Dave Whelan is the lingering reality of our ‘post-racial world’

Nearly a day had passed since Wigan chairman Dave Whelan last spoke, and apparently, he still didn’t have anyone around him who cared about his well-being. For some reason, even after an initial step toward our Racism Power Rankings on Thursday, he was still talking. Let me quickly catch you up on Whelan’s seemingly never-ending saga of sadness and “apologies” before we get to the latest round of “For the love of God, why are you still talking?”

Two days ago, Wigan unveiled Malky Mackay as its new manager at a press conference. Both Whelan (English Donald Sterling) and Mackay addressed the media. Much of the substance focused on the several racist, sexist, and homophobic text exchanges that were revealed earlier this year between Mackay and then Crystal Palace director of football Iain Moody. Mackay offered the comments of a man trying his best to apologize and move forward. Whelan offered a stern defense of his new manager, which did not go very well.

There was a media backlash to Whelan’s Mackay defense. Well, less of a backlash and more of presentation of the words that actually came out of the Wigan chairman’s mouth. On Thursday, in an interview with The Guardian, Whelan tried to clarify his comments. Like the last time Whelan opened his mouth, this also didn’t go well. The key phrase that came out of that interview was: “Jewish people chase money more than everybody else.”

Oh no, Señor Whelan.

Whelan then tried his hand at clarification, again, this time in a BBC interview. Sadly for Whelan, the third attempt at opening his mouth was just as horrifying as his previous attempts.

The interview kicks off with Whelan trying to clarify his “Jewish people” comments. He begins: “I have thousands of Jewish friends …”

[bangs head on table]

That, my friends, is not how you start an anti-semitism rehabilitation tour. But it gets worse. Here are some of the highlights (in italics) of his latest apology-session-gone-wrong with the BBC, with my commentary trailing each quote:

“Jewish people are very similar to the English people in their desire to get money.”

Over the course of three attempts to speak on discrimination this week, it has become painfully clear that English Donald Sterling doesn’t understand some very basic tenets about dealing with these kinds of topics, such as: Stop referring to groups of people as if they’re monolithic things.

Let’s leave the “Jewish people” thing aside for a moment. “English people” have a desire to get money? All of them? It’s a bizarre comment, and kind of hilarious, when you consider what he claims he was trying to say: That everyone basically has a desire to get money, and Jewish people are no different. But if that’s the case, why even use “Jewish” as a qualifier?

Somehow we’re supposed to believe that Whelan connecting Jewish people and money is something he does on Mondays, and then on Tuesdays he makes the same point about the English, Wednesday is for the Irish, and so on. Because all people desire money, right?

“I did not say that Jewish people chased money more than anyone else. I said that Jewish people do chase money just like we, the English, chase money. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with chasing money, ‘cause we work for it.”

Why are you still talking about Jewish people, Dave Whelan?! Don’t you realize that that’s where this problem started? WHERE ARE YOUR ADVISORS? WHERE ARE THESE THOUSANDS OF JEWISH FRIENDS OF YOURS? Here’s some advice from a stranger, Mr. Whelan: If these thousands of Jewish friends of yours are telling you to keep talking to the media, they aren’t your friends. You may not have any Jewish friends, Dave. You may just be confusing them with people you’ve had conversations with or seen outside who you believe to be Jewish. There’s a difference.

“I have no hangups about people. I just get on with every single person. I love the game of football. And a lot of this [the reaction to his comments] comes about because we’ve got to be careful about what we say, but I always try to say and tell the truth.”

The best part of this quote is clearly, “I love the game of football.” It’s the best because it’s just funny that it’s tossed in. But it’s also standard, room temperature conflating. The thought goes like this: I deserve some latitude to say and do awful things because I have this greater love of this random activity I’m so passionate about, and sometimes my passion may cloud my judgment. But you should let things slide because of my passion.

But no. No, you don’t deserve latitude because you love football. You actually need to be held to a higher standard because you own a football team, and because you love to talk about the connection your team has with the community. These words are right on Wigan’s website:

“Everything we do at Wigan Athletic is for our fans, and we’re proud to be representing the town every week on the football field. However, we can’t underestimate how important the work we do off it is. We’re a unique club that prides itself on working closely with the community in many different aspects and we’re always dedicated to strengthening those links.”

That’s why the higher standard. Because it’s also your professed standard.

And then there’s Whelan’s “but I always tell the truth” comment. Who’s truth? And even if it was truth, attempting to say and tell what you construe to be the truth doesn’t come paired with protections. This is another common case of conflating — thinking that “truth telling” somehow entitles you to a pass on the actual content that comes out of your mouth and is a free pass to a consequence-free existence. The fact that Whelan thinks he always tries to say and tell the truth is not relevant to anything whatsoever.

“If there are Jewish people offended by what I said, I would say, I apologize immediately. I’m sorry, I did not mean an offense to them. All my Jewish friends would realize I would never insult a Jewish person; I have no reason to. They’re a great race of people. I do a lot of business with them. They’re very honest people. They’re hard working people. I would never insult a Jewish person.

Let’s start broadly. I’m not going to call Whelan a racist or an anti-semite. I just don’t see any utility in going there, and it doesn’t really add to the conversation, whether it’s true or not. I will say that, whatever his views, it’s amazing that this is happening in 21st century. Not once, but three times, in three days.

I started to get uncomfortable at “They’re a great race of people.” I actually cringed, physically recoiling as I read the words, which didn’t really prepare me for Whelan hitting his stride when he got to “those people” territory a few words later, a place littered with gross generalizations about a people’s business acumen, honesty, and work-ethic.

Perhaps the most uncomfortable and amazing part of these comments is how comfortable Whelan is slinging around generalizations. If he’s so comfortable generalizing about Jewish people, and everyone else for that matter, do his thoughts have any impact on business dealings or personnel decisions, even subconsciously? This isn’t a crazy thought.

“What I said was this: There’s all kinds of names given to people — to the English Scottish, the Welsh, the Irish and the Chinese. And there’s all kinds of words given and used. And people use these words a lot in various conversations. A lot of this talk goes on all around the world and people accept it and take it because I don’t think they’re an insult meant. If someone called me a limey, I wouldn’t take that as an insult. I’m English, yes. I’m a limey, yeah. But I wouldn’t be insulted by someone saying that to me. Now if someone said to a Chinaman, “You’re a chink,” would he be upset about it? I don’t know, really. If he was upset, I’d say, ‘I’m sorry, I’ll never call you that again.’”

It’s possible that Whelan just watches a lot of movies from the mid-20th century and hasn’t learned 21st century protocol. But this isn’t just about political correctness, as Whelan unconsciously alludes to in his final thought: “If he was upset, I’d say, ‘I’m sorry, I’ll never call you that again.’” This comment almost brilliantly captures everything wrong with Whelan’s comments, beyond the obvious content. This is about not listening, because plenty of people are telling Whelan that they’re upset. These voices expressing disapproval are the reason Whelan has been sitting through three days of interviews. It’s the reason why he faced a backlash over his hiring of Mackay in the first place.

One of the rationales that Whelan used to suggest that Mackay’s text extravaganza wasn’t that bad was to say that those were “private conversations.” But while I’m not sure that condones Mackay’s behavior, for now, I’ll concede that point. The difference here is that Whelan is having public conversations, very public conversations — at press conferences in front of print media and TV channels, and in one-on-one interviews with The Guardian and BBC.

And in these very public conversations, Whelan’s public position is: “I’m not offended, so why are you, Chinaman?” It is: Somehow, I have zero ability to hear what others in my own country are saying about words that are coming out of my mouth, but I can speak authoritatively about how people around the world take and accept words that many others see as pejorative terms. There’s no moment where Whelan shows that perhaps he’s the one who doesn’t get it. That’s the scary part.

At a certain level, I’m pleased that Whelan keeps talking. Sometimes his comments make me laugh out loud. I’m not pleased or humored by the hurt his words might cause. I’m also not necessarily pleased that he may have to deal with a bit of rich-people suffering, as the English FA has launched an investigation into his comments. But I’m not ashamed to admit that I find some possibly perverse pleasure in this, because rare, public moments like these provide a little bit of evidence that people may not be paranoid when they suggest there’s plenty of racism, sexism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism to be found in the game. It just doesn’t always come with a hood or a National Front poster. It can come from the seemingly jolly, pleasant, grandpa figure who thinks he’s a man of the people and not capable of saying something anti-semitic because he has thousands of so-called Jewish friends.

There’s an argument that this kind of covert racism is worse, because you never see it coming and struggle to articulate evidence of its existence … that is, until people like Dave Whelan open their mouths. That’s why part of me smiles when I see incidents like this, because I know we’ll be forced to confront something that so many are so eager to dismiss.

Dave Whelan’s words are undeniable. And the more he talks openly, the more we get to see how institutionalized racism flows throughout many of our beloved institutions, particularly from figures who love to stand up and say, I’m not racist/sexist/homophobic/antisemetic. They may not be, but their words don’t lie.

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