This Is What Black Joy Means To Maro Itoje

You’re reading Kiss The Joy, an interview series with big name British celebs about where they find their sense of Black self and happiness.

Picture a Black sports star and a premiership footballer, US basketball name, or Olympian athlete might spring to mind – not necessarily a rugby player.

Despite having a bigger Black heritage than you might expect, rugby isn’t traditionally seen as something Black people in the UK get into – least of all by Black people in the UK. In fact, if ever a sport was associated with the white British middle class, rugby is it – but Maro Itoje is changing that.

It’s 8.30am when his face first pops up on Zoom for our interview, those familiar locs and his 6ft 5 height less obvious in the small square on my laptop screen. He definitely seems like a morning person. But then he must be used to getting up early for training. He’s been doing it long enough.

Born to Nigerian parents in Camden Town, London, Itoje started playing rugby at 11, making his senior debut for Saracens at 19, and winning a place on the British & Irish Lions team at 22, making him one of the youngest players to do so. Just four years later, Itoje, now 26, can say he is a four-time Premiership winner, three-time European championship international, World Cup semi-finalist, and former recipient of the European Rugby Player of the Year.

We’re not really here to talk about sport today, but we can’t help but discuss work, just a little. Because his job, like so many others, was put on pause by the pandemic. The past 18 months impacted everyone’s personal and professional lives, but for those in the sporting world, the return came sooner than most.

When you’re a rugby player, you can’t easily work from home.

Dan Mullan – RFU via Getty Images

Maro Itoje during a recent training session in London.

The pandemic didn’t just change the dynamic of his training and games, but the dynamic of his life. “We’ve been in a lot of bubbles,” Itoje says from the north London home where even he spent a lot of time. “Actually we’ve probably had to be more cautious than the average citizen because if one or two of us get Covid, it means our games can’t be put on.”

Even if you aren’t a rugby fan, you might have seen Itoje’s name mentioned – or rather not mentioned – when cabinet minister Gavin Williamson embarrassingly got him confused with another prominent Black British sportsman this year.

Williamson, still education secretary at the time, told an Evening Standard interviewer that he’d spoken on a video call to England football Marcus Rashford when he had in fact he’d met Itoje. Cool as you like, Itoje found the perfect response on Twitter.

The tweet was characteristic of his easy manner. With more than 104,000 followers on Twitter and 283,000 on Instagram, he is a very public figure. Being this visible online as a Black person, unfortunately, means facing the ever present possibility of micro-aggressions and abuse – racial or otherwise.

Itoje knows this comes as part of the territory, but says generally he doesn’t pay it too much attention. “I don’t have a documented policy of how I deal with certain things like that and for the little bits of micro-aggressions I get, there’s a lot more love and support. We’re never going to please everybody so I think it’s important to do what you think is right and keep the train moving.”

Asked what it feels like to be a Black man in rugby, he reflects. “I guess it’s all I’ve ever done so I don’t really know – it’s hard to compare and contrast it to other sports. We’re definitely part of the minority, but it’s all I’ve ever known.” A pause. “It’s nice when you see other young Black rugby players coming through, showing appreciation of what you do.”

For the duration of our call, Itoje is seated in front of a beautiful African painting – he’s a self-confessed art nut, co-hosting an exhibition earlier this summer in Mayfair, A History Untold, featuring work by six African and Diaspora artists.

As proud as he is of his African root, he also acknowledges his British identity with ease – or rather what he describes at his “hyphenated identities”.

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