I was in school when I learned that there are certain things black women are not supposed to do.
It happened when I sat down with a careers advisor. She asked me what I wanted to become.
I said, “I want to be a lawyer.”
She looked at me, confused.
You could tell that she had never thought of black women as lawyers before. There weren’t a lot of black people at my school, in Birmingham, so she had never even been exposed to the idea. After a pause, she told me that my becoming a lawyer was … well … unlikely.
“But you could try to become a nurse?” she said.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a nurse. My mum was a nurse, and she is one of the most hardworking and sacrificial people I know. But I had other aspirations at the time.
When I was 14 years old, I had read To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel that was part of my English Literature course at school, and ever since I had wanted to be like its hero, Atticus Finch. He was a middle-aged lawyer who was representing a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. This was Alabama in the 1930s, so a white man defending a black man knew that he was going to be ridiculed and criticised, or worse. But Atticus Finch stood up for him anyway, even as he was attacked for it.
I became obsessed with Atticus Finch. I admired his strength and courage. I loved the idea of fighting the system and pursuing justice at all costs. I read the book over and over, I knew every word. I imagined the great courtroom scenes, when Atticus addresses the jury.I loved the idea of fighting the system and pursuing justice at all costs.
Atticus Finch: Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levellers, and in our courts all men are created equal.
So when it came to what I wanted to study at university, the choice was easy. I hated science. I hated maths. I was good at writing, decent at speaking. Also, it helped that Nigerian parents love lawyers!
I had the best grades in class. Objectively, there was no reason for the careers advisor to think that I could not become a lawyer.
And yet I might as well have told her that I wanted to fly to the moon.
Courtesy of Eni Aluko
This is what it feels like when somebody projects a racial stereotype of what you can and cannot do. You feel that somebody is trying to make you less than what you are. And when you know that the reason is the colour of your skin, that’s racism. I mean, there’s no other way to put it. The careers advisor probably didn’t even know that she was being racist. She was acting on her subconscious, which had been shaped by the limitations society often places on people of colour.
Luckily, Atticus Finch saved me. He showed me that going with the flow is not always a good thing. Before I read about him I had tried to fit in, to be accepted by those around me. I had even changed my name because of it.
My friends did not know me as Eniola or Eni.
They knew me as Eddie.
I would be sitting in the kitchen at our council estate in Birmingham and some boys would knock on the door asking for Eddie to come out. Ever since I was about five, I had been playing football with my brother, Sone, and the boys on the estate. For whatever reason there seemed to be no other girls on the estate, so joining the boys was my way of being part of a group. I was so obsessed with being accepted that I even modified my personality. I wanted to be a boy.
That’s … weird, you know? I look back now and I’m like, Uh, that’s a bit much.
But I wanted validation.
And when that validation was challenged, it gave me a big problem.
One day I was playing in a boys’ team when some of the parents who were watching said, “Hey, she’s a girl! Who said she could play?”
I was crushed. I wanted everyone to love what I was doing. The boys didn’t have a problem with it — they were just impressed that I could play — but the parents didn’t like that I was making their sons look bad. What they said really bothered me. So I quit football for quite a long time. And soon I hit a crisis. If football defined who I was, what was I without football? Should girls play football? All my life I had watched Manchester United on TV and idolised Ryan Giggs and Eric Cantona. I had never seen any other girls play football. Not on TV, not in my area. As far as I knew, girls my age were playing with dolls and learning to do their hair.
Courtesy of Eni Aluko
Why was I doing something that no one else seemed to do?
Tennis had role models I could relate to: not only women, but black women. Serena Williams. Venus Williams. I began wearing beads in my hair. I tried to take it up. But I never became a good tennis player. I was better at football. And I never loved tennis like I loved football.
Football was just who I was.
I also had challenges with my dual nationality. I was born in Lagos to Nigerian parents, but I had grown up in Birmingham. I didn’t get my first British passport until I was 13, so effectively I wasn’t British, right? But at 12 I had travelled for the first time to Nigeria, where my father was being inaugurated as one of the youngest senators in his party, and it ended up being a stressful experience. I didn’t feel Nigerian either.
Then I read To Kill a Mockingbird.
Who is Atticus Finch? He is someone who has the courage to stand up for justice in a society that isn’t interested in racial equality. Even if it costs him. He is not afraid to be different. Of course he’s not an actual person, but I believe that his traits can be found in many leaders, politicians and lawyers, particularly human rights lawyers. For my part, I had always been quite laid-back as a child, but I would become assertive whenever I sensed that something was unfair. Reading that book made me think, Ahh! If he can do it, I can too.
Atticus Finch became part of my character. Towards the end of senior school I became more aware of opportunities to defend people who could not stand up for themselves. One day I came across a black boy who had an Afro. Other boys were dyeing their hair green and blue, but this boy was told that, no, he could not come to school with that hair. I was like, Uhm, that doesn’t make any sense.
I knew that I risked being unpopular if I tried to interfere. But I also thought about the book.
Atticus Finch: Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.
So I went to the head teacher, who I had a good relationship with, and I said, “Why does that boy have to change his hair, and all these kids with crazy green and blue hair don’t?”
She just said, “Oh … good point.”
And that was it!
Before long the school made a blanket rule that girls had to wear skirts that went past their knees, that nobody could bring phones into school, that our hair had to be in a certain way. I don’t know if any of that would have happened had I not spoken up. I felt good about that. I was like, Oh, O.K. … I affected something. And I got a buzz from it.
Now I was hooked. At 14, I went to the U.S. on my own (!) to visit my aunt, who was a corporate lawyer in New York. I remember staying in her apartment and being in awe of all the books she owned. I began watching films about lawyers.
A few years later, I was holding a first-class bachelor degree in law.
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But getting a training contract as a lawyer is notoriously hard in England. When I began applying, I got rejection after rejection. My mom actually began to hide the letters because she didn’t want them to discourage me. I was playing for Charlton and England at the time, so my football career was going well. But women’s football in England wasn’t professional at that time, and I couldn’t get a legal job for love nor money.
Then, out of the blue, I got a call from Jeff Cooper, the owner of Saint Louis Athletica, who were playing in WPS, the second professional women’s soccer league in America. He said, “Why don’t you come over here and play in the States? I know you’re a lawyer….”
I said, “How do you know that?”
He said, “Oh, I’m a lawyer too. I own some law firms. In the off season, why don’t you come work for one of my firms?”
That call was as if sent from heaven. So after a spell at Chelsea, I left for the States, where I was able to play professional football and, thanks to Jeff, start my law career at the same time. When the WPS folded in 2012, I moved home to play for Birmingham City, and then I rejoined Chelsea, in London. Which is where I finally got my first training contract as a lawyer.
The firm was called Lee & Thompson and were in entertainment, so they represented musicians, filmmakers, artists, celebrities…. It was really cool. But combining law with football was tricky.
When you start out in a law firm, you do different departments. I got into the film department, where a lot of the clients lived in L.A. Since the day started much later for them, I would spend most of the morning idle, then a bunch of work would come to me in the afternoon. The problem was that I had to go to training at five p.m. The other trainees were putting in 12-hour shifts, and I felt I could hear their thoughts as I went out the door. Oh, look, she’s leaving early again….
That wasn’t easy, and I got very self-conscious about it. But I have never regretted entering law. As much as I have loved playing for England and Chelsea, I have always wanted to make a difference beyond football. My mother always talks about legacy. What are we leaving behind for the next generation? What can I do to help?
That’s why I always try to be a role model for young girls who want to be professional footballers. I also want people to have better access to education. I’m fighting for gender equality and empowerment. I’ll continue to battle racism, no matter how daunting the task might seem.
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Atticus Finch: I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.
I used to want to fit in. Now I don’t mind standing out. I was happy to take part in the negotiations between the Football Association and the women’s national team, so that we could improve our contracts and understand the terms and conditions. I got less enjoyment out of my well-documented case with the FA and a coach who did not want me to do as well as other girls in the team — or at least that’s what it felt like. But I wanted to talk about it, so that people know what’s going on. Because once you do, you can deal with it much better.
The hardest stuff continues to be the insidious stereotypes. I left Chelsea for Juventus last year. One day in Turin I went into a convenience store ‘round the corner from where I live. As I began shopping I heard a lady ask me if I could leave my rucksack at the front of the store.
At first I didn’t really understand it. I just kept on shopping: a pack of pasta, a jar of pesto. I noticed that other people in the shop had not left their bags at the front.The hardest stuff continues to be the insidious stereotypes.
Then it clicked.
The lady thinks I’m gonna steal stuff from the store.
When I got to the front of the store, I spoke to the lady. I said, “I can see there are no other bags at the front of the store. There are other people in the store. So why have you asked me to leave my bag here?”
She said, “Well, you know, it’s policy.”
I said, “No, no, no, it’s not policy. You thought I was going to steal pasta and pesto.”
I showed her the Juventus logo on my rucksack and explained that I play for the club. Only then did she realise that I wasn’t going to steal. She said, “Oh my God, I’m so, so sorry.” But that wasn’t good enough.
I said, “Listen, you can’t do that. There will be many other people who come in here that may not be Juventus players, but they deserve to be treated like any other shopper in the store.”
She was mortified. I guarantee you: if another black girl walks into that store, it’s not gonna happen again.
But I was angry. It was a convenience store for goodness sake! The notion that I would steal something was not even rational. Sadly, though, that’s what can happen in a society that doesn’t see a lot of successful black people. But we can all change that reality through our lives and successes one by one.
Football is no different. Why are there hardly any black men in coaching? Probably because black men are not viewed as leaders in the same way that white men are. Why do the media always describe black players as fast and powerful? Again, it plays into stereotypes.
Jonathan Moscrop/Cal Sport Media/AP Images
I think we’re at a point now where the majority of people recognise that racism is not acceptable. But we need the authorities to up their game. When there are racist incidents in the Premier League and Serie A, why do we not close the stadiums? Token gestures like wearing a T-shirt or posting on social media aren’t going to change anything, frankly. The minute you close stadiums, you hit the fans, then you hit the revenue, and then clubs will take it more seriously. At the moment, some clubs get fined less for racism than for being late out of the dressing room.
It takes athletes to step up too. Look at how Raheem Sterling has affected the racism debate in England. Several American athletes have had the courage to take a stand on political issues, like Colin Kaepernick. I’d like to see that happening more in England.
We also need athletes to be part of the boards that run football. I want to try to set up an athlete consulting team that organisations can talk to. It could be as simple as sitting down with the FA or UEFA once a month and saying, “O.K., where are we at? What are we doing about these issues?” Because otherwise we won’t be part of the conversation at all, and we’ll just continue to react to incidents instead of trying to prevent them.
The encouraging part is that it used to be worse. We have it far better today than most players did in the past. But we can still do more. And although it can sometimes feel as if racism and gender inequality will never leave sport, you have to keep trying.
You have to keep speaking up at important moments. You have to keep pushing so that people can be educated and converted, one by one.
Of course, you won’t always win. But sometimes you do.
Eni’s book They Don’t Teach This is available to buy on Amazon.