This blog contains quotations of abusive and racist language
Progress can be deceiving. After years of both perceived and real progress in social justice, the 2010’s saw a string of international moments, dragging into sharp relief the deep-seated issues that continue to bubble and fester beneath the surface.
In 2015, Harvey Weinstein accusers sparked the #MeToo movement that held a mirror up to the entire entertainment industry. In 2016, a former footballer telling their story led to a sexual abuse scandal that spanned British football. More recently, the murder of George Floyd propelled Black Lives Matter into the global spotlight, uniting movements around the world to highlight the structures that result in racial disparities across societies.
It was a sobering realisation — perhaps our society had not come as far we’d once thought.
Despite happening across issues and borders, in these moments we saw patterns forming — including, notably, the opacity of the systems and institutional structures within which we live. Hidden from public view and the checks and balances that go along with it, insular environments rife with discrimination develop, where abuse operates unchecked.
So far, unmasking these power structures has relied on individual flashpoints; singular moments that capture society’s attention, focusing it onto the real-life, tangible effects of the abuses those with power are able to get away with. One person bravely speaks out and inspires others to do the same, generating momentum and focus.
But that focus can be a double-edged sword — to make a difference that lasts, it must be used correctly. If we continually focus on individual wrongdoing ahead of the institutional environment which allows it, we will always be stuck firefighting the symptoms of injustice instead of tackling its root causes.
Abusive power structures rely on a lack of accountability — without it they could not exist. By demonstrating that incidents of abuse are not isolated, we can begin to restore accountability, democratising institutions to allow real justice for victims.
In 2021, English cricket had its #MeToo moment when Azeem Rafiq spoke out about the decades-long racist abuse he suffered whilst playing professional cricket for Yorkshire County Cricket Club.
WHAT HAPPENED AT YORKSHIRE?
“I was a young kid from Pakistan, living in Barnsley, with a dream to represent England,” Azeem Rafiq said in his opening statement to the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. His dreams would become reality in 2008 when he became a professional cricketer, signing with his local team — Yorkshire County Cricket Club.
Rafiq excelled, going on to become Yorkshire’s youngest ever captain in 2012. Despite his childhood ambitions playing out in front of him, he never anticipated the abuse he would receive at every turn; from his teammates, his employers, and even his England heroes.
To many of them, he was always the outsider:
“There were comments like ‘You lot sit over there near the toilets’ … ’Elephant washers.”
“There was the constant use of the word ‘Paki’.”
Worse still, however, was Rafiq’s dismay at the very sport itself he loved so much, abandoning him to look after”their own”.
The regularity of the abuse Rafiq suffered is difficult to comprehend. It started from his earliest days at the club, just 17 years old and naive to the world of professional sport. It continued throughout his time at the club, during his struggles with his own mental health, when he was captain of the team and, harrowingly, after the death of his unborn child.
Racist abuse to this extent is only possible if it has become an accepted part of the internal culture — specifically in this case, dressing room culture. Even in the unlikely event that staff and the club’s executives didn’t know the extent of the toxicity, it’s impossible to think they didn’t know that the culture existed. Over the years some of his coaches took part in the abuse themselves.
However, when Rafiq’s experiences emerged as a national media story, the framing was almost solely drawn around the more prominent individuals involved, never the culture that generated it. Abuse stories involving former England captains are bound to draw interest from sensationalist news outlets hungry for clicks. But Rafiq is as conscious as anyone of this pursuit to blame an individual: on two occasions during his 2017 internal complaints process, he saw attitudes towards him drastically change after he provided evidence to the board and subsequently, the club’s law firm. After the latter occasion, he recalled:
“Suddenly, it felt like it went away from the institutional and, working with the club, they tried to make it about individuals. That is why, unfortunately, in the last couple of weeks some individuals have had a really tough time. I did not present my evidence like that. It was never intended like that and that was never the allegation, but that is what the club, the lawyers and the panel in particular have tried to do.”
Throughout his evidence session to the DCMS Committee, Rafiq constantly reiterated that the problem at Yorkshire is institutional and not about any single individual that contributed to the environment he suffered through.
HOW HELPFUL IS IT TO PUBLICLY NAME AND SHAME?
To explore the danger posed by shifting blame and shame to individuals, we spoke with cultural humility and anti-racism expert, Hillna Fontaine:
“Racial ‘banter’ directed at you, particularly when you are the ‘only’, is never funny. If we laugh, it’s to disguise our hurt at being singled out in this way. Daring to call that behaviour out is often a scary thought. I want to thank Azeem Rafiq for breaking the silence.
“When accusations of racism go public there is naturally, I would argue, a pressure to defend — to deny, deflect and minimise anything that was said or done.
“What would you do if you felt under attack and being publicly vilified and shamed? In the case of Yorkshire Cricket Club, coaches and players stepped down in support of one of their own being ‘vilified’ and ‘wrongly accused’ of being a racist. The anger and perceived injustice felt is deep. How could their teammate’s career end over “friendly and good-natured banter”?
“Outraged, they stick together in defiance. They find solace in their friends and families who support them and reassure them that Azeem Rafiq has taken this whole thing out of proportion. Their inner circle confirms that they don’t have a racist bone in their body. Their black and brown friends find themselves in an uncomfortable position. The end outcome is doubling down: the solidifying of ‘them’ versus ‘us’. And when both sides dig in their heels, confirmation bias takes root and real discussion becomes impossible.”
THE WARNING SIREN OF THE ‘PREPARED STATEMENT’
To unravel the precise reasons Yorkshire Cricket Club has failed so many young sportspeople will hopefully be the outcome of the long-overdue investigations into their experiences as players and employees. For now, looking at how those involved have communicated throughout can give us clues to better understand how this environment could have come to be.
Every organisation aims to display their values when they communicate, but how organisations respond when under pressure often says a lot more than they intended.
When investigating Rafiq’s story, an ‘independent’ panel — containing one of the Club’s board — found the vast and constant array of racist abuse he experienced was indeed “racial harassment” and “bullying”. However, leaked reports show that the very same panel were happy to cast this behaviour off as “banter”. Given these reports were already circulating in the media, the official, prepared statement from Yorkshire’s Board of Directors told us everything we needed to know.
The first paragraph began:
“The Yorkshire County Cricket Club is pleased to announce the actions it has taken since they received the Report prepared by the Independent Panel in August this year.”
Before getting to the crux of the matter:
“The Club has also carried out their own internal investigation following the findings in the Report after which they are able to report that they have come to the conclusion that there is no conduct or action taken by any of its employees, players or Executives that warrants disciplinary action.”
And given the conclusion above, almost mockingly finishing with:
“It was important for Azeem to raise the issues and without him doing so we would not have the Panel’s recommendations which are an important part of the Club’s continuing journey.”
To make matters worse, the statement came 20 days after Yorkshire missed the deadline to send Rafiq and his legal team the report in full — instead sending them a highly redacted version. It was also 73 days after their cut off to send the full report to the English Cricket Board (ECB) — a deadline they also missed.
Unsurprisingly, the statement was met with extreme anger, particularly from the Central and South Asian communities that surround Headingley, as well as from the general public.
Following the public uproar and the announcement of the DCMS Committee hearing, more of the club’s former players began detailing the abuse they had experienced. Yorkshire started to hemorrhage sponsors and were banned from hosting England fixtures — a major revenue earner for any club. It was then — and only then — that the slow chain of resignations began as almost all the club’s board decided their time was up.
As with #MeToo, Black LIves Matter and other movements detailing the abuses of power, it soon became apparent that this culture wasn’t an isolated problem. Essex Cricket Club soon had multiple former players sharing their experiences of abuse. Looking even deeper into the institutions that allowed this abuse, the ECB may seek to keep the gaze on Yorkshire — but as the regulator for English Cricket, they must take on some of the blame themselves.
Herein lies the major frustration for Rafiq and countless others. All of the ‘listening’ and ‘learning’ always takes place after the abuse and the toxic environment has been uncovered — it is almost never proactive. Cricket is a sport played in the UK across incredibly diverse populations, but the decision-making power at all levels of English cricket is monopolised. This point was summarised perfectly by sports writer Jonathan Liew (who has written extensively on this issue):
“Ashley Giles, the director of England men’s cricket, has talked of the importance of “second chances”. Every day of cricket’s silence was a chance. Go back through history and there were opportunities to educate, to forgive, to have the difficult conversations that are deemed so crucial now. Instead the most powerful people in cricket simply clung to their omerta like a blanket, carried on cashing the cheques, consolidating their position, until nothing less than a biblical torrent of shame and rage could awaken them.”
HOW DO WE TACKLE INSTITUTIONAL RACISM?
Hillna believes the solution lies in embracing understanding, compassion and learning to be culturally humble:
“The reality is that the taboo around talking about race has left many of us without the language skills and confidence we need to have these conversations. Few opportunities are available for us to reflect on and ‘unlearn’ the stereotypes and biases we’ve consumed about each other — we all have blind spots but have no idea how they’re coming out. But being called a racist hurts. It’s a painful pill to swallow and so our moral bias gets triggered, and we stop listening.
“For many, important conversations about oppression, power, the way society structurally marginalises black and brown people — racialised into distinct hierarchies for economic reasons way before any of us were born — have yet to be normalised and therefore understood by the general public. Until then, we need to be more compassionate and culturally humble.
“We must allow people to make mistakes without vilifying and tearing strips off them while ignoring the root causes of problems. We must understand the environment that mistakes took place in and seek to create a more anti-racist environment within those organisations or institutions.
“My advice to Yorkshire Cricket Club would be:
- Stop saying “I’m not a racist” or “We’re not racist” and work towards becoming proactively ‘antiracist’.
- If anyone is unable to demonstrate that they are indeed anti-racist, create opportunities for them to work with external experts to help them explore their own identity, and how power and privilege permeates and impacts the racialised ‘other’.
- Take a moment to view the world through the lens of the racialised other. Immerse yourself in seeking understanding of the different ways society treats us based on the colour of our skin.
- Make a choice. Do you want to attack the offender and send them underground? Or do you want to use the incident as a teachable moment leading to institutional and behaviour change?”
Clearly, dealing with ingrained racism in any organisation is not a thing that can be addressed in a day. The first step is empathy and understanding, but to make a sustained change, the system itself must be held to account. Having an active anti-racism steering group, encouraging and providing safe spaces for people to talk and learn from each other, and transparency in equality gaps.
Painful as it might be, the ultimate answer is not in revelling in righteous justice of punishing individuals, but in building the bridges and better structures that will allow our whole systems to heal.Thanks to Hillna Fontaine at Mabadiliko for writing this.