Rio Ferdinand and the politics of ‘choc ice’

As a spotty, greasy-haired, socially inadequate adolescent youth (things have totally changed, honestly) I was extremely fortunate to attend a secondary school in Birmingham that had an incredibly ethnically diverse make-up. I was one of four white boys in my class. The other 25 or so were a mixture of Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Afro-Caribbeans and a variety of other groups. To be exposed to such eclecticism at a young age was a wonderfully educational experience for me. At that age one is largely colourblind. That experience has certainly stood me in good stead and helped make me a tolerant person who has no truck with racial prejudice of any kind, I hope. It’s one of the reasons that unlike some of the dickheads that have been commenting on the Daniel Hannan piece that appeared on here a few days ago, I can see why the racist abuse of Mehdi Hasan and other Muslim journalists is wholly unacceptable and completely different to saying that Tories, for the most part, are simply beneath contempt and using some colourful language to illustrate how much I dislike them.

Anyway, fortunately the school was largely free of inter-racial tension and there was plenty of mingling of the different ethnic and religious groups, although things occasionally boiled over and there was always a slight undercurrent of prejudice. An example of this being that some of the Hindu and Sikh lads would occasionally refer to the Muslims as ‘pakis’.

They didn’t understand the way that the term was used by (normally) white racists. As I got older I did tentatively try and explain that it was rather more of a ‘catch-all’ label directed at all those with heritage from the Indian sub-continent as a region, but sadly my attempts largely fell on deaf ears.

I’m afraid that Rio Ferdinand is making the same mistake with his enthusiastic embrace of the term choc ice to describe Ashley Cole.

Choc ice, like bounty or coconut, means black on the outside, white (or would-be white) on the inside. The implication is that the choc ice acts and thinks like a white person and has betrayed his/her heritage. Ferdinand is wrong to suggest that it simply means sell-out:

“What I said yesterday is not a racist term. It’s a type of slang/term used by many for someone who is being fake. So there.”

Leaving aside the fact that Ferdinand decides to finish a tweet with “so there” (he isn’t 4 years old so it’s simply inexcusable) he clearly hasn’t understood the real meaning and poisonous nature of the term, something detailed here (although I’m really not very enthusiastic about the legalistic focus of some sections of the article).

Now of course I appreciate language can be flexible and the meaning of words and phrases can change significantly over time and depending on context but in this case there is no ambiguity. Ferdinand is simply wrong, and Ashley Cole is right to be offended. Choc ice isn’t just a generic term to describe anyone who sells-out.

Now here at the Mambo we profess no great love for Ashley Cole. He is a cynical, mercenary and extremely morally suspect young man. He has lots to be ashamed of and he has certainly warranted a lot of the vitriol directed at him (and his inability to even comprehend why he is so unpopular, and the endless whining about his unfair treatment at the hands of the press does him no credit at all). His abuse at England games has been notable but I don’t think there is a racial element to it. Frank Lampard has been on the end of similar, and wholly justified, targeting over the years.

But there is a strand of that vitriol that concerns me. Sometimes it’s been rumblings over his decision to marry a white woman (and one with a track record of battering black cleaners to boot), and it came out into the open with the abuse he was on the victim of after he missed a penalty against Italy.

His decision to defend John Terry in court and act as a character witness for him was unfathomable to me, but that wasn’t because Cole is black. It’s my complete inability to understand why anyone (black or white) would wish to defend such a despicable individual. Cole made an error of judgement but it is wrong to suggest that he was a ‘choc ice’ for doing so, whatever Rio Ferdinand actually meant when he endorsed the term. I appreciate that Ferdinand was angry with the conduct of someone he clearly considered to be a friend and who he thought had let down his brother but to start throwing terms like that around has unhelpfully clouded the issues and done his not wholly unjustified reputation as a progressive and thoughtful man serious harm.

Indeed, the real shame here is that Ferdinand’s naive blunder (and I hope it isn’t anything more malicious than that) has allowed the bigger questions that this case has generated to be forgotten, and that is that as per usual John Terry has got away with murder (seriously, how the fuck does he do it?) and more importantly the footballing authorities appear to be depressingly complacent about the on-going problem of racism in the game. They must be sighing with relief right now that the heat has been turned off them with this controversy, as pressure was beginning to grow on our wonderful FA to not let this go. So well done, Rio.

All in all, it’s been a depressing and extremely unedifying episode and very few people have come out of it with much credit.

NB: another point of interest here is the possibility of the ‘choc ice’ tweet provoking a police response.  That is simply insane. The correct response to this is to have calm and reasoned debate about these comments, not prosecutions and legal threats. The issues need to be teased out thoughtfully, not met with a legal sledgehammer. Saying something disagreeable simply shouldn’t be a criminal offence and it saddens me that this is even under consideration by the authorities.

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