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New Kick It Out chair Sanjay Bhandari clearly remembers when he encountered “tourist racism”.
In 2015, he was in the away end at Arsenal with his beloved Manchester United 3-0 down at half-time. Cue a frustrated fellow United supporter pointing towards him and his nephew.
“How have they got tickets?” the man shouted, using a racist term to describe Bhandari. The same man then turned on other black and south-east Asian fans sat nearby. There was no retaliation or condemnation from other fans.
Being racially abused at a football match was not a new experience for Bhandari, who has been a United season ticket holder for more than 30 years. He was also abused twice at Wembley in the mid 1990s, where on one occasion he was confronted by rival fans outside the stadium.
“I think racism has got worse over the last few years,” says the former lawyer, who has worked with prisoners on death row. “As a United fan, I’ve noticed it more at away games where there is this resentment about the difficulty of getting away tickets.
“This ‘tourist racism’ is a new manifestation and Asian fans are often seen as an easy target because there is this stereotypical perception that we’re passive and won’t fight back. Now I’m seeing that apply to south-east Asian fans too when there are large groups of fans coming from overseas.
“They aren’t always welcomed with open arms.”
‘Players are catalyst for change’
Bhandari was only appointed as Kick It Out’s new chair last September, replacing founder Lord Herman Ouseley, who had been in the role for 26 years.
But he has already faced criticism from former board member Garth Crooks for not being an ex-player and therefore not understanding the trials some recent professionals have been through.
Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling, and Manchester United team-mates Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba have all been racially abused within the past year whether it has been on the pitch or on social media.
Bhandari, however, says: “Whilst I won’t have had the experience that a player will have had of racism on a pitch, I’ve had my experience of racism in life and on the terraces.
“I definitely want to work with the players, the likes of Raheem Sterling or Ian Wright, because I think they’re the catalyst for change.”
Wolverhampton-born Bhandari, who was introduced to the Red Devils as a youngster by his uncles and cousins, also believes that his “completely different professional experiences” mean he can be “helpfully naive” in how Kick It Out looks for different ways to tackle discrimination.
In addition to his legal experiences, he has also been a partner at accountancy and consulting firm EY (Ernst & Young) and has worked with the Premier League as an equality expert.
“I can ask the questions like: why do we do it like that? Have we always done it like that? Or can’t we do it differently?”
A new strategy to come
Kick It Out has faced criticism itself in recent months.
Bhandari says a new strategy will come later in the year on the back of a “listening tour” where he has consulted more than 100 people about where Kick It Out should go next.
There are desires for further funding. The organisation received £800,000 combined from the Football Association, Premier League, EFL and Professional Footballers’ Association last year.
A new name might also be considered, and Bhandari wants to ensure that the reporting of incidents is better defined and made easier.
“When I experienced that kind of racism, especially with my nephew, it made me angry but also powerless because I’m doing the calculation of whether I can complain about this person,” he says.
“You’re thinking about your personal safety and the first instinct is that you hope it goes away.
“I want to advocate for people to report incidents but also understand the mechanics that it’s quite difficult sometimes.”
‘White players and fans need to be activists’
Bhandari acknowledges that eradicating racism in a short period of time is difficult – but wants football to at least be “a zero-tolerance place and a beacon of hope for the rest of society”.
He hopes he can soon reveal his progress from working with social media to protect players. But he is also urging white players and fans to become activists too.
“All of the attention in football is on the high-profile incidents in the Premier League but mercifully, they’re relatively few and far between compared to grassroots football where anecdotal evidence tells us that something happens every week,” he says. “We need to deal with both sides of the equation.
“It was Martin Luther King who said that ultimately ‘what we remember is not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends’.
“The message to fans and players is: be those friends and don’t be silent; be activists.
“It’s one thing being Raheem Sterling, he’s a really powerful voice, but it’s equally or more powerful if [England and Tottenham captain] Harry Kane or [Manchester United captain] Harry Maguire speak up.
“In the same way for fans, if I complain about racism, people expect that. But if a white middle-aged man complains about it, people stand up and listen a little bit more.
“It isn’t just my responsibility as a member of an ethnic minority to address that. Anyone can complain because discrimination corrodes society.
“It doesn’t hurt just me, it hurts all of us.”
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