Cultural Difference and Ignorance Surrounding Luis Suarez

Luis Suarez’s alleged racial abuse case may prove that football is not completely ready to go global.


The slave trade out of Africa, 1500-1900.

Earlier this summer, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was on the radio show “Fresh Air” talking about his new book Black in Latin America. The host, Terry Gross, begins the interview by admitting how much she didn’t know about the slave trade outside the U.S. context. She is doubtless one of countless people (including myself) whose understanding of this global history is defined by the American experience of the slave trade, slavery, and emancipation. It is the narrative through which the discourse about race has been measured from subsequent liberation movements in the U.S. and abroad. Take for example the documentary Black Power Mix-Tape 1965-1975, a Swedish film by Goran Hugo Olsson, which is comprised of recently discovered footage shot by a small team of Swedish filmmakers running around America trying to make sense of it all.

Gates tosses out a few facts in support of this alternative history, which illustrates how little is known about the global history of race. One set of statistics is sufficient: the slave trade transported more than 11 million slave out of Africa. Of that number, less than 500, 000 went to the U.S. The rest were transported to the Caribbean and Latin America, with 4.8 million to Brazil alone.

There is a conservative assessment that 120 million Latin Americans are of African origin (conservative because this estimate is not measured by hypodescent, meaning having at least one drop of African blood in them, which would increase the number significantly). Today, Brazil has 134 categories of “blackness”, which of course have 134 linguistic descriptions, and as the Luis Suarez incident highlights, also numerous degrees of social acceptance. I’m not sure how many categories are used in Uruguay, but the slave trade and African Diaspora has played a significant role in the cultural development of Uruguay. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHRA), there are 190,000 Afro-Uruguayans in Uruguay, the majority living in Montevideo, where the seven-year old Luis Suarez and his family settled in 1998.

The allegations of racial abuse against Suarez are unclear. An attempt to understand the incident has set off a discussion of the linguistic and cultural differences that define race and racism around the world, particularly Latin America, but also England and continental Europe

Reading accounts of the incident invoke questions and assumptions. Is it safe to assume that Suarez is smart enough to know that race is discussed differently in Europe than in Uruguay? Before coming to England, he spent five years in the Dutch league—one would assume plenty of time to adopt the more significant cultural practices and traditions of his adopted home. This question is all the more relevant given Holland’s history of tolerance going back to Baruch Spinoza in the 17th century. As Suarez learned Dutch and currently English, what is and is not acceptable to say could have been woven into his linguistic immersion (and perhaps with the way the Dutch language looks and sounds, mimicking cultural practices may have been easier). Other Uruguayan or South American footballers already established in Europe could have explained the code of conduct. Could not have Diego Forlan picked up the phone and played fixer or ambassador to his countryman? Give him a crib sheet on the people and life in England? Two things to remember Luis: people have a relationship to race very different than the one we’re accustomed to at home—so be careful what you say and how you say it. Second, after scoring a goal don’t tear your shirt off and then get caught running around half naked once play restarts. With these in mind you’re good to go.

From the other side, his hosts have extended hospitality to many South Americans before him, would have encountered the unacceptable cultural practice, and could have made this an immediate lesson to be learned.

None of these assumptions seem to have been all that plausible. If Terry Gross knew little of cultures rising out of the history of the slave trade and African Diaspora, then can it be assumed that Kenny Dalglish would be more enlightened?

Who knows how this will end, but the story looks like it began through ignorance as widespread as the history it doesn’t know.

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