In the days since Azeem Rafiq gave evidence recounting the racism he faced within the Yorkshire County Cricket Club, people of colour across Britain have been moved to share their own accounts. But there is something distinct about Rafiq’s testimony, which reveals how Yorkshire sits in the national imagination and how Yorkshire’s south Asian Muslims have been historically positioned as outsiders.
When Rafiq spoke about being physically pinned down and having red wine poured down his throat at age 15, I thought about the ways that action replicated the logic of a whole range of top-down policies and processes that have violently been imposed on people of colour.
For instance, in response to the arrival of Commonwealth migrants after the second world war, 11 local councils adopted a policy of “bussing” immigrant children to attend schools elsewhere in order that they made up no more than 30% of the classroom. Four of the 11 councils that adopted this policy – Bradford, Blackburn, Huddersfield and Halifax – were in Yorkshire. Paraded as an “integration” project, the buses were soon termed “Paki buses” by local people, and children were taught in segregated sections of buildings. This exemplifies the paradoxical message that haunts us to this day: while we order you to integrate, we will continue to label you and punish you as outsiders.
At the time, the “problem” was immigrants not speaking English. Later, in 1988, the problem would be rearticulated as one of cultural backwardness linked specifically to Islam, in light of images of Asian Yorkshiremen burning Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. By 2001, news media would invoke such images again when they spoke of riots in Bradford. The government review would explain the unrest as the result of “parallel lives” – suggesting that south Asians lived “apart from” the “rest of society”, rather than considering police brutality and fascist violence, or decades of deindustrialisation and unemployment, or racist labour and housing markets.
After 7/7, in 2005, the narrative about Yorkshire’s Asian Muslim population (both terms conflated since the war on terror began) would be solidified when three of the bombers were found to be from my hometown, Leeds. After so many decades of positioning Yorkshire’s Asians as a menace to the nation, the locale would be deemed explanation enough for their violence. Multiculturalism was declared a failure, and south Asian Muslims were seen to require surveillance at every level – now blatant through the Prevent strategy and counter-extremism, which criminalise our identities in every public institution. Entire Yorkshire towns would go on to be castigated through Islamophobic and racist stereotypes. Think of Rotherham and you think of “grooming gangs”; think of Bradford and you think of documentaries like Make Bradford British.
To fully understand this racism, we need to look deeper into the social and economic forces that shaped Yorkshire’s Asian population. British colonialism, working-class exploitation and racist border legislation can all shed light on the distinct manifestation of racism that Rafiq, and all of us, well know.
Yorkshire’s textiles mills and iron foundries were first built during rapid industrialisation in the 1800s, by merchants whose money came from the slave trade, in which they exchanged goods pillaged from elsewhere for human beings at the west African coast. Profits made from enslaved labour were invested into new technologies, such as locomotives, which were then exported to help pillage other colonies (trains from Leeds were sent to Sierra Leone) or raw materials that were turned into cloth, which colonised countries were forced to buy.
In 1832, Indian weavers petitioned parliament to complain that British cloth imports, alongside exploitatively high taxation on Indian cloth exports, were undermining their industry, pushing many to leave their jobs and, eventually, to simply export raw cotton that Britain would spin and sell back to them. The industrialisation of places such as Yorkshire was built through the deindustrialisation of India.
These very processes provided the conditions that led to my grandad being in search of work in rural Punjab in the 1960s. When he migrated to Bradford, as many people did, my grandfather worked in the mills that had contributed to the impoverishment of his homeland. As with others, he worked the most undesirable shifts – Pakistani men sometimes made up the entirety of night shifts in wool-combing, for example.
Many were given whitewashed names by bosses who could not be bothered to grant them individuality – our family had its own Uncles “Tony” and “Peter”. Hearing Rafiq mention the names “Steve” and “Kevin” given to cricketers of colour demonstrates the continuation of this legacy of dehumanisation. Our communities didn’t create ‘parallel lives’: instead we were always excluded as cheap labour to be kept out of sight.
Ironically, the long-term settlement of families in Yorkshire is the outcome of racism itself. The 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act aimed to close Britain to Black and brown migrants by introducing the need for “work vouchers”, which made it harder for them to migrate despite being Commonwealth citizens. Instead, it was often easier for dependants to permanently join family members already here because they were forced to choose between this or long-term separation. In addition, construction of the Mangla dam in the Mirpur region, in 1966, created a reservoir that drowned 288 villages, displacing 111,000 people. The British government latched on to this displacement as a source of more cheap labour, offering people work permits for factories in the Midlands and Yorkshire. Seventy percent of Britain’s Pakistani community today trace their roots to the region. South Asians are here because of exploitation, racist border controls and colonisation.
It is no surprise that the cricket world is reeling from Rafiq’s testimony. Taken as part of the wider historical context, Yorkshire County Cricket Club has done nothing but hold the fort. But that is a fort of white supremacy and empire. And while Yorkshire may have a specific history, it is no anomaly in a nation built by colonised people’s resources, labour, migration and lives.
But there is another lesson we can take from racism in Yorkshire, and that is the legacy of resistance – through Asian Youth Movements in the 1970s, the self-defence of the Bradford 12 in the 1980s and anti-racist protests against fascists. These movements of working-class people of colour independently mobilising and building solidarities to fight imperialism and racism remind us that true change has never come from waiting or relying on the powers that be. Repainting the boundary lines on a pitch built by empire and racism is not enough. We must upturn the entire grounds.