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Pepe Reina’s “racist” blunder: a question of black and white?

The withdrawal of a controversial recent TV advert featuring the Liverpool soccer player apparently highlighted differences between how racism is seen in Spain and Britain. But where does a bit of fun end and racism start?


Harmless fun or something more sinister? Pepe Reina in the offending ad.

Liverpool FC recently found themselves embroiled in a racism controversy for the second time in the last few months. Their goalie, Spanish national squad player Pepe Reina, came under fire from British anti-racism group Operation Black Vote for starring in a TV ad which they deemed to be racially offensive.

The advert – for insurance company Groupama – depicts Reina meeting with the “king” of an African tribe who decides to take the goalie for his “queen”, a joke on his surname. Following complaints lodged by OBV, the campaign was pulled from Spanish television.

Unfortunately for Reina and Liverpool, the ad in question came right on the tail of huge controversy caused by their Uruguayan footballer Luis Suarez’s ‘negrito’ outburstto black Manchester United player Patrice Evra during a heated exchange. In that case the FA argued that, however Suarez may have intended it, such language had no place in British football.

Understandably, the Association was talking from within the context of English football where it has fought long and hard to eradicate racism from both the pitch and the stands.

The Reina case, meanwhile, is a less straightforward issue and one that throws up a number of questions about both present-day Britain and contemporary Spain. It is debatably less to do with racism and more a matter of cultural inconsistencies.

Admittedly, the style of humour portrayed in the Groupama ad is one which, as OBV Director Simon Woolley argued, harks back to a bygone, less PC era: simplistic, facile and even naïve. But is that the same as racist?

In his criticism of the ad, Woolley, a black Briton, described it as “racist on so many levels”.

“How would the Spanish feel,” he added, “if the English stereotyped Spanish people as backward and stupid?”

Perhaps Mr Woolley has never seen Andrew Sachs’s popular portrayal of a Spanish waiter in classic UK comedy Fawlty Towers? Sachs’s ‘Manuel’ was at best, stereotypical, and at worst, backward. Yet rarely has the character been viewed as racist. Could this be because being a Spaniard in the UK has never been a race issue in the same way that being black or Asian has?

Mr Woolley accused the advert of being offensive to black people. Yet, as one reader of The Week commented, the ad “is not about black people, it is about a lost tribe in Africa.” Are the people portrayed in it any more representative of Mr Woolley than an eskimo is of a white European?

On holiday in Gambia a few years ago we learned that Gambians called whites “two-bob”, a reference to the amount for which white traders sold African slaves.

Although a sad reminder of a shameful period of history, it was generally said without resentment and, certainly in the case of children, in complete innocence. Incidentally, Gambians made little distinction between western whites and blacks; being “two-bob” was a matter of culture and comparative wealth rather than colour.

The case of Reina, meanwhile, is unusual given that it was a UK-based group that forced TV corporations in Spain to pull an ad not even aired on British screens. Presumably there was little outcry from within Spain. So does the concept of what is racist depend on cultural context?

Claiming the moral high ground

As Brits, our developed sense of political correctness is inextricably linked to our country’s particular history and experience of colonization and subsequent large-scale immigration; something through which the Spanish have not lived.

While there may be something to be said for countries with a long experience of immigration (like the UK, the States and Canada) acting as guiding lights for countries like Spain (where inward migration from such a diverse collection of countries and cultures is relatively new), are we not entering dangerous territory once we claim the moral high ground on questions of political correctness?

As a Brit living in Spain, I have often been struck and even offended by the lack of sensitivity towards ethnic minorities. Not least back in 2008 when the Spanish Olympic basketball team thought it was funny to make slitty eyes in imitation of the Chinese.

But I have also learned that my reactions are the result of my own cultural upbringing. Even the British sense of what is correct has evolved during my lifetime. What 35-year-old doesn’t remember a clapping game with the line ‘eyes like a Japanese, bend down and touch your knees’? I grew up in a class of children from various backgrounds, including Japanese. But back in the early 1980s it occurred to few of us that we were being offensive. It was a lesson learned over time.

However incorrect the Spanish may be, they are a long way from the kind of segregation seen until relatively recently in the States or the experience of the black characters in Andrea Levy’s Small Island (thoroughly recommended reading). As immigration into the country continues, they will learn their own lessons of acceptable and unacceptable language and behaviour with regards to racial and ethnic minorities. But it is crucial they be allowed to do so organically and in their own time if they are not to fear censorship and accusations of racism which ultimately create more division than unity.

Debate vs dogma

Ironically, the commotion caused by the Evra-Suárez ruckus and the Liverpool player’s subsequent match-ban likely served as ammunition for racist football fans. Similarly, you don’t have to search too hard on the internet to see that groups like The British Resistance (who take issue with the news that Bradford now has a Muslim mayor) have used the Reina case to fuel their nationalist rhetoric.

So there are perhaps some lessons to be learned in Britain too. By labelling such faux-pas as Reina’s ad as ‘racist’ are we not in danger of limiting the rich vocabulary of English to the political acceptability of things? And by using the fruits of our experience as a doctrine with which to shame others, do we not run the risk of turning debate into dogma?

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Published: Mar 13 2012
Category: Politics, Featured, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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9 Comments for “Pepe Reina’s “racist” blunder: a question of black and white?”

  1. Very interesting and insightful article, but let me point out that there is indeed a lot of Latin American immigration to Spain, and it seems to me that people from the former colonies do have it easier to move to Spain than, say, Asians. This might be comparable to Britain.

  2. Of course Brits laughed at the crude stereotype of a Spanish waiter, even when he was beaten around the head for his failings. But I can assure you that Spanish people weren’t laughing, and 30 years such negative sterotypes would not appear in the UK, except on TV Gold.

    Finally, do those Brits living in Spain know just how crude and lewd this ad was. ‘El Rey Copula’ King Fuck, who would ‘Tocamandango’, touch his penis’, before ‘Chinga Chinga’, slang for fuck fuck.
    The trouble with much of Spain it doesnt even know when its being racist. Remember the Spanish Basketball team posing in China squinting their eyes. Come on !

    • Interestingly, the character of Manuel was Italian in the Spanish version of the show, and Mexican in Cataluña.

      • Wow, I love that factoid! Manuel’s “I know nothing I come from Barcelona” must have sounded quite differently in Spanish and Catalan. I read that on Basque ETB Manuel suffered no changes of language or nationality: “Nik ezer ez dakit, Bartzelonakoa naiz.”

    • But still, Manuel is the most sympathetic character in the whole thing. Isn’t that the point? Doesn’t that mitigate things? And the old lady saying ‘Don’t they have dogs in Calcutta?’ – isn’t this pointing out the absurdity of it all and the discomfort that the British middle class had/has when dealing with ‘foreigners’?

      • Totally! To all your points. And: applicable to the middle class in other European countries and the US as well, to the last one.

        The mutation of Manuel in Spain is interesting for other reasons, especially the fact that the Basques didn’t care to apply one. Maybe because Manuel was a maketo, be he Castilian or Catalan?

        I’m all for subs, but this time dubbing gave some extra info, even if only visible from this meta-level.

  3. Tom, if manuel was deemed sympathetic why was his character changed to Italian for a Spanish speaking audience?

    But we’re still moving away from the deeply insulting ad that Reina was in.

    On a positive not, I have family in Bilbao and last night they showed the world how a football can be a beautiful game on the field and on the terraces too. I watched Bilbao play Spurs in friendly last summer. The Spurs fans hurled abuse, spoiling for a fight. The Bilbao fans responded with a mexican wave, ten times amongst themselves until eventually the whole stadium joined in. The Spurs fans eventually appluaded them. You had to be there to see it. Thank heavens not everything about football is negative.

    • I strongly disagree that the ad is insulting. Reina’s original world of Western civilisation is contrasted aptly with a tiny African village, so as to portray Reina as totally at the mercy of circumstances unknown to him. The play is on differences, no values are attached.

      From this neutral point of view, the King is simply making a joke, as any homeboy from Reina’s native Madrid might have. But then the desired effect of portraying Reina as exposed to insecure, for unknown circumstances might not have become that clear.

      Just in case that someone says the King didn’t make a joke, but indeed wanted Reina as his Queen: one can be black and homosexual.

  4. Northern political correctness is so stupid…
    I was struck and even offended when they lynched the Spanish basketball team and called them ‘racists’ because the players made slitty eyes. And I thought it was impossible to be more ridiculous.

    And that was coming from people who call the Southern countries PIGS every day and who don’t consider that pejorative acronym to be insulting o racist at all.

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