England star Maro Itoje has opened up about suffering racial abuse, how he deals with racism and his desire to effect change in rugby.
Itoje was speaking to the Daily Mail as part of a wide-ranging interview on the Black Lives Matter protests and the greater need for black representation in rugby, calling on the sport ‘to be more open to all’.
Itoje said he had been racially profiled in the past and still experiences racial abuse.
‘What you do deal with is a whole load of racial “micro-aggressions” whether that is at school or beyond,’ Itoje explained.
‘Someone might say: “Maro, you speak well. I’m surprised – you don’t speak like a black guy” or “Do people only live in huts in Africa?” or if you wear a suit or something, “You’re not dressed very black today.”
‘Often it’s laughed off as “banter” or a joke, but the thing about racism is it is a matter of fact.
‘If you say something that is racist it’s not dependent on my intention, how well I know you, if you were given permission – racism is racism.
‘When you’re getting taught about historical events it’s a very fluffy, rosy picture that tends to get taught. There is a common phrase that “History is written by the victors” and Britain has been victorious a lot, so it has had free reign to write history in its favour. It paints this “white-man saviour” image especially in relation to the slave trade and colonialism.
‘At secondary school what we learned about the slave trade was that the Europeans came, took Africans from their country, took them to the Americas and Europe. They were captured for 400 years and after that a man called William Wilberforce came to save the day, and we should be thankful of Britain for “ending” slavery. It’s a very narrow story that’s being told.’
The 25-year-old said a lot people, organisations and specific industries just ‘do not get it’ when it comes to systemic racism and thus cannot address the issue.
When asked that included rugby, Itoje said the sport does have a troubled history, including the Springboks as a previous symbol of white supremacy, the British & Irish Lions continually touring South Africa during the apartheid era, and the song sang at Twickenham – Swing Low, Sweet Chariot – originating among slave-workers and first echoing around rugby the stadium when black wings Martin Offiah and Chris Oti scored tries in the 1980s.
‘Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think anyone at Twickenham is singing it with malicious intent, but the background of that song is complicated. The need is to make rugby more open to all.
‘When I first started watching rugby 2006 or so compared to where we are now, I think we have moved forward. However, there is more to go. Rugby has this stereotype of being an upper-class, Bullingdon club-style game. That narrative is changing. We can’t be complacent, though.
‘The RFU and PRL can do more to get into societies, neighbourhoods, communities that don’t necessarily see rugby as a natural sporting home – they can implement more of an outreach programme to get in contact with these types of people.
‘In no way am I suggesting that people should be selected based on their ethnicity, or colour. Of course it should be based on merit. What I am saying is that there are two aspects to it – a class aspect and an ethnic cultural aspect.
‘Rugby has a harder job than other sports. There is a large proportion of people in our society that believe this is wishy-washy stuff. There is still a long way to go.’
Photo: Dan Mullan/RFU/Getty Images