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Eniola Aluko’s case is a perfect illustration of how institutional racism works

England v Belgium: UEFA Women's European Championship Qualifiers Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

The case of Eniola Aluko perfectly illustrates the difficulties of speaking out about harassment as a minority. Before the investigation was reopened and Aluko was vindicated by the results, which found that she was racially abused by former England women’s national team head coach Mark Sampson, Aluko was treated as the problem. She was a pariah. The black sheep. She had to be punished for stepping out of line. Even after Sampson was fired and it was reasoned that his firing came because of old misconduct, she was roundly denigrated across all media, by everyone from Matthew Syed to former England goalkeeper David James. James tweeted back in September (he’s recently deleted it):

“Mark Sampson sacked as @England women's manager?! Seems some wasted talent can't deal with the fact they aren't good enough! #enialuko,”

When Aluko called out an authority figure for harassment, instead of compassion, she was met at all sides with hostility. She was dropped from the team. Newspapers and media people trashed her name and reputation. The FA conducted a sham investigation in which no witnesses were interviewed in order to clear Sampson’s name and, as Aluko claims, she was asked to take hush money and put out a statement that the FA were not institutionally racist.

As she continued to fight for the truth, her national team teammates celebrated in a game by crowding around and hugging her abuser, letting her know in a most vivid way that she was alone.

In her book Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed writes that the violent response to her speaking up is so routine and ingrained in society that it was as unsurprising and as infuriating as ever:

“Sexual harassment works — as does bullying more generally — by increasing the costs of fighting against something, making it easier to accept something than to struggle against something, even if that acceptance is itself the site of your own diminishment; how you end up taking up less and less space.”

As did Franz Kafka in his Blue Octavo Notebooks a very long time ago:

"The worries that are the burden of which the privileged person makes an excuse in dealing with the oppressed person are in fact the worries about preserving his privileged condition."

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Everything that happened to Aluko after her initial claims was an all-out effort to preserve the condition of those in power ... as well as using her as a warning to others. The system tried to maintain the status quo. Rather than truly investigate if one of their players had been mistreated, they set out to quiet her and make sure others knew that the price for speaking up was high. Then individuals, from journalists to teammates, joined in to isolate and ostracize her, a signal that they stood with the institution. That they were good, compliant ones. The message was clear: Aluko was lying, as she was just upset that she wasn’t good enough for the team. It made the issue about everything but the problem that she brought up. Sampson racially abused Aluko and she became the target of people’s anger. That’s what institutional racism looks like. This is how things stay the same.

Even the barrister’s assertion — that Sampson wasn’t racist even though he treated Aluko worse because of her race — helps keep that system in place. You can’t discriminate based on race without being a racist. That’s not “banter,” and you can’t solve the problem unless you at least call it by what it is.

Aluko, as a player, as a woman, and as a black person, was at an extreme power disadvantage going up against Sampson and the FA. They all knew it. Even her appeal to lawfulness in calling for an investigation was done on their terms at first. Had the investigation not been reopened, the initial one that was conducted — done with a clear intention to clear Sampson — would have driven public perception of her. As it succeeded in doing until the case was re-opened and it confirmed her claims. The imbalance of power was so great that she could be abused, punished for her abuse, and then condemned by a supposedly objective legal system right after. It wasn’t until it became public, and past complaints about Sampson surfaced, that Aluko was given a fair shot.

England Training & Press Conference Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images

If that had not happened, all those who came out against Aluko would have had their perfect ending: She would have been forced to go away. Then the toxic environment would have been reinforced, and the next abused player would be too afraid to say anything when it happened to them. Which reinforces the situation again. The longer the silence lasts, the more impunity the abuser has for his/her actions. Everyone then accepts that that’s just the way things are, and nothing can be done. It just has to be endured.

Such a society would sound dystopian if it wasn’t the one that we currently live in. One that we just watched in full action against a woman who was racially abused by her coach.

The grand hope is always that the FA and all the individuals who trashed Aluko have the shame to learn from this episode. That they will better themselves for the next time a player comes to them with a problem. That these people actually want the national team and the world in general to be a better, safer place. But it’s getting awfully difficult these days to fall back on that delusion of optimism. The apology the FA put out after is anything but encouraging. But, at least for this one time, the small person won and exposed all of its ugliness of the system. That has to count for something.