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Can white people experience racism? This is the daunting philosophical conundrum with which World Rugby will have to grapple if it decides to investigate Tom Curry’s allegation that he was called a “white c—” by Bongi Mbonambi during England’s narrow loss to South Africa.
It deserves, at face value, to be treated with the utmost gravity. Just imagine, for a second, the same claim had been levelled in reverse. This would not be some antagonistic postscript to a World Cup semi-final, but a major international incident.
The sport’s stance on an instance of racist conduct makes no distinction as to the skin colour of the culprit or target.
“The rugby family condemns discrimination of any kind, including racism, which has no place in our sport or wider society,” the global governing body declared in 2020, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. “We are unified in support of our players, coaches, match officials and fans in taking a positive stand and speaking out against racism.”
You will notice no suggestion of mitigating circumstances here, no caveat that racism can somehow be deemed less reprehensible if directed at a white person. Either you decry the poison of racism in all its forms or not at all. This is why World Rugby has a responsibility to ensure the accusation against Mbonambi is not simply swept aside. There is no clear audio of the South African hooker uttering the words imputed to him, but that should not deter the authorities from using every means possible to establish the truth.
England have failed to uncover a tape of Mbonambi’s alleged remarks. In the absence of evidence, it is possible World Rugby’s view will be there is no case to answer. So now we have the frankly bizarre situation in which the only party promising to explore the matter thoroughly is South Africa, since the Springboks are anxious not to have their only specialist hooker banned for the World Cup final.
Bongi Mbonambi during the game against England in Paris.Credit: Getty
South Africa also released a statement, reading: “We are aware of the allegation, which we take very seriously, and are reviewing the available evidence. We will engage with Bongi if anything is found to substantiate the claim.”
Curry was distressed when asked if any comments had been put to him, just as he was when heard plaintively asking referee Ben O’Keeffe: “Sir, if their hooker calls me a white c—, what do I do?” If nothing else is done to flesh out the substance of what was allegedly said, you wonder how others in Curry’s position in future, whether at Test level or in the community game, might handle such an issue. Do they decide not to come forward at all, concerned that their accounts will be dismissed as a case of one individual’s word against another’s?
Admittedly, these are turbulent waters to navigate. A vexed scholarly debate persists over whether “reverse racism” can truly be taken seriously, given there is none of the same body of systematic oppression behind black-against-white racism as in the opposite direction. The few test cases indicate the very idea of reverse racism tends to be dismissed quickly.
Sarah Jeong, a writer for The New York Times, once asked on social media: “Are white people genetically predisposed to burn faster in the sun, thus logically being only fit to live underground like grovelling goblins?” The newspaper decided, even when several other tweets in this vein emerged, to stand by her.
England’s Tom Curry.Credit: Getty
Against this backdrop, the chances of Curry’s claim against Mbonambi being forensically examined look remote. But when the roles are switched, the story can play out very differently. When cricketer Azeem Rafiq accused former England captain Michael Vaughan of telling him and three other players of south Asian heritage, “There’s too many of you lot, we need to do something about that”, there was no limit to the interrogation. Rafiq contended that these comments were made in a match at Trent Bridge on June 22, 2009. So dramatically did the England and Wales Cricket Board react that silks were instructed, with the two sides drawn 14 years later into a frame-by-frame analysis of the video footage available. It took a four-day hearing before the Cricket Discipline Commission resolved that, on the balance of probabilities, Vaughan said nothing racist.
So, precedents do exist for racism allegations to be escalated to the highest level. When footage circulating on the internet led to the accusation that John Terry had called Anton Ferdinand a “f—ing black c—” during a Chelsea match against QPR in 2011, a criminal trial took place the following year. While Terry admitted this choice of words, affirmed by professional lip readers, the chief magistrate concluded it could not be proved beyond doubt whether he used these words as an insult to Ferdinand or as a “challenge to what he believed had been said to him”. And yet a Football Association commission later said it was “quite satisfied” the language was intended to be insulting. It is a moot point as to whether Terry’s reputation ever fully recovered.
There are many hoops to jump through before the Curry versus Mbonambi saga reaches anything like the same level of scrutiny. But World Rugby owes it to the England breakaway to do its due diligence on his version of events if its rhetoric on racism is to be believed.
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