During last night’s edition of Question Time on BBC One, a member of the audience asked the panel to comment on the claims by former cricketer Azeem Rafiq, that the game and society is institutionally racist.
The presenter Fiona Bruce, threw the question to Nazir Afzal. Afzal is a well known lawyer and campaigner. Astonishingly, he said; “The brown person will answer first!” A shaken Bruce asked him if it was wrong to come to him first, Afzal said, “I think so, yes.”
Bruce then said: “Well let’s not do it. I’m not being sarcastic at all. I mean if that’s how you feel, I respect that.”
Dear God Fiona. Why didn’t you just say, well it’s your turn to take the first crack at the answer Nazir. Every panel member gets to go first during the show?” The answer is that Bruce was terrified. White people, particularly white people in the public eye are terrified of being accused of racism. I’d have laughed at Afzal and told him not to be too sensitive.
Unsurprisingly, Bruce has been accused of unconscious racism. What a crock. You might tell me to move on, that this is identity politics, divide and conquer tactics and that it distracts from the far more serious issues. You’d be right, but this is so dangerous, it has to be taken on.
Azeem Rafiq played cricket for Yorkshire and England. This week, he told a parliamentary committee that he was racially abused during his time at the club and that the abuse nearly drove him to suicide. He made a number of allegations against former team-mates and officials. The media lapped it up.
Rafiq said that he had been referred to as Paki on many occasions. He said the Asian players were sometimes referred to as “you lot.” He claimed that when he was 15 and playing for his local club, a team-mate pinned him down and poured red wine down his throat.
He also said that a former Yorkshire captain took to referring to people of colour as Kevin and that another player later named his black dog Kevin. On an overseas tour, Rafiq and a group of players walked past a corner shop. Rafiq said he was asked if his uncle owned it.
He told the Digital, Culture Media & Sport Select Committee that these incidents severely impacted his mental health and left him contemplating suicide. He also accused Yorkshire County Cricket Club of treating him “inhumanely” after his son was stillborn.
Needless to say, none of the committee members challenged a single one of Rafiq’s claims. To do so is to victim blame or victim shame. It’s a binary choice. You believe Rafiq and you’re fine. Question any of it and you yourself are surely racist.
There is no room for nuance. I would have had a series of simple questions for Azeem. Did you challenge any of your team-mates when they referred to you as Paki or Kevin? If not, why not? Why didn’t you say, Guys, that language is unacceptable and belongs in the 1970’s, can you please grow up? Did you take any player aside to tell him that you were uncomfortable with his behaviour and language?
Why did Yorkshire County Cricket Club make you captain if it’s institutionally racist? Why did you return to the club for a second stint if the racism you experienced first time round drove you to the brink of suicide?
I don’t accept that the comments made to Rafiq and other players were merely banter. That’s ludicrous. If I was managing a professional sports team and knew that players were speaking to each other like that, I’d knock it on the head immediately. Let me be clear, that sort of behavior is unacceptable.
But is it racism? Do the players named by Rafiq look upon people of colour as lesser human beings? Do they think that ethnic minorities are morally and intellectually inferior to them? I very much doubt it. But you’re not supposed to say that. That’s to blame Azeem Rafiq.
In fact, I don’t blame him. I blame the world he has grown up in, a world without context or nuance, a world where people are disempowered and where they turn to the state for redress when they feel that they have been wronged.
It’s a world where lived experience trumps the provable facts. In this paradigm, nobody’s lived experience should be questioned. That’s incredibly dangerous. I’ll tell you why. As I’m writing this SKY News is running a segment on micro-aggressions in the workplace.
Listening to it, I realise how lucky I am that I’m not in the workplace anymore. Imagine getting pulled in? “Richie, Imran says you’re giving off micro-aggressions to him, that you have a certain look on your face when speaking to him.” I say that I have no idea what that’s about. I’m then told that it’s how Imran experienced it. I must apologise to him and go on a racism awareness course or something similar.
Lest I be accused of gaslighting Azeem Rafiq and others, let me be unequivocal. I’m not saying that he’s wrong. How the hell could I know? I wasn’t there and I don’t know how his former colleagues think of people of colour.
But we must be allowed to ask questions without hysterical accusations of victim blaming or shaming. Let’s not divest ourselves of nuance and context. Lived experience must never be taken as immutable truth.
There was an ironic twist to the Azeem Rafiq saga last night. It emerged that Azeem had swapped Facebook messages with a mate back in 2011. During the exchange, Rafiq used a lazy Jewish stereotype. His mate was heading for a meal with a Jewish chap. Rafiq warned his pal that the Jew would try and avoid paying and that getting money out of him was like “trying to get blood out of a stone.”
Rafiq quickly apologised for any hurt caused to the Jewish community.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews accepted the apology while at the same time labelling his comments as antisemitic. Could it be argued that Rafiq’s comments were childish and lazy and not in fact evidence that he hates Jews?
No. Don’t be silly. Rafiq is obviously a closet Nazi. Case closed. I wonder if Azeem is now reflecting on the accusations he made against his old mates? Maybe their behaviour was infantile, maybe they were idiots, but maybe that doesn’t make them racist?
And yes of course, while this is going on, governments are introducing lockdowns across Europe. The double-jabbed are being told that they now need to be triple-jabbed to get on a plane. There are calls to lockdown the un-jabbed. I hear you, I hear you. Identity politics has played a big part in leading us here.
But, these racism witch hunts need to be addressed too.
The UK is not institutionally racist. People are not subconsciously racist. We’re an imperfect species, prone to doing and saying the wrong things at the wrong time. To err is to be human and all that, but our mistakes are rarely driven by bigotry much less hatred.