Cricketer Azeem Rafiq sharing his harrowing experiences of racism at Yorkshire County Cricket Club has helped unmask institutional racism both within the sport, and wider society.
Hundreds of thousands of people with South Asian heritage—and Muslim and Pakistani backgrounds, in particular—live across Yorkshire. Most encounter racism daily—and Rafiq’s account exposes only a fraction of the casual and institutional abuse directed towards Asians.
Farzana Yousaf is the equalities officer for the Unison union at Sheffield Hallam University. Her parents came from Pakistan in the late 1960s.
“At 18 I went to Hallam University and my name was changed to Ana. I told them my name and it was shortened because no one could say it,” she said.
Farzana said that after the Stephen Lawrence case institutions were supposed to act to stamp out racism.
“The university ticks boxes still,” she explained. “I can count how many black people are in professional services on the admin side—there are none.
“Once I wore a headscarf and an older colleague said, ‘Ana why have you got that costume on’.
“People don’t always come out and say this is happening because we’re in the minority. To report things you need evidence, but it’s so difficult to evidence looks or words.”
Laila(not her real name) is an English teacher and NEU union member at a secondary school in Bradford.
She told Socialist Worker how most schools are “segregated”—either made up of Asian or white students. “Very rarely is there a 50/50 mix in West Yorkshire,” Laila explained.
Laila said that many parents experienced racism as children. “They feel safer sending their children to the local school of mostly Asian kids,” she said.
Between teachers, racism is rife. “To get to the top you have to fit the image. The student leadership team are all part of that image,” Laila added. “So many people are passed on promotions.
“The kids pick up on it and feel the tension. Staff are openly racist to other staff members in front of students.”
Students also face racism from teachers, such as comments and name calling or names being shortened.
Laila explained, “You ask students what they want to do and if they say university, it’s always local ones. They’re not trying to go to Oxford or anywhere in London because they’re told they’re not good enough.
“One ex-student was at Bradford college and had a placement at Bradford football club, but he dropped out. I asked why and he said racism.
“There’s not one Asian player on the Bradford team, even though there are such good players.”
Abrar Javid is one of the Rotherham 12. He was accused of violent disorder for counter-protesting a Britain First march in 2015 and was later acquitted.
He told Socialist Worker that although racism exists on the streets, “it’s more insidious at institutional level—like in South Yorkshire Police (SYP) or the local council. Growing up you knew you were treated differently,” Abrar said. “It was upsetting—you’re judged by your skin, not who you are as a person.
“I know of people who have just as good qualifications but don’t get responses to their CVs like their white counterparts. They’ve changed their name and got better responses.” In 2014 the Jay report unveiled historic child sexual exploitation and grooming in Rotherham.
“This caused a lot of racial tension fed by the media, politicians, and even the local council who cowered towards the far right, as did the SYP,” Abrar explained.
“These institutions played on the narrative that anyone Muslim was directly involved in grooming or indirectly to blame.
“Girls had been crying to white police officers for help, who looked down on them because their class meant they weren’t worth investigating. The police said they didn’t investigate because they didn’t want to rock the boat—this is totally contradictory when looking at the disparity of Asians in prison.”
Bella lives in Bradford and moved from Pakistan in 1968 with her family when she was two years old.
“When I was young I suffered a lot of racism, especially because of the National Front,” she explained. “It was constant in the 1970s and 80s, and we took the brunt of it.
“Racism was openly coming to get you—it was like being under siege.”
When Bella moved to what was then a predominantly white area, her children were attacked by two teenagers. “They started throwing stones at my three and four year old children,” she explained.
“My elder son went to stop them. Suddenly two police squad cars arrived to arrest him. They didn’t ask what was done to us. There was a big army of police—it was disgraceful behaviour.
“You can’t go to the police. They’re one sided, they’re the most racist most of the time. Even now there’s places I will not go—there’s areas and estates that have got the most racist people you’ll come across,” Bella added.
Kauser Jan is a teacher and activist in Leeds. “Every time something bad happens there’s a ripple effect on Muslims,” she said. “The narrative is that anything terror related is blamed on Muslims—it’s convenient for them to say that because it suits a specific agenda.”
Kauser added Boris Johnson “is the biggest Islamophobe”. “Muslim women were called letterboxes by Johnson and then there was a huge spike in Islamophobia towards Muslims, especially women.
“From the top it will trickle down and embolden racists who know they can get away with it,” she explained.
“We need to completely change the infrastructure and make an inclusive society.” Laila agrees. “We’re fighting within the English department to implement historical texts in the curriculum—it’s too white, British, middle class,” she said.
“Students learn about Greek mythology, but they don’t know who Malcolm X is. Attitudes need to change towards racism and changes implemented in daily practice, not just one week a year.”
There are also cultural barriers between the leadership, staff and students. “We get two weeks for Christmas—but for Eid or Diwali you have to book a day off,” Laila said. “Staff are only allowed three days off across the year for two Eids. The school says students only get one day off for Eid—but it’s a two day event.”
On Rafiq’s testimony, Farzana said it “recognises that a lot of people blur boundaries with subtle actions.”
“The club called it banter—to me calling someone a Paki and pouring wine down their throat isn’t banter,” she said.
“It’s refreshing that Rafiq has spoken out—it’ll mean more people speak out. It resonated with my experiences.”
Abrar said Rafiq has shown “resilience”. “We’ve spoken at length about his horrendous experiences. He was made to feel like a trouble causer and the result is he inspired victims of racism and others to stand up to any form of hate.”
Kauser said, “Sharing his experience has awoken racial trauma in many of us. Hearing his account, we know that’s what people go through day in and day out.
He added that until there’s “real change” racism will not be beaten. “People aren’t questioning why we’ve got division in society and where that moral panic is coming from.
“It’s a divide and conquer strategy. We’re so busy pointing at each other we don’t see what is being pushed through the back door.
“Every sphere of society and public institutions has racism within, from the NHS, police force and education. We’ve all got to come together.”
Abrar said, “Racists—whether the police, council, cricket clubs or on the street—want us to believe that we’re divided down racial lines and that isn’t the case. We’ve got a big battle on our hands. The prime minister can get away with calling people piccaninnies and bank robbers, it’s scary to think that these things are not seen as toxic.
“I believe grassroots level mobilisation is still strong enough to fight these battles. People are not born ignorant, they’re fed lies by this government and the press. That takes a national movement to get people to understand and see through the propaganda.”
Bella agrees that we have to fight. “We’re not going to sit down and take it. Otherwise it doesn’t go away,” she said. “We won’t let them divide us. They don’t like that at all—they don’t like people coming together.”
A terrible history of prejudice
Yorkshire was one of the epicentres of emerging Islamophobia in the 1980s.
Most commentators trace the development of this new racism back to international events, such as the Iranian revolution or the 9/11 terror attacks.
But Islamophobia in Britain had particular characteristics.
For opportunist reasons, Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government tried to shift debates around race away from skin colour onto the terrain of culture.
It insisted some cultures were incompatible with “Britishness” —and events in Yorkshire were to help clarify for the right just which cultures they had in mind.
In 1984 Bradford headmaster Ray Honeyford launched an attack on multicultural education in the hard right journal, The Sailsbury Review.
Over 80 percent of pupils at his school were Asian, and most were Muslims. Honeyford claimed the education of white children suffered because they were a minority.
He berated Muslim girls for what they wore, and he described their parents as having the “hysterical political temperament of the Indian subcontinent”.
When pressure forced the local education authority to “retire” Honeyford, the Tories and their newspapers ran a defence campaign.
Those who singled out Muslims as un-British moved from the fringes to the centre of the Conservative Party.
In 1987 a new school row broke out in Dewsbury. Some 26 white parents refused to send their children to Headfield Middle School, where 500 out of 590 pupils were Asian. The parents denied they were racist, but their fears centred on the possible “Muslim influence” the school might have on their offspring.
They said they wanted more emphasis on “Christian” teaching and accused Headfield of not celebrating Christmas—it did—and forcing pupils to make chapatis on Pancake Day—it didn’t.
The parents’ year-long campaign had the implicit backing of Tory education secretary Kenneth Baker. He’d pushed“reforms” giving parents more choice over schools and these helped the campaign to victory.
Similar battles soon raged.
And the rapid spread of Islamophobia also encouraged a conservative reaction.
Socially conservative elements within Asian communities used the example of Headfield to demand separate faith schools.
In Dewsbury, many Asian parents called for Zakaria Girls School to be turned into a Muslim school.
They were pilloried as “reverse racists”.
But it was the right that had first played the race card, igniting a process that pushed education in Yorkshire’s towns to become ever more segregated.