My City, My Shirt Celebrates The Rich Culture of Cardiff While Tackling Racism in Football

The photography project run by Yusuf Ismail and Shawqi Hasson, which was designed to help unify Wales’ football and BIPOC communities, was astonishingly rejected by Cardiff City Football Club for encouraging ‘reverse racism’. Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin speaks to Ismail to find out more.

WORDS Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin
IMAGES Courtesy of Shawqi Hasson

As Yusuf Ismail, a Cardiff-based creative, sat with his best friend at a Cardiff City match in August 2019, it dawned on him that they were the only visible People of Colour (PoCs) in the entire stadium. This alienating experience was even more staggering within the context that roughly 70% of the entire Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPoC) community of Wales lives in Cardiff; while many of them are likely to be football fans, it was clear to Ismail that they did not feel sufficiently welcome.

“For me as a Black man born and raised in Cardiff, it was the first time that I had felt this conscious about the colour of my skin”, says Ismail. “After going to several more games and still seeing no people of colour, I realised this was a real issue and simply felt compelled to do something about it”.  

It’s no secret that racism runs deep within the veins of football culture on a UK-wide scale. Home Office figures show that more than 150 football-related racist incidents were reported to police last season, showing a 50% increase in cases than last year, and more than double the number from three seasons ago. A recent report by RunRepeat, a Danish research firm, suggested that racial bias is evident even in football commentary, where players with lighter skin are regularly and overwhelmingly praised for intelligence, work ethic and quality, while those with darker skin are reduced to physical and athletic attributes. Today, as I type ‘racism’ into Google, the second recommended search is ‘racism in football’.

The daily reality for the BIPoC professional footballers who make up around 33% percent (as of the 2017-2018 season) of the Premier League garnered mainstream attention following a racial verbal attack from a Manchester City fan against Raheem Sterling in December 2018. Since then, conscious efforts to combat discrimination in the sport by groups such as Kick It Out have gained momentum and support, especially in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. However, when confronting such historically ingrained systemic biases within a cultural framework built on the spoils of colonialism and white supremacy, the march uphill towards progress is long and arduous, and, often, community-led grassroots initiatives have the most meaningful impact.

In the spirit of this, Ismail and photographer Shawqi Hasson decided to use their collective skills and lived experiences to create a project to address the issues they identified. Thus, My City, My Shirt, which uses photography to explore themes such as race, inclusion & identity in the world of football, as well as celebrating the rich cultural heritage of their hometown, Cardiff, and the inspiring stories of their subjects.

“Starting with a poster campaign, we took portraits of people of colour in Cardiff wearing the shirt, which is a statement within itself, then we put these posters across the city on match days for a few months”, says Ismail. “Just so we could normalise the idea of People of Colour wearing the Cardiff City shirt.”

Following this, they exhibited the full body of work – a total of 23 portraits – in Cardiff during Black History Month, which was attended by many BIPoC individuals, who finally felt represented by a team they loved. 

Unfortunately, this celebration of the city’s diversity and beauty was not well-received by all. According to Ismail, they were refused the official support of Cardiff City, who told me that they dismissed their project as encouraging ‘reverse racism’ – a damning representation of the normalisation of racism within football, and within the wider society. 

Incredibly inspired by this campaign, I spoke further with Yusuf Ismail regarding his inspiration behind this project and their experience with the Cardiff City Football Club.

Prishita: Why was it important for you to have the involvement of the Cardiff City club? Could you tell me more about your experience with them?

Yusuf: I thought it important to involve the Cardiff City Football Club because I felt they could use their platform to reach out to People of Colour in Cardiff. The relationship between the Cardiff BIPoC communities and Cardiff City is non-existent; our hope was to use this project as a real turning point in community relations.

Early on in the project, we were invited by the club for a meeting to discuss our project with their Community Engagement Manager. We showed her some portraits, some campaign imagery and some short films that we had created for the project. Even though she said she loved the work, she seemed confused about the intent behind our project and was worried that if the club was seen to support such a project, it could run the risk of alienating their existing fan base. She stated that it could even be perceived as “reverse racism” if preferential treatment was shown to BIPoC communities – a statement that left us extremely confused and upset that someone would hold such views. It’s attitudes like these that highlight the importance of our work. If anyone feels that making a space more inclusive is a problem, then it’s clear that they are the problem! 

P: You’re completely right about that. What a challenging situation to find yourself in. Did you face any other challenges during this project?

Y: Walking home from the very first shoot, I was stopped and searched by three plain-clothed police officers. They pulled up their car in front of me and started to question me, accusing me of having thrown bags of drugs at a group of people I had just passed by on my walk. I made it very clear to them that I had no involvement in anything of the sort, but they continued in a hostile manner, searching my clothes and my bags. When they spotted the football shirts we had used in the shoot, they asked me where the receipt was. I was really taken aback, and stressed that these shirts were my property, to which they only replied, “But how long ago did you buy them? Do you have receipts?”

They eventually realised that they had nothing more to go on and drove away without as much as an apology. They’d humiliated me in front of my entire neighbourhood. And I know that this is the reality for Black men in Cardiff; all over the country. I dread to think how quickly the situation could have gone south if I’d not been as cooperative or if I was younger or less articulate. 

I’m pretty sure this one incident would have deterred 99% of people from continuing with the exhibition had they been in my shoes. But I just kept going as if nothing happened and didn’t even tell my closest friends, who will probably hear about it for the first time reading this interview.

The relationship between the Cardiff BIPoC communities and Cardiff City is non-existent; our hope was to use this project as a real turning point in community relations.

Yusuf Ismail

P: That’s truly awful and very indicative of the need for your project. I’m so sorry that happened to you. Perhaps to shift to a more positive topic, would you like to share your favourite part of this project?

Y: The shoot with Ken, the owner of Xquisite Africa. Xquisite Africa is a self-proclaimed “one stop shop” for all African goods; selling everything from the latest weaves to the rarest of herbal spices. It’s not just a store, but a cultural hub. The shoot was surreal for many different reasons – I learnt so much and the experience was so culturally rich that something within me was changed afterwards. As one of the oldest Black-owned businesses in Cardiff, the store is considered somewhat of a landmark within the Black community. Meeting Ken’s mother, ‘Mama’, was really special; she was very supportive of our project and understood why representation is so important.

P: It’s so fantastic that these wonderful stories could be told through the exhibition. Could you tell me more about how you worked with Kick It Out to make it a reality?

Y: After the conversation with Cardiff City, we decided to look at alternative partners and were introduced to a campaign by Kick It Out called Fans for Diversity. This is spearheaded by Anwar Uddin, a former West Ham player who was the first Bangladeshi footballer to ever play professionally in England. Anwar has worked on creative projects in the past and understood the importance of what we were trying to do. He was keen to support us and helped secure funding for our exhibition.

P: I was really overwhelmed by the beauty of these photographs and the message behind them, and very aware of how positive it would’ve been for me to be exposed to such imagery growing up. What impact do you think this exhibition would have had on you if you’d been able to experience it as a child?

Y: Inspiring children and serving the needs of the youth is one of the things that is forever at the forefront of my mind. As a child, I would always be looking outside of Cardiff for all my inspiration. I felt this project gave us the chance to change that and show Cardiff in a new light. We started the project off with a visual campaign using some of the early portraits, placing large format posters all across Cardiff. The impact they had was immediate; we had totally reimagined what the club could be. I made sure we put some posters up near high schools where the majority of pupils are from BIPoC working class communities, like myself. This was important to me because I wanted these students to see people from our communities looking larger than life. 

In my mind, I was envisioning a kid looking out the window of the school bus and seeing someone from their neighbourhood looking like a superhero. I remember being sent a video of school girls screaming like they had seen Justin Beiber when they saw Ayah Abdul, who set up the first hijabi-wearing all-girls football team in Cardiff and is revered for her community work, on one of our posters near their school. That one video made my whole month and was confirmation to me that our project was very necessary.

P: That’s wonderful! I look forward to being able to experience the exhibition in person in the future. What’re your plans with this project going forward?

Y: We’re very aware that similar issues exist in other cities, so we feel that our work has really only just begun. We feel this project is needed in cities up and down the UK and we are currently in talks with several interested parties. We really want to make every project unique and exclusive to that particular city. We will also be exhibiting our Cardiff project in London in the new year, which is something we are really looking forward to.

We feel this project is needed in cities up and down the UK – we really want to make every project unique and exclusive to that particular city.

Yusuf Ismail

Ayah

Ayah left war-torn Libya aged 13, to return to the UK. Unable to speak English, she felt playing football was the only way she could express herself and build friendships during these years. Ayah has since set up the first hijabi-wearing all-girls football team and coaches a girls under-15s team. Ayah is an established advocate for girls-in football and grassroots football in Cardiff; it is rare to come across someone who genuinely loves her community like her.

To Ismail, Ayah is the complete embodiment of the project. On the day of the shoot, she arrived with her bright pink Adidas Football boots dangling off her shoulder, a detail that Yusuf insisted be included in her portrait.

Ken

Ken is the owner of Xquisite Africa, one of the oldest Black-owned businesses in Cardiff. The environment is unapologetically Black – Black Hair care products, weaves and wigs next to spices and herbs. Most people are unaware of the history behind Ken’s store, so it was crucial to the team to use this project to shed light on stories like his.

Khalifa

Khalifa fled war torn Sudan to the UK in 2009, after being imprisoned by the regime at the time. Unable to get a job he trained as a Barber for a few months before deciding to become a Barber full-time. Within a few years, he set up his own Barbershop called ” Fix Up Look Sharp”. He now employs and trains other people from the community who are in need of guidance and support.

Aaliyah

Aaliyah moved from London aged 11 to an area of Cardiff that was predominantly white.

“Unbeknownst to Aaliyah, she was the person who made me think about the importance of identity during the project. I was raised in an environment where Black culture was all around me. Whereas for her, the minute she left her home it was something she would have to actively seek. As a Black child, moving from an environment where many would’ve looked like you to somewhere that was the polar opposite must have been tough. Many of our conversations at the time revolved around our very different experiences growing up in Cardiff. But it was conversations like this that stressed to me the importance of identity and representation especially for children and teenagers”, shared Ismail.

Maimuna

Maimuna came to Cardiff four years ago with her husband, Ibrahim. The team wanted to photograph Maimuna after seeing her in her stunning traditional African clothing. On the day of the shoot, they realised that Maimuna was pregnant and expecting next month. So, they improvised and had her wear the shirt and place her hands on her baby bump; an truly poetic experience. 

Ismail and Hasson feel this photograph in particular embodies the spirit of the project. Maimuna’s daughter is part of the BIPoC demographic that this project hopes to uplift and fight on the behalf of, so that they do not encounter the same hurdles and obstacles as generations of BIPoCs in the UK have experienced; the struggle to establish an identity in a society that does not completely accept them.

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