater participation in the sport. Is this truly integration? A paradoxical sense of diversity and inclusion in the sport appears as being manifested.
What is the future-history of the communication given by the #Our Ride strategy? Time will tell. The strength of this all depends on who is looking after the strategy, and how far the aims of the strategy are fed through the British Cycling system, or not.