One of the grimmest aspects of Azeem Rafiq’s testimony to MPs on Tuesday was the fact that it was necessary. Until then, a shocking number of people had been willing to accept that even the use of a vile racial slur might be “banter”, or to dismiss it as a trivial matter; some asked why the cricketer had returned to Yorkshire, or smeared him, as if his own conduct might justify what was done to him.
His courageous and distressing account laid bare the full, appalling picture. Many of those watching recognised and identified with experiences that echoed their own, and with his pain and shame. It should not take a great deal of empathy or imagination for others to realise that being treated as he was might be devastating, both personally and professionally. But until he demonstrated his trauma, breaking down in tears before MPs, it was not truly acknowledged.
No one doubts that real strides have been made in Britain over the decades in many aspects of our understanding and acceptance of difference. Many of us live with and love people from other backgrounds; mixed-race people are the fastest growing group in the UK. Derogatory language which was once commonplace would now cause shock in most workplaces. Yorkshire County Cricket Club shrugged off Rafiq’s case for years – but when it fully came to light, sponsors fled and politicians waded in.
If Rafiq’s experiences are not typical, neither are they unique, even now. Several cricketers have come forward to describe similar incidents. But they resonate far beyond individual clubs, or even the sport – to offices, factories and schools. As the former cricketer made clear, the explicit racism and the individuals responsible were only part of the problem. As cruel and damaging as such taunts may be, they can be easily identified and tackled. They express much more pervasive attitudes, deeply rooted in our social structures. It is harder to deal with subtler forms of exclusion and discrimination, from people who would never dream of using the P-word; or to root out victim-blaming; or to make people acknowledge and challenge unacceptable behaviour by others.
All these, in turn, embolden the crudest forms of racism. For all the improvements the UK has seen, the hostile environment and accompanying political campaigning has bred animosity towards migrants and refugees. Race hate incidents rose sharply after the Brexit vote.
Time does not bring progress; honesty and effort do. Rafiq hopes his revelations will be a watershed moment. Admirable as his determination is, he – and other British Asians – neither should nor can fix a problem made by others. It took years of persistence, support from others and public tears before a case of blatant racism against a high-profile figure, on a very successful team in a national sport, was properly addressed.
If such a clearcut case is so hard to pursue, it bodes very poorly for this country’s ability to tackle institutionalised racism. It is also hard to believe that a prime minister who once compared women in burqas to “letterboxes” has the capacity or intention to do so.