Yorkshire’s defence of racial slurs as banter is a blast from the past

The conclusion by Yorkshire cricket club (YCCC) that the use of a racial slur against one of its players by another was just “friendly banter” has shocked many people. But for some, it has also inspired a grim sense of deja vu.

Azeem Rafiq’s allegation of racism at Yorkshire was first raised more than three years ago, but it has shot up the political agenda this week after a report on Monday by ESPNcricinfo revealed more details about the club’s investigation into the issue.

The investigation by the club concluded that the repeated use of the P-word by a senior player, who is still at the club, towards Rafiq was “in the spirit of friendly banter”.

When Sunder Katwala, the director of British Future, heard this familiar defence from the cricket club, his first thought was that the 1970s were calling.

“That was the dominant argument about casual racism in the 1970s, before we saw this shift in social norms about racist language and racist epithets. Television sitcoms like Love Thy Neighbour, which at the time thought it was being a bit progressive, were basically portraying racial stereotypes and then saying, ‘But can’t you take a joke?’” he said.

“And that argument came back again in the 1990s with the lads’ mag era, which was very much like: ‘Maybe you can do sexism ironically and maybe do racism ironically. We’re all in on the joke, aren’t we?’”

Cricket is not alone in dismissing the use of racial slurs as banter. In 2009, following the emergence of video footage showing Prince Harry using the same racial slur against a fellow cadet, some suggested it was just “army banter”. Students at universities and football players have since spoken out about banter being used as an excuse or justification for sexism and racism.

But, as the former director of a race equality organisation points out, the conclusion that the use of a racial slur is just banter would only make sense if there was a non-racist meaning to that word. That seems unlikely when YCCC deemed the word to be offensive enough to asterisk throughout its report, which begs the question: why is it not offensive to say it to an Asian player?

The banter defence had successfully been delegitimised, Katwala added, with campaigners and local communities successfully demonstrating the difference between banter and prejudice.

“We’ve seen big generational shifts on prejudice and racism over time. One of the reasons is just that we’ve gotten better social relationships, especially if you’re younger and you grow up with mixed ethnic circles at school. You’re a bit more aware that what felt like maybe it was banter is actually quite hurtful. And that that kind of depth breaks through across generations,” Katwala said.

Yorkshire cricket club is now facing significant pressure from senior politicians over its handling of Rafiq’s allegations, with the health secretary, Sajid Javid, calling for “heads to roll”. Sayeeda Warsi, the peer and former Conservative party co-chair, who is from Yorkshire, added: “Too many of us in too many walks of life have heard the ‘defence of banter’ for too long as an excuse for racism.”

It is not the first time the club has been accused of mishandling issues of racism. In 2003, when Darren Lehmann was banned for using a racial slur against a Sri Lankan opponent during a one-day international for Australia, Yorkshire refused to take any action.

The crucial difference, Katwala said, was that the UK now had senior politicians like Javid and Warsi. “In 2003, there were very few prominent politicians and prominent journalists from an ethnic minority background so again that kind of ‘well he didn’t really mean it, it was in the heat of the moment, let it all go’ thing wasn’t challenged.

“I think it’s very interesting that Sajid Javid has spoken about having that word thrown at him as a teenager, feels very personally about it, and has intervened. I think that intervention and the intervention of the select committee have probably made it impossible for Yorkshire to brush it under the carpet.”

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