Axel Tuanzebe: Education is so important
Manchester United defender Axel Tuanzebe has emphasised the value of Black History Month, what it means to him and why inclusion is something that needs to be promoted across all areas of society.
The United defender also opens up on his experiences of racism, in the full Q&A which you can read below...
Axel, first of all how important is Black History Month?
“Black History Month is, I would say, something for a lot of black people to understand their own heritage, where they’re from and who they are. I think it is very important that we embrace it and celebrate it every single year.”
It started in the United States some time ago but has only come into the UK more recently…
“Yeah, it’s good that it’s spreading. With how the world is, you know, there’s a lot of racism, especially in sports as well. Black History Month is at least a time when we can reflect and see what we can do as an organisation to suppress stuff like that from happening and just having equality in the game.”
We know you embraced education when you came here from DR Congo, is that the important message here? Educating people so everybody gets the lessons that have been learned?
“Most definitely. It starts in schools but it’s very hard to kind of understand your own heritage from school because you’re in a completely different country and because, for most people in that case, Black History Month stands out. It’s for them to, again, understand who they are, where they have come from, what they represent etc, etc. So I think it’s massive and always good when it comes around.”
Was it something you did at school or was it not introduced back then?
“That’s what I kind of wanted to stress on like, in school, it’s not really taught as much, it’s only specific things talked about for Black History Month. I think it’s very important that it’s a wide range of history in general, not only for black people, but for every kind of ethnicity and race. So, as you become older in age, I think it helps prevent racism, or reduce it to an extent, because people are educated on other people’s beliefs and ethnicities and it will always help to respect that.”
Do you think things are changing gradually, even if there is still a lot of work to do, do you feel there is some change?
“Yeah, definitely. As long as there is progression, we are going in the right direction. You know, more can be done but, step by step, it’s coming closer and closer. Us lot, as a team, and as a sport, as long as we keep doing our bit to also enlighten about the issues, it will help leading bodies to make executive decisions.”
We spoke to Andy Cole recently about the same subject, it was slightly different going back further but do you think there are just different challenges facing players playing today to what he had to put up with?
“Yeah, I think, back in his day, it was a lot worse. You can see from his day to now, how it’s improved. I think the side of social media is what has really ramped up. Again, there are simple solutions to that and we have talked about it many times in the team. Have everyone have a passport registered to an account and it makes it easy to identify people who are being racist. These are simple methods just to help reduce it and help to kick it out of the game. At the end of the day, we want everyone to feel comfortable, no matter where they are from.”
Do you find it hard to believe that it still goes on as we often see it after certain games and certain incidents?
“[Sighs] It’s just ignorance really, isn’t it? I think people do not understand how much words can hurt other people. Normally, a lot of people are strong, well not normally, but they can be strong and can just brush it off. For other people, it could be devastating or demoralising and knock them off their pathway and lead them on another path. It really is something that needs to be nipped in the bud and suppressed, sooner rather than later.”
Does it make you angry when some people may say you’re a Premier League footballer and it’s just part and parcel of that as you should never have to face it?
“It shouldn’t have to be like that. Why is it? It’s almost like they say you get paid so much, so you should be able to tolerate it. It’s not the case. We’re all the same. We’re all humans, at the end of the day, and we have feelings and emotions. We have family and your family has to see this stuff, all these negative words thrown at you. I mean, when it happened to me as well, my little sister, she’s only young. She’s seen it and it could have affected her. It might not affect directly the person you’re saying it to but it’s open for the general [public] to see it and how it goes. So it can affect family members all the same so I think people need to be really careful what they say online.”
Absolutely. The club does its best when it can to help, we have the See Red campaign and try to act whenever these incidents occur…
“Definitely. I think it’s great from the club to show support to the players, first and foremost. Just to see them pushing for a campaign for more equality in sport is massive. For such a big organisation like Manchester United to be pushing, it will encourage other organisations to step on board and move in the right direction.”
You grew up at United, of course, and we know the Academy is doing more and more to educate youngsters coming through about all the whole aspects of this…
“Yeah, I think the sooner you can educate people on it, the better. I think racism is something that is taught. I don’t think anybody is born racist. I think it’s taught and, if you can get it to early age-groups, and the young lads to understand, to never tolerate it, it will always just improve the sport and humanity in general as well.”
You’ve said before you moved here from another country and may have had experiences but football was the universal language for you growing up and how you made friends and fitted in here?
“When everyone is playing football, no matter whether they’re white, black, brown or whatever, they are all enjoying the game of football. So why now is race a problem? It shouldn’t be. If you see kids playing, it will be very diverse in a group of children playing. They are all just enjoying the common thing they share and that’s football. It shouldn’t be going on because it’s just trying to destroy the game. You’re bringing players down and making them feel small instead of expressing themselves and that’s what the game is about.”
Did you have any role models growing up who you could go to if you ever encountered any problems?
“I think the club have a massive support system on that. Coming through the MANUSS scheme, with the people involved like Dave Bushell, Marek Szmid, Tony Whelan, all these guys, and the coaches as well, were always there for support. They would always try to filter some sessions about racism and discrimination, that stuff, into our learning process. It was not just always football, football, football. We were also learning to be good human beings, something I think has always been done in the all the age-groups at the club, and I think it’s massive. When Manchester United players leave here, you always hear good things about United players, you don’t hear he’s a bad worker or rude or always late. I don’t really get that anyway from all the leagues. You always hear good things about the Manchester United players and it all starts from the Academy, how the guys are working tirelessly and are bringing good human beings up.”
You mentioned Tony Whelan there and he won a Black List award in Manchester recently, he’s long been a fundamental part of the Academy hasn’t he?
“Yeah, I’ve not seen him today but I need to congratulate him when I see him. I’ve known Tony since I was eight or nine years old. He’s a massive part of my life. He knows my family really well. He always asks me about my dad and stuff. If my dad sees him, they will catch up and speak. That’s how much it's become almost like a second family, these people, and you’ll never forget who they are. No matter how big you go, you always think of them so, whenever I see him in the canteen, I say hello as he’s been such an integral part of my life.”
It's about history this Black History Month and Andy Cole said about the trailblazers for him, people like Cyrille Regis, who may have been before your time but do you appreciate what those guys endured perhaps to set the pathway for others going forward?
“Exactly, it’s all about just setting little pathways and reminders for the next generation to come. The work they have done has enabled us to be here today and what they will do will enable the next generation, to play a part in their role.”
Do you see yourself as a role model?
“I see myself as me. If others see me as a role model, then, you know, I can only say that’s a good thing as I must be doing something right. But, yeah, I just try to represent myself how was taught to represent myself with obviously a mix of who I am as well.”
Will you always be there if somebody does need to talk to you from the Academy, perhaps about things off the pitch?
“Most definitely. People face things where they don’t feel confident talking about with parents or siblings or somebody close to them. It could just be a colleague or someone who has gone through the same thing as you, that you can relate to. So if any of the lads from any age-group need to speak to me, and I’m sure most of the first team would step aside and speak to them to try to help them where they can.”
Finally, we know Black History Month runs throughout October but is it important the work carries on all year round, every year, so things do improve in all areas?
“Yeah, yeah, definitely. I think, again, it’s only getting bigger and bigger. I think the more the sports channels can emphasise that, the better. I think Black History Month yes, it is celebrating black history but it’s celebrating equality, simple things that we face in life. It’s diversity etc etc and I think it’s celebrating that and people should also recognise that. A lot of people can relate to Black History Month. They just can’t see it yet. It’s an emphasis on those points as well.”