Rashford, Sterling and Hutchinson: The positive black role model and what it represents


Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling and Patrick Hutchinson have quenched the nations thirst for positive black role models, but it is a role they’ve played for far longer.

When Marcus Rashford set out to push for an extension to the government’s food voucher scheme, he would likely have been unaware of whether his efforts would have the desired effect. His letter urging MP's to protect the most vulnerable and to tackle the issue of food vulnerability was only released on Monday yet by Wednesday, had seen a £120 million fund poured into the scheme ensuring that all pupils qualifying for free school meals in England would be given supermarket vouchers. This was despite his call for action being initially rejected by the government, and yet by the end, a significant number of low income households have been made immeasurably better. Campaigning by its nature is a virtue which demands courage in the face of obstacles. Efforts to engineer the most impactful change often come as a response to matters of the most serious ilk and these are often plagued with the own brand of pitfalls, but in persevering despite rejection, Rashford was able to build the necessary groundswell of popular support needed to breakthrough.

The cause itself was worthy of the support it received from the Co-operative as well as numerous other high profile bodies but a good deal of Rashford’s success will be owed to the level of empathy he was able to stir in support of his cause. As he said himself, ‘this wasn’t about politics' or at least the inspiration for it wasn’t. This meant that a cause which may otherwise have ended up wedged in the cogs of party politics was given the license it needed to travel without fear of any backhanded agenda. But it was also a matter of personal pride for Rashford. In his letter, he spoke candidly about his own experience with food banks and kitchens. He added:

I recall very clearly our visits to Northern Moor to collect our Christmas dinners every year. It’s only now that I really understand the enormous sacrifice my mum made in sending me away to live in digs aged 11, a decision no mother would ever make lightly.

In offering a view into his own experience, Rashford was able to garner the empathy needed to reassure people that this remained a matter close to his heart, irrespective of the success he has since found. He has form in this area too. This week’s development comes after his collaboration with fareshareuk saw the financial goal to have 3 million meals delivered to vulnerable people across the UK matched, a result which speaks to his desire to positively impact the lives of the vulnerable. This has seen Rashford held up as a positive black role model. The work of Raheem Sterling in fronting an anti-racism campaign this week, after his experiences with dealing with racial abuse while in the public eye echoes a similar tale of finding positive solutions to confront the issues which have plagued both men. This though follows an all too familiar pattern which sees the onus placed on the wronged to instigate change. This was encapsulated by the actions of Patrick Hutchinson. For those unaware, Patrick Hutchinson is the man in the now famous picture which sees him carrying a ‘suspected far right protester' near Waterloo bridge. This action has rightly drawn praise as it should but again sees the weight of empathy and humanity placed on the party who in reality, requires it most.

By this I mean that too often the onus to find some sort on betterment falls on black people. In the face of discomfort, they are the ones who are made to first display some empathy to find some common ground and resolve issues, even if initially wronged. More often than not, this happens because we do not have access to the power structures needed to bypass this. Secondly, as a matter of perception, many often grow tired of reacting as one naturally would because they are aware that they may be accused of having attitude issues, or being a disturbance. This conditioning begins from young, is (sadly) often nurtured in our schools, and plays a role in the establishment of this pattern. This is too often the case, and for black people especially forms a vivid part of confronting racial disparities.

Patrick Hutchinson coming to the rescue of a protester

Matthew 5:44-45

It’s for this reason that the discourse surrounding positive black role models can be so difficult because to be recognised as such, all these men had to do more. It wasn’t enough for Raheem Sterling to be considered a positive black role model, despite being the standard of excellence from early age groups. Nor was it enough despite him winning the Golden boy award at 20, something which may have inspired many young black footballers throughout the country. He was though upon being prepared to stand up to racial abuse. Likewise, in the case of Patrick Hutchinson, the personal trainer and athletics coach from Wimbledon it was Saturday’s events which marked him out as being a positive black role model. Not his role in the lives of his two daughters or his grandchildren, but again, his ability to grasp at exceptionalism in the face of obstinance. This is why the trope of the ‘positive black role model’ can be difficult because when used it inevitably raises the question of not only on what basis it is defined but also by who? Having black people as high achievers in these spaces is enough. Raheem Sterling did not become a positive black role model when he spoke out against racism, for many he was when we first saw him as a 16 year old for Liverpool and the inspiration that brought to them. For those that knew him beforehand, there is the possibility that he may very well have been one much earlier; and the same applies for Rashford and for Hutchinson too.

Their value as 'Positive black models' is not to be drawn from their reaction to pain. This I suspect forms part of the wider beautification of black trauma, but this is a topic for another day. When done so in this way, we run the risk of treating the matter of the positive black role models as the not too distant cousin to the ‘intellectual black’ whose value is derived from his intelligence as a means of proving that they are ‘different to the others’ - as though blackness places one in some place of deficit which must then be accounted for. The recent debacle of the white woman who called the police on a black man in New York and the reveal that he was Harvard graduate (as though it should matter) is evidence to the dangers of this. There are positive black role models in every street and corner of this country who consistently defy the tropes and stereotypes they’ve been assigned from birth and prove themselves to be, not only their communities but primarily their homes. To go above and beyond the parapet society places above their crowns, need not be the requirement, they should simply be. Being black and all it entails should be enough.

For all the controversy that the recent weeks of protests have created, remember: the chants are of black lives matter. Not that they are above (as some would wrongly imply) nor that they are even special (which they are) but simply that they matter, and lo and behold when it comes to even accepting this, we are still not there yet.

Swansea protests

Black lives matters protesters gather at the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea. Picture courtesy of Deborah Duke.

The matter of who defines it is of equal consequence as well. You may be wondering why this is of significance but the most glaring place to view this point is clear - music. As a hint, I was told to include a mention toward Stormzy in this piece. About how he also stands a reflection of what positive black role models should be, but the irony of this is that the Stormzy we see today, and who many admire whilst largely a product of his own experiences is also a product of what has come before him. This as he said himself includes a plethora of artists from Kano to Dizzee Rascal to Wretch 32. Now for a second, consider how all these men stood in the face of public opinion or at least did before grime and garage before that, was given some mainstream presence. Hint: not very well.

That itself is illustrative of the backward logic of people who are not black defining what it means for someone to stand as a positive black role model and why who defines it is of such significance. Because for those who do not understand the culture for which they speak of, the same role models who they readily dismiss as being negative influences are very often those with a stronger handle on the culture themselves. With this, they can relate to those of that culture with greater sincerity and through this, they are able to act as 'role models' for those that are still to come.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that we justify the existence of bad in the hope that it may eventually foster some form of good – that would be unwise. Neither is this to suggest all those that came before Stormzy are bad. In fact, a number of us that grew up on them still value their music. They'll have their flaws no doubt, but 'bad' is how many in the media did and still do categories them. The point is to show the hypocrisy of attempting to define that which one does not understand, for those who have never asked it of them. It is to stress that the idea of the positive black role model while important, must be understood through the context of the black experience here and elsewhere if it is to hold any value.

Marcus Rashford’s activism this week deserves all the credit it has received and more. His actions over the past month speak to his character. Many who may have gone hungry no longer will, and a nation with one eye on a pandemic has had the other reverted to the salient issues of childhood hunger and the need to address racial disparities (Sterling and Hutchinson.) However, to only now cast them as positive black role models for their actions in the face of adversity would only contribute to a warped understanding of the term.

They've been playing this role for far longer.

Mayowa Ayodele