On Chris Hughton and being the only black guy (or girl) in the room.

4 weeks ago Ricardo Hylton 0

Anyone that says that they “don’t see color” is lying. If you say that or have said that…stop saying it. You do.

Let’s play a game. Try placing one color of M&Ms in a bowl (say yellow ones). Now place one M&M of a different color in the same bowl. Shake them up and I dare you NOT to see the different one first. That doesn’t make you racist. It makes you aware and that is okay.

Now put yourself in the position of “the different M&M”. You become fully aware that when people see you, they see that you are different first before really “seeing you”.

That is what it is like as the only person of color in the room.

 

So You heard the latest Coldplay?

Every black person knows the struggle of being the only black guy or girl in the room. Yes you know the feeling. For example, the severe bugging of their eyes when you say you’re ambivalent or even worse, couldn’t care less about the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Elvis or f****ing Coldplay.

Then the music changes and hip-hop or r&b comes on and you’re expected to know all the words, even though your knowledge of most music is pretty passive. Things are brought to you or you stumble on stuff. But when Jay-Z comes on at the office party, white people sort of eye you expectantly. It’s usually here that you mysteriously have to use the bathroom. And you feel nervous about karaoke invites because someone inevitably does a rap song that will have you holding your breath. Or,

You’re black and at work or around white friends and they make a ‘joke’ that let’s just diplomatically say would be inauspicious around black people they don’t know, but they think its cool because you know “they are not that sort of people.” Right!

Or being the only black woman in the office, you turn up with a different hairstyle and the entire office loses its mind: did it shrink, do you wash it, can you wash it, is that how your ancestors wore it, etc. Plus there’s that awkward moment when white co-workers are at the water cooler, laughing about something, then get suspiciously quiet when you walk up.

It doesn’t even have to be about black people necessarily, but bringing up race as the only black person in the room can exasperate white folks. “Here we go again,” their body language seems to say. If it’s in the workplace, it can be a tense moment. Do you call your colleagues out or even your boss and put yourself at risk? You are always nervous about asserting yourself because it’s interpreted as being too “loud” or “arrogant” or “aggressive” or “angry”, no matter what you say.

Which brings me quite neatly to Chris Hughton who has joined the class of Premier League managers for the 2017/18 season. In the class photo, he would be the chocolate colored M&M in the aforementioned bowl. The outcast etched on to the edges of the family photo; the lone black kid in a white college Photoshopped onto the brochure. Just what is Chris Hughton going through?

 

Why is Chris Hughton the only black guy in the room?

We already detailed how in a more general sense, football and sports being a reflection of society, that prejudice in it various guises also affects the propensity of owners hiring black managers. Chris Hughton is a kind, generous, warm and thoroughly decent man. It did not prevent him turning into a fine footballer and it is not stopping him becoming the most under-rated manager in the country [underemployment being a particular disease amongst the black populace]. The last two seasons as he tore through the Championship with his inspired management, you did not see Hughton’s name linked with Premier League jobs. He was ignored by Sunderland when they replaced Sam Allardyce, shunned by Crystal Palace when they sacked Alan Pardew and was not on Swansea’s shortlist. It is the plight of the black football manager; the plight of the striving black woman and man.

After 27 years at Tottenham Hotspur as a player and a coach, Hughton has blossomed away from White Hart Lane. The same traits that made him such a popular number two have also served him well as a manager. Few have been able to make that transition.

It will be something he instinctively dismisses, but at the age of 58, why isn’t he considered a future England candidate. If Steve Bruce, Eddie Howe and Sean Dyche are described as such, then why should Hughton be ignored? Why has he been ignored? He is British afterall, right Merse?

 

A fly in Buttermilk

I have been thinking about this issue a lot lately. In every position I’ve held, I’ve never felt particularly valued for my qualifications, and yet somewhat prized for being black in a sea of whiteness. I’ve sometimes felt like what James Baldwin once described as the fly in the buttermilk. Token and expendable. I am constantly aware of my loneness, of how I am being treated, of how I am treating others and how I am perceived. Is this what Chris Hughton is feeling in those football manager gatherings?

What does he feel when he looks across at the ghosts of managers past and see the likes of Ian Dowie and Malky Mackay and Ian Holloway and Stuart Pearce and Neil Warnock. These underperforming managers that kept getting work. I wonder if it’s the way they place the little white golf ball on a tee or how their plum bellies extended in a crochet pants. Or was it just the way the ruddy cheeked white “old boy” network works?

Former England striker Les Ferdinand remarked how, in a recent conversation, a football club chairman told him he had never considered employing a black manager.

There has been a black presence in British football since the beginning of the professional era, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that black players entered the game in significant numbers. At that time there were few black referees, few black coaches, few (if any) black people in the boardroom, few black administrators, few black faces on the terraces, and black players were habitually subject to vitriolic racist abuse.

Four decades on, there are still few black referees, few black coaches, few black people in the boardroom, few black administrators and few black faces on the terraces. While the increasingly financially-driven nature of the professional game has seen a corresponding merit-based rise in the number of black players – and banana throwing and racist chants are now unacceptable at English grounds – the lack of black faces in senior administrative positions reveals that in 40 years “we” simply haven’t made as much progress as some would like to think.

There are many others like Chris Hughton, white-collar and blue-collar workers who are single-handedly diversifying workplaces and classrooms. The lone black receptionist at the law firm; the only black chief executive officer; the black teacher at a predominantly white school; the black school administrator; the solitary black surgeon. And I can confirm it’s a tough old slog.

Within football, the behavior of the players themselves has not moved on much since the 80s, as a picture of black and white England Under 21 players lunching at separate tables, and also forming separate groups in the swimming pool and on the exercise bikes.

Back then Garth Crooks, who suffered horrendous racist abuse as a player, was asked by a fellow Tottenham team mate at a social gathering: “Why do you blacks always stick together?” To which Crooks responded: “Why do you whites always stick together? I always see Bryan Robson alongside Ray Wilkins not next to Viv Anderson or John Barnes?”

 

Baby You The Only One

I know several black women who are also “Only Ones” in workplaces taking baby steps toward diversification. I discovered that being the “Only One” is a balancing act that takes practice. Being an “Only One” leaves you without a witness if anything racist happens. Back in the day, being an “Only One” was more likely to get you strung up on a tree branch, or at least framed. These days, being an “Only One” may be considered a diversity success.

But it leaves “Only Ones” like Chris Hughton with a challenge: We must integrate without compromising ourselves or our beliefs. We must retain our cultural selves and run the risk of scaring the white folks we work with and for (Ala Black-ish).

Donald Trump once described ABC’s family sitcom Black-ish as “the height of racism” in a 2014 tweet. The award winning show isn’t an issues led series, but has never shied away from politics when the time is right. It won plaudits in 2016 for an episode in which the different generations of the central family discussed police brutality and Black Lives Matter. Another classic episode was based around political discourse, specifically the public reaction to Donald Trump’s election.

In the clip below you can see the show’s central character Dre (Anthony Anderson) at work as his colleagues discuss Donald Trump’s victory in the election. His work mates are mainly pro-Hillary Clinton and struggle to work out how Trump won. Dre remains silent throughout the debate until his boss asks him, “Why do you not care about what’s happening to our country?”

 

Dre then launches into a monologue about his feelings, which is cut with historical footage depicting racial segregation and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” It ends with him saying, “I’m used to things not going my way. I’m sorry that you’re not and it’s blowing your mind, so excuse me if I get a little offended because I didn’t see all of this outrage when everything was happening to all of my people since we were stuffed on boats in chains. I love this country. As much if not more than you do. And don’t you ever forget that.”

We must constantly filter our experiences, screening for racism in each moment, while still being a team player. We must be able to culturally navigate both worlds, working side-by-side with folks who are only vested in their own white world. We must teach tolerance or suffer being misunderstood. We must put up with ignorant comments, always picking our battles. We must reach out to other people of color for reality checks. We must prove that we are more than a dark body the white company brings in to sit behind a desk. And we must perform twice as well as our peers and look twice as good doing it.

Always with a smile and always with flair. No exceptions. Ask Chris.

I’m used to being the Only One, so at this point in my professional life it’s almost second nature. Still, it often leaves me feeling numb, defeated. I go home at times exhausted from the effort. I feel cheated out of being who I am in my workplace, where I spend nearly half my waking life. Other “Only Ones” experience being “Only Ones” a little differently.

 

A Lonely Furrow

Hughton confronts these important issues with a social conscience that is often missing from English football. The “incredible imbalance” has long been, as Hughton says, “between those of ethnic backgrounds playing football, often at very good clubs, having good careers, being captains of their teams, and an absence in senior management. There have been some changes and it has been encouraging at academy and grassroots level – but still not at the top level. The game has a responsibility to redress the balance.”

 

The Lie of The Exceptional Obama

Hughton looks up. There is no bitterness in his voice but that stark sentence echoes a bare statistic. Only two out of 92 managers in English league football are not white men. 25% percent of players in English football’s four divisions are from a black, Asian and minority ethnic background – but no worthy acronym is pinned to the fact that over 97% of managers are white. It makes Hughton, an astute and calm manager, seem exceptional. But is he really?

Was Mr. Obama the only black man capable of being president? Absolutely not! (AND WE LOVE BARACK) Were the Williams Sisters and Tiger Woods the first black people capable of holding a racket or swinging a golf club? Was Jackie Robinson the first black baseball player capable of excelling in the major leagues? Of course not. Life is about opportunities and this has been denied to black people for generations. In the age of ‘diversity’ targets and guilt-ridden affirmative action quotas, there are black and Asian people littered here and there.

 

Corporate Racism replaced the racism on the terraces

Chris Hughton once said, “I was brought up in a football environment where we saw a lot of racism – whether it was abuse from other players or huge groups of supporters in away matches. I remember going to stadiums and huge sections of the stand gave you racial abuse. It was never nice but it wasn’t a surprise – particularly when I was first at Spurs. I was the only black player in the team followed by Garth Crooks [three years later]. You were used to it if somebody made a racial comment to you on the pitch. I wouldn’t say you accepted it, but you had to get on with it.

“It was in society too. There were some places where you didn’t feel comfortable because of racial overtones. Those were also the days where the perception of black players was that, ‘they can play on the wing, and they’re really quick, but they’re not captaincy or organisation material. Even now it’s about getting away from that myth to the exact opposite.”

Mr Hughton is more diplomatic than the invisible aliens. Without black leadership in the boardroom, black managers are not being interviewed for Premier League roles and a more subtle corporate racism has replaced the terrace abuse that once blighted football. The sad result is, for now Chris, you remain the only one.