Revisiting Home Disadvantage: A Forward The Hamlet series on Black lived experience in the UK

Revisiting Home Disadvantage: A Forward The Hamlet series on Black lived experience in the UK

24th Oct 2020

This summer, the Black Lives Matter movement captured imaginations across the world, and drew attention to inequalities and injustices still suffered by Black communities in America and around the world. The UK has its own legacy of racial discrimination whose effects are still felt by generations of Black people in the present day, and BLM protests were seen on the streets of a number of UK cities, including London.

Throughout June and July, the Forward The Hamlet podcast produced a mini-series, Home Disadvantage, and invited players from the men’s and women’s teams to share their thoughts on the Black experiences of life in the UK, encounters with racial profiling and other examples of discrimination, and what we can all do to take part in effecting change.

Over six full-length episodes and two shorter episodes to open and close the series, FTH hosts Hugo Greenhalgh and Ben Sibley, with striker and youth team coach Danny Mills, spoke to Hamlet players Nathan Smith, Lionel Ainsworth, Havana McElvaine and Michaella Williams. The result was a series of thoughtful, in-depth conversations with the players, spanning their own experiences and how they felt about some of the issues that come up when discussing race and society in Britain. “Our aim is to have conversations, no matter how uncomfortable, so that people can understand the realities of what the Black community go through day-to-day and what we can do to effect genuine change,” Mills explained.

The players brought a variety of perspectives to the podcast, even when encountering recurring issues like racial stereotyping. Looking back on the podcast, Greenhalgh recalls, “For me, the most surprising thing was just hearing in stark detail the challenges which Black people in the UK face on a daily basis.”

“I’ve heard a lot that people in the UK think that BLM UK is just a response to George Floyd... People die in police custody here a lot.” - Havana McElvaine

Striker and south London stalwart Danny Mills, for instance, relayed a different perspective and range of encounters with racial profiling (in particular, being stopped multiple times by British police while driving, without a clear reason) to Dulwich Hamlet and former Yeovil defender Nathan Smith, who remembered being thirteen years old and having drugs planted on him by police who didn’t initially realise how young he was. “It was only after I spoke to my mum and uncle about it, that my uncle said, ‘These are some of the things that you may experience, just because of your skin colour,’” Smith recalled. Both players talked openly and personally about how they had to learn to navigate these encounters carefully and safely in their own individual ways, and related this to some of the stories that have filled the news this year.

Unlike Londoners Mills and Smith, American midfielder Havana McElvaine grew up in Colorado. She played in Washington State before coming to London to study Inequalities and Social Science, and her conversation on Home Disadvantage combined personal experience with an academic perspective. Like Mills and Smith, McElvaine also offered some insight into interactions between the police and Black communities here and in the US, from racial profiling to the high numbers of Black deaths in British police custody – sobering listening for anyone wondering why the Black Lives Matter movement might be relevant in the UK.

During a compelling conversation in episode 6 McElvaine also expanded on the issue of appropriation and the stigmatisation of Black language and speaking styles. In particular, she related how Black people often feel required – for their safety or simply to feel less conspicuous or disadvantaged in a given setting – to code-switch, that is, to significantly adjust their natural manner of speaking or behaviour. We may all do it to some extent, but the stakes can be very different for Black people, and many white people may not be aware of that, or the ways in which situations may by default accommodate them and exclude minorities. In episode 5, striker Lionel Ainsworth and Danny Mills discussed the universality of Black-influenced speech and slang across young London communities – “the language of the streets” permeates secondary schools and flows easily between young people of every ethnic origin.

However, there is a raw edge to it. While white people may adopt language or speaking styles from Black culture, they can likely switch in and out to suit their circumstances without, as McElvaine put it, the ‘racialised attachment that comes with speaking that way” and avoid negative consequences like not being hired for a job. “When Black kids use it, that’s language that gets them arrested, killed, disenfranchised, not hired etc.” At the most brutal end of the scale, while white people may safely adopt elements of Black culture to sound cool, Black people trying to sound ‘whiter’ in some situations may be a matter of survival.

“I was told, ’You’re quite posh for a Black girl’ – are you assuming that a well-spoken person can’t be Black?” - Michaella Williams

Attitudes to Black beauty, visual identity and class came up in several conversations. In the penultimate episode, defender Michaella Williams discussed others’ proprietary attitudes to her hair, from people touching it without invitation, to being singled out by teachers – a common experience among many Black girls and women, but also experienced by men – Mills had experienced similar uninvited attention in his youth. Williams recounted backhanded compliments about her looks or her perceived class – “pretty for a Black girl” or “posh for a Black girl” – and questions why white people would consider it unusual for Black people to be beautiful or “well-spoken” (both judgments based on a traditionally white ideal anyway).

Growing up in a relatively white area, for Williams, also added a layer of complexity. “I stuck out as not being white, but I also feel awkward sometimes in Black spaces.” The range of themes that Home Disadvantage explores in just a few episodes is a sobering reminder that, in almost any arena, a white person’s experience may be starkly different to that of a Black person – even in multicultural, 21st century London – but also that the lived Black experience is not a universal or homogenous one.

Though much of the series focused on the experiences of the players off the pitch, there are issues that still need attention within the game – like the curious absence of Black managers across the football landscape. Considering the generations of successful Black players who have made their name in the ranks of English football, it’s strange that the Premier League has only ever seen nine Black managers. At present, a whole six managers at the top 92 clubs are not white – a pretty damning number. Our own Gavin Rose is one of the highest-ranking Black managers in English football; the reality is that non-white coaches just aren’t getting hired in the higher leagues.

Lionel Ainsworth compared the likes of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, who segued from their footballing careers into top-flight coaching jobs, to the lack of career conversion for successful Black players, and the bleak reality for aspiring Black coaches. The FA shows signs of addressing the disparity, but nepotism continues to trump good intentions. As with every topic discussed in Home Disadvantage, the search for change takes us back to the need for attitudes to evolve. Those with the power to create opportunities need to come to the table with a desire to open up the coaching world to those who previously have found the door closed in their faces.

At the start of the series, Mills raised a recurring question for the Hamlet – why is the diversity on the pitch not reflected in the stands? How can we, as a club and a collection of supporters who have stood firmly against racism for a long time, go further and create an environment and an experience that is welcoming and appealing to Black football fans in southeast London? This question was one of the driving thoughts behind the series. “Southwark is one of the must diverse boroughs in London – so why doesn’t the crowd at Champion Hill reflect that?” Greenhalgh asks. Mills addressed the idea of holding events that speak to Black football fans and reflect their culture and history, something echoed by Nathan Smith who suggested that a better understanding of Black culture is needed in order for the club to build a relationship with local people who may not have thought about coming to Champion Hill before. “How can [they] feel part of a family there?” Mills questioned.

Reflecting on the series, Ben Sibley is proud of what it achieved in its first season. “The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s been really excellent to hear that the conversations have answered questions that many of our listeners wanted answers to, and illuminated previously unconsidered issues and injustices in the lived experiences of Black and Asian people.”

There’s a sense that the series has opened up some crucial conversations – and attracted a new audience who weren’t already Hamlet supporters or FTH listeners (and even inspired a Brighton university researcher to include the podcast in his teaching).

“Just because there’s a zero tolerance policy to racism at Dulwich Hamlet doesn’t mean it’s perfect.” - Hugo Greenhalgh

The hosts attribute the new listeners in part to the guests who shared it with their own networks; and perhaps that may be another key to Dulwich broadening the demographic of its audience. New listeners to the podcast in Black communities locally or further afield, if they have enjoyed the discussions, may want to see what these players can do on the pitch. A series like Home Disadvantage could be an integral part of a wider, ongoing strategy to reach out in different ways to nearby communities that the club may not yet have built an effective connection with, as well as a way to help existing supporters find deeper ways to think about and incorporate anti-racism into their own lives.

The core aim of the series, however, was the desire to broaden people’s knowledge and attitudes. “Platforms like this are perfect for supporters that might be apprehensive and anxious, [thinking] ‘I didn’t know that happened,’” Mills explained in the series prelude. If we plan to confront racism and racial inequality in our own communities, which Dulwich Hamlet has long taken pride in doing, then it’s vital – and one of the aims of Black History Month – to hear individual people’s stories like those that came to light in Home Disadvantage, and to recognise how systemic problems and our own behaviours can impact Black people regardless of their individual history, situation or actions.

Getting a more nuanced understanding helps white people learn to isolate the structural injustices in society, and play our part in dismantling them. It’s a first step, but a crucial one. As Mills notes, “People’s eyes have been opened and it’s up to us to collectively take action.” The Black Lives Matter movement has invited and empowered people from every background to see in plain sight, and take on, the systems and structures that continue to disadvantage Black people, either by default or design. As we challenge those structures, we can also become more aware – via thoughtful projects like Home Disadvantage - how many Black people (including those in our lives, and on the football teams we support) have personal stories of moments they shouldn’t have had to experience, and how common racial prejudice continues to be.

By doing so, we can come to recognise that racism isn’t always as obvious as verbal or physical abuse, or really obvious discrimination, though these dangers still need our attention, but can also manifest itself as small, habitual occurrences that add up to make Black people feel excluded and mistrusted, and actively damage their lives. It happens closer to home than many of us would like to admit – and without knowing about it, we can’t hope to change it.

Forward The Hamlet’s “Home Disadvantage” series is available at http://www.holdfastnetwork.com/forwardthehamlet and across most podcast platforms.