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Racism in cricket: a systemic problem

Racism remains a problem in the UK, as the Azeem Rafiq case has shown – though it’s also highlighted double standards

Azeem Rafiq’s testimony to MPs last week about the racism he faced as a Yorkshire cricketer was grimly compelling, said Jonathan Liew in the New Statesman. The media focused on the overt bigotry: the references to Asian players as “elephant washers”, the jokes about corner shops. But the most poignant parts of Rafiq’s story were those that described the sense of isolation he felt as a result of more insidious forms of bias: the “sniggers and whispers, the imagined subtexts, the unvoiced suspicions”. This was perfectly illustrated by a letter sent by some Yorkshire staff to the club in October, before Rafiq’s complaints became big news. In it, the staff described him as “problematic in the dressing room” and accused him of not sharing the club’s “White Rose values”. “This language will be instinctively familiar to anyone who has ever been in an environment where, for whatever reason, their face didn’t fit.” 

Tackling subtle forms of prejudice is difficult, said Kenan Malik in The Observer. Some have leapt on the latest revelation that Rafiq himself exchanged anti-Semitic texts with a fellow cricketer a decade ago, implying that this somehow discredits his testimony. But these texts (for which Rafiq has apologised) only served to illustrate his point about how “people can be blind to bigotry in one context while alert to it in another”. There was a further example of that earlier this month when London’s Royal Court Theatre apologised for giving a fictional money-grabbing billionaire in a new play the Jewish-sounding name of Hershel Fink. The theatre blamed it on “unconscious bias”, which is something we all need to be mindful of. 

We do indeed, said Nick Timothy in The Daily Telegraph. Racism is still a “significant problem” in the UK, in its overt, subconscious and institutional forms. But the Rafiq case also exposed the strange “double standards” that often apply in this area. People who would usually damn racist comments seemed strangely quick to excuse Rafiq. Some Jewish commentators suggested that there is a “hierarchy of racism”, in which anti-Semitism counts less than other acts of discrimination. 

This story is not just about one particular case, said Isabelle Westbury in The Independent. In the wake of Rafiq’s complaints, a slew of disturbing allegations have emerged. It’s disappointing that he too has used racist language in the past, but he apologised, immediately and unreservedly – “a first and integral step towards change. Others might take note.” Now it would be best to focus on cricket’s “troubling culture”. Making the sport more welcoming to ethnic-minority players will require “structural change”.

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