Azeem Rafiq’s testimony should shine a light on racism in every workplace | Shaista Aziz

I spent some of the past summer at the Lord’s and Oval cricket grounds watching my beloved England and Pakistan play. When both teams play each other, I’m never going to be on the losing side. As is the case for many working-class British Asians, cricket has been part of my life since childhood, and a personal barometer for racism, classism, Islamophobia, identity and belonging. Remember Norman Tebbit’s infamous “cricket test”?

In July, while waiting for a friend at Lord’s, known as “the home of cricket”, a security guard looked me up and down while walking towards me: “You’re standing at the wrong gate. You’re here to work? You need to go through another entrance.” He tried to shoo me away.

Up until this point, this man and I had not exchanged a word. However, he assumed that a brown, hijab-wearing woman could only be at Lord’s to work in hospitality.

I told the security guard he need not worry, I was at the right gate. He looked stunned.

Cricket is riddled with class, race and gendered inequalities at every level. That incident was yet another reminder that the establishment and “polite” English society demands that people of colour, people like me, know our place. I have spent my entire life as an anti-racist campaigner, refusing to know my place, because my place is everywhere. If anyone has a problem with that, then it’s just that – their problem, not mine. It has taken years of me internalising painful experiences of racism, Islamophobia and misogyny. Coping with workplace cultures of silencing, denial and the minimising of racism, and the many harms it has caused to me and my career, has led me to this point.

A recent study shows that English cricket is increasingly dominated by privilege. Two in five of England’s Test cricketers last year were privately educated, six times more than the national average.

This is such a stark contrast with football, where 87% of the England team are state educated. Even though Asians have a minimal presence in professional football, the Three Lions football team is far more representative in terms of class and race than is cricket.

According to the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) there are approximately a million South Asian cricket fans across the country. The ECB has created a South Asian action plan – an 11-point strategy presented on its website under an image of two beaming young brown women of colour, one of whom is wearing a hijab.

Like many people of colour, I watched the former Yorkshire cricketer Azeem Rafiq give evidence to the parliamentary inquiry into racism in cricket with my stomach churning and my chest feeling tight. Supremely dignified and courageous, Rafiq’s testimony was triggering for so many who have been subjected to racism and Islamophobia in our places of work. Yet, unlike many of my white friends, I wasn’t shocked by his devastating testimony.

His story of dealing with institutional racism isn’t exceptional. What marks him out is the fact he is finally being listened to and believed: by MPs, the cricketing authorities and the media. When I was growing up, the P-word was used frequently against me, my family members and my friends; it was often followed up by violence.

Over the past two decades, aided by the “war on terror”, the P-slur has been replaced with open and mainstream anti-Muslim hate. This is likely to be part of Rafiq’s experiences. It needs to be recognised that Islamophobia is a form of racism.

Rafiq told parliament that he wouldn’t want his son involved in the sport. It makes me mourn for the massive potential waste of talent, the future England stars who could be lost to the game; but Rafiq is right to say what he has said. Until English cricket tackles institutional racism and Islamophobia at all levels, the rest of us must do everything in our power to protect those at risk of racism from the mental anguish Rafiq is still enduring. He has gone on record to say the bullying led to him contemplating taking his own life. For anyone, let alone a practising Muslim, to disclose this publicly, is horrifying.

Rafiq’s account is a bodyblow for the ECB and its attempts to diversify the sport; it should also be a watershed moment for English cricket and wider society, including every workplace.

Shaista Aziz is a journalist, writer, comedian, and Labour councillor for Oxford city council

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