OPINION: What Azeem Rafiq’s case tells us about institutional racism in Britain

by Rohini Kahrs | @RohiniKahrs | Runnymede Trust
Friday, 26 November 2021 11:00 GMT

Cricket - Emerald Headingley Ground, home of Yorkshire County Cricket Club is seen in Leeds, Britain - November 23, 2021 Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine

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Azeem Rafiq’s testimony to British lawmakers over the racism he suffered throughout his sporting career says a lot about institutional racism in Britain

Rohini Kahrs is a Communications Officer at The Runnymede Trust, a British race equality think tank.

Former Yorkshire cricketer Azeem Rafiq’s testimony to British lawmakers over the racism he suffered throughout his sporting career was hard to watch. If only we could say it also came as a surprise.

As he recounted traumatic experiences of consistent racialised abuse, Islamophobia, and a harrowing memory of having wine forcefully poured down his throat as a 15-year-old boy, we all recoiled in shared horror over the details of yet another racism scandal in British sport.

But Rafiq’s case is far bigger than cricket. It’s a testimony that resonated with the majority of black and ethnic minority people in this country precisely because it encapsulates the experiences of many of us who have had to endure racism in the workplace. Sadly, Rafiq is far from alone in his suffering. Perhaps the only real surprise for black and ethnic minority people across the country is that it took so long for the truth to be exposed.

Rafiq’s testimony told us what we need to know about institutional racism in Britain. It’s telling that an earlier independent investigation into his case stated that there was "insufficient evidence" to say Yorkshire Cricket Club was institutionally racist. That statement echoed the narrative made in the government-commissioned report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities earlier this year, which downplayed the existence of institutional racism in this country.

It has since come to light that Rafiq himself has made deplorable antisemitic comments in 2011. Although he has since issued a mature apology which has been accepted by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, many are now arguing that this undermines his testimony with hypocrisy. The fact of the matter is, everyone makes mistakes, and in this social media era those mistakes stay with us for decades. Individuals will continue to make mistakes, but if these are addressed and dealt with in a timely and appropriate manner they do not spiral into something worse.

Institutional racism comes about when there is a failure at every level to act at an early opportunity when ‘casual’ racism takes place, the so-called ‘banter’ in this case. And the more its existence is denied, the more stark it becomes when it is exposed. There’s no such thing as institutional racism that suddenly erupts out of nowhere. If casual racism is not called out and addressed, then it will fester and fester until it gets to a point in which institutions and workplaces are themselves effectively colluding, as we saw in this instance.

Of course, individuals must all be held accountable for harmful actions, whether sexist, racist, ableist or other. But by placing the blame solely on individuals we fail to address cultures that allow this abuse to thrive. Racism will continue to be dismissed as ‘banter’ until the weight of racist comments are made clear from an early age, or an early point of intervention. People clearly understand that sexist behaviour is not acceptable in the workplace, and there is accountability for this. Racism in the workplace must be treated with the same level of gravity.

As we saw with the racism England’s football players faced at the Euros, it's now falling on scandals in sports and culture to highlight how pervasive racism is in our society. And it is also showing a real disconnect between where the general public are and where decision-makers sit on dismantling institutional racism in Britain. Are we going to continue to punish individuals on a case-by-case basis and hope the problem goes away, or are institutions, schools and employers going to collectively take action?

Rafiq is not alone in being gaslit: his experiences are echoed by ethnic minority people across the country who are told that the racism they face has nothing to do with the systems that we live in. This denial comes from the very top. It is not just cricket club chairmen or leading employers, it is government ministers and commissions that are setting this tone.

It is no surprise that racist abuse is dismissed as ‘banter’ when  powerful institutions across the country deny the prevalence and indeed importance of institutional racism. We must question why our leaders are dragging their heels on addressing institutional racism in this country and, rather than wait for another racism scandal in sports, use Rafiq’s case as an example for how to reckon with institutional racism.

Rather than convey our shock and surprise when, inevitably, the next racism scandal comes to light, let’s dismantle racism at its roots and foster a culture where we don’t ever have to discuss whether a comment is racialised abuse or banter. By now, we should know better.

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