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So many people in the UK will relate to Azeem Rafiq’s experience – and all await meaningful change

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Azeem Rafiq set out explosive details of his experiences of racism in cricket during an appearance in front of the cross-party Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee this afternoon. During a harrowing testimony that lasted almost two hours, he explained how racial discrimination, and his decision to take a stand against it, had cost him his career in a sport he believes remains deeply entrenched with these issues.

The specifics around Yorkshire County Cricket Club’s alleged rotten underbelly were extraordinary and despicable in equal measure. Mr Rafiq explained how the racist slur “P***” was used “constantly” at Yorkshire and in the wider game; how he had heard the phrase “elephant washer”; and how he had experienced offensive references to corner shops from his colleagues.

Fighting back tears on more than one occasion, Mr Rafiq recounted an appalling occasion when, as an aspiring 15-year-old club cricketer, he had been restrained while red wine was poured down his throat by another player. His efforts to challenge this toxic culture were fundamentally ignored and he eventually felt forced out of the club.

Mr Rafiq has rightly received praise and encouragement on social media for his bravery in speaking out. After all, he didn’t have to, did he? In doing so, Yorkshire CCC will be investigated as part of what appears to be a long-overdue reckoning and we, the public, have been made aware of the situation. One can only hope that more establishments will be held to account.

Oh yes, more are out there. Certainly, more people will be inspired to follow Mr Rafiq’s example and speak out about their own experiences, tell-all about the racial discrimination that they, too, have witnessed. Because institutional racism exists in Britain. It’s alive, it’s well, and it continues to blight the lives of people of colour across the country.

Many people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds have deeply related to Mr Rafiq’s ordeal and that of his teammates who also endured discrimination and abuse at the hands of their white counterparts in their place of work. It manifests in many aspects of Black, Asian and minority ethnic people’s lives, from places of work to the boardroom and classroom.

When allegations against Yorkshire first came to light, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) launched an investigation and recently appointed an independent commission for equity in cricket (ICEC), chaired by Cindy Butts, to examine the issue of race in the game. Its call for evidence is now open.

Speaking to the committee, however, Mr Rafiq expressed scepticism about that process, stating: “Action is needed and needed now. To be honest, we are sick and tired of these equity commissions and inquiries [...] All we are asking for is equality, to be treated fairly regardless of the colour of our skin or the religion we follow. Just respect as a human race. It’s 2021, we shouldn’t even be having this conversation.”

I think many people in this situation are sick and tired of being sick and tired. These remarks about the plethora of fruitless reports reflects stark concerns shared by many people from ethnic minority backgrounds across the country. We see countless studies and commissions launched in response to genuine allegations of racism, which seldom seem to result in any meaningful change.

Mr Rafiq bared his soul to a committee that sits within government; the same government that sanctioned the widely-contested Sewell Report, which concluded earlier this year that institutional racism doesn’t exist in Britain. The irony is galling.

Even more insulting is the fact that, of the 11 current committee members listening to Rafiq’s accounts of racism, not one was from an ethnic minority background. Though I’d like to think the members are well-intended and the body’s importance is indisputable, the lack of diversity demonstrates just how racism thrives across societal institutions; it’s about power, dominance and how it’s used to disadvantage those of us who look different.

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The committee’s shared lack of insight into the realities of navigating institutionally racist structures resulted in Rafiq being asked the thoughtless question, “why did you go back?” which made me and my Black and brown counterparts itch with irritation.

Mr Rafiq went on to say: “No one has ever been a whistleblower before, no one has ever had the courage to come forward because of the fear of not being believed.” Sure enough, oftentimes many people of colour choose not to speak out about racism experienced in places of work because there are usually massive ramifications in doing so. Then there’s the onerous, emotionally taxing, process of proving your lived experience to people who haven’t a clue. Talk less of the psychological, financial and social consequences associated with going against the grain.

I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with people who were forced out of jobs and places of work, like Mr Rafiq, and pushed into exile when they’ve done nothing wrong, except call out racism at their jobs.

That is why Azeem Rafiq’s evidence today was about more than just cricket.

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