Daren Sammy: 'I refuse to allow any other person to make me feel mentally less'

The former West Indies captain says that to understand racism, cricket needs an open conversation

This week, Daren Sammy watched a video by the US stand-up comedian Hasan Minhaj. Halfway into the 12-minute video, Sammy heard Minhaj talk about how 'kala' or "kalu" is a word often used in the Indian subcontinent to describe a person of colour, and "not in a good way." That prompted Sammy to jog his memory back to his stint with Sunrisers Hyderabad in IPL 2013 and 2014. Sammy recollected some of his Sunrisers teammates nicknaming him and the Sri Lanka allrounder Thisara Perera kalu.
Disturbed, Sammy posted an Instagram video on June 8, wanting to know from those players whether there was any racist connotation to the nickname. Many, including those at Sunrisers and BCCI officials at the time, are asking why Sammy was talking about an issue that happened about six years ago.
On Wednesday Sammy spoke to ESPNcricinfo to explain exactly why.
Why did you feel it was important to talk about something that happened about six years ago?
If you listen to my video, you'll understand why now. Like I said I was watching a video by Hasan. In that video I learned that something I was being called had a different meaning, rather degrading meaning to it. So if I'm in the dressing room or I'm speaking to you six years ago, and you're calling me a name or word which I thought had a different meaning to it, why should I bring it up when I was not aware? If you understand what I mean. I've heard BCCI and Sunrisers said there was no complaint. There couldn't be a complaint if you are not aware what's going on.
It's only because I listened to that video (of Minhaj), once he started describing the word being used to describe people of colour from these parts, once he said the word, I instantly remembered. Because it was my nickname for almost two seasons (at Sunrisers). Do you understand? But I did not see it at that time as anything degrading because I thought it meant they were calling me a strong stallion.
So, no, I couldn't speak about it then. It's only because now I have information that I was being a called a word that was degrading, that's why I am talking about it now. And if there's one thing I've learned: every time you are talking about the right things, anytime is the right time.
What was the meaning of that word described to you, then?
I thought it meant a stallion. If you notice back in 2014 I sent a Happy Birthday tweet to VVS Laxman. I said: "Happy Birthday to you brother. Hope you have a great day." And I started laughing. And I said, "remember dark kalu." So I was saying: remember the dark stallion. So, imagine (now) you listening six years later and somebody from that culture telling you, "Hey, bro, this word has a degrading meaning to you because of the colour of your skin." Then automatically you want to have a conversation.
Like I said to the guys, let's have a conversation about it. I don't know what's in people's hearts. I challenge anybody to question my commitment to team building in all the dressing rooms I have played in.
One of the guys (a 2013-14 Sunrisers teammate) has reached out to me and we are having a conversation about it. It's someone I could bet still has a big poster of me and him hung up in his dressing room where I signed it and I said: "Brothers for life." And I still mean that. But it doesn't take away or change the fact that certain words that are being used could come across as degrading because of the colour of your skin. And whether you are my friend or I see you as a brother, we will or we should have the conversation about that.
"One of the guys (a 2013-2014 SRH teammate) has reached out to me and we are having a conversation about it. It's someone I could bet still has a big poster of me and him hung up in his dressing room where I signed it and I said: 'Brothers for life.' But it doesn't take away the fact that certain words that are being used could come across as degrading because of the colour of your skin."
I see this now as a(n) opportunity to educate instead of trying to pinpoint 'this guy is a racist'. No, that's what I'm about. And I clearly stated that, reach out to me, let's discuss. Because I am always about moving forward. Just because it is a tough subject, or a tough conversation, I will not shy away. That's not what Daren is.
You think your [Sunrisers] teammates back then did not tell you the meaning of that word because it would have offended you?
With the information that I know now I can't say because apparently it means so many different things. From what I am learning now it has so many different meanings. I believe the way the dressing room was back in that IPL season, the unity that we had was what got us through to the play-offs. Everybody was talking about how strong and how united this team was. And I still feel that same away about it. That's why I am saying it's important to have that conversation to know what context in which you were calling (me by that word). Because I thought we were operating from brotherly love. And I believe that. But believing that and not have the conversation about the bigger picture is still going to be wrong. We have to educate people to stop using such words that could be offensive.
So far one player has reached out to you?
Yes, one player has reached out to me. And I've spoken to Tom Moody, the coach of that team. You have to look at the bigger picture. I always look for the positive that will come out of something. I think now with everything that is happening around the world it's an opportunity to educate. And I'm not going to sit down here and say, 'this guy is a racist.' No, that's not me. I am not in a position to do that. But what I could do is, use this platform and the conversations that me and these individuals may have, use it as an opportunity to shed light. I have heard so many other cricketers come out and talk about it. Yes, they have not experienced it, but they know, they are aware that it happens. And it's a conversation, uncomfortable, but there's a need for it to happen.
Did the person apologise?
Aaah…not yet. I could be standing here and looking at one object. You are on the other side looking at it and we have two different views. Let me make this clear. You see this beautiful chocolate man you see here, I'm very comfortable in my skin. I refuse to allow any other person to make me mentally feel less than who I am. I am very proud of the skin that I am in. So whether I get an apology or not, it doesn't change the mentality of how proud I am to be a black person, to be a black man. It doesn't change.
In hindsight, asking for apology I shouldn't have even done that. If me and my team-mates have done something not intentionally, but now I realise that could be deemed or termed as something that could be hurtful to a team-mate of mine, I would instantly call that person and say: "hey bro, you know what, in spite of what is going on, I really didn't mean in that sort of way. For what it's worth I apologise even though I didn't mean it in any way, shape or form. And it's an opportunity now for us to all get together and educate because we all are leaders in our own right and when you lead people tend to follow."
You mentioned you understand there are different meanings to the word especially in the subcontinent where it is at times used endearingly. But defining a person using his colour is racial you feel?
Anything that is done to someone because of the colour of their skin and it is not meant to be in a positive way I think it shouldn't be done. For instance, when you see a tall person you say, tall man, what's up. That is based on your height. Once you start racially profiling people and it comes because of the colour of their skin, this person is better than you because he is fairer or because he is darker then it becomes an issue. My thing is to educate now that let's not do it. See everybody, whether they be red, black, yellow, white, as a human being. That's the movement for equality and justice especially against people of colour because they have been subject to racial slurs, God knows for how long.
Talking on a podcast on BBC this week, England's rugby player Mario Itoje and some of his teammates were discussing racism in their sport. They talked about how black players are asked to take it as part of banter. It is the black man's responsibility to treat words with a sense of humour, they were told. Do you understand?
I understand, but I don't agree to that. Why must my people endure 400 years of slavery and still have to adapt? Why is it always the people of colour that have to adapt to oppression? Why is it the people of colour that always have to do something different? Why can't the other side change and see us differently? And just not do it. So, no, you cannot use something that is degrading to the colour of my skin and tell me to take it as banter. I will never agree to that.
And this is the message that you are trying to send to your past teammates?
The message, to me, is simple. If I am operating from a place of love and I know within my heart this is what I'm doing, I'm okay with that. But if from operating in that space is still being hurtful to somebody else because of the colour of the skin and what I'm saying, then part of the love is diminished as well, whether you see it that way or not. You should now acknowledge that you shouldn't do it.
Is there casual racism in cricket?
Look, until I was made aware of certain things like what the meaning (of that word) was I could have proudly sat here in this chair and said I have not experienced anything like that. Because you have to understand, as sportsmen when we go out and play, you focus on the game. There's no time to think about maybe this guy said something, oh, this could be racist. But I know of situations where players have been subject to such: recently in New Zealand, Jofra Archer was subject to such (a) thing. I have had players in my team who have experienced such things.
Going forward, the same emphasis the ICC has placed on anti-corruption, where you bring awareness to the subject to the point that the youngest player coming in before any tournament has been educated about that, the same set of effort should be put towards anti-racism. That will be a step in the right direction.
In the 2013 and 2014 IPLs, was there a rule or policy in place to deal with racism?
We have always had the anti-racism in the code of conduct of the ICC. You hear it every time it has been recited. But to make it a subject of discussion - like match-fixing and all these things are a subject that is given special attention. If you go waaayyy back I think about my West Indies team. I watched Fire in Babylon, I see what my players had to endure and you think about Australia with Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, these guys were quick, causing terror around the world. I didn't see the MCC or the ICC changing the rules, trying to limit them to 2 bouncers or something like that. But the moment a team of colour, which was the West Indies, started dominating, "Oh, they are gonna make us grovel." "Oh, these guys are criminals. They are bowling to kill people."
But when the other teams were doing it and guys getting broken fingers I didn't hear all these chants. But the moment the West Indies started to rise and dominate the world you saw the system trying to limit how successful we could be with the resources that we had. So if you go back, there's a history of things being said or done to people of colour to try to keep us down. And I'm saying let's address that. There's a bigger picture to what is happening.
Just like George Floyd been murdered and the world witnessed it and the uprising and the movement that it has caused is the bigger picture. Right now people of colour, the minorities, feel for once they could say something and be heard.
So your point is create a forum, create something where you have a discussion in cricket (on racism)?
Yes. And after discussion they must have action. Discussion without action is still just discussion. Action should be taken to eradicate such a thing and educate people.
Is there also an issue where among players there's not much discussion between themselves (on racism). Because if you have an open discussion then there's more understanding of what one feels, right?
You have to understand it's an uncomfortable subject. Just imagine me talking to a white person, who has never really been profiled because of the colour of their skin. Some of them probably don't even understand what's really going on. Some people are even afraid to say 'Black Lives Matter'. But with awareness and something that is being discussed slowly, people will be more comfortable. It has to start from the top in putting the measures in place, implanting it, so that it filters downs to the roots.
Chris Gayle has come out and supported you. Have you had a word with your Caribbean teammates on this subject?
Not everybody is brave enough to challenge certain people because that is where your bread is coming from. It is not easy to challenge people of power. Sometimes you are afraid of the backlash, you are afraid of what could happen next. But that's them. That's not me. I have always stood up for what I believe in no matter who it is. That's how I was raised.
If you had known the meaning of the word in 2013-14, would you have had made the same comments you have just made?
Of course, I would. 2013 I was the leader, man. I was captain of the West Indies team. I was the leader in that dressing room. We just had won a [T20] World Cup in September [2012]. My leadership was growing. Maybe it would not have been as powerful as it is now because of what is happening in the world, but I would definitely speak about it.
"No, you cannot use something that is degrading to the colour of my skin for me to take it as banter. I will never agree to that."
So you are not being opportunistic as some people perceive?
People are also entitled to their opinion. The only thing I have to do is listen to you. It doesn't define who I am. But there's no wrong time to talk about the truth. Is anybody denying that I was being called such a thing? I am not mad. I am angry that the word has another meaning to it, but if I reflect on the memories I had, it is one of the best times I had in a dressing room.
Possibly you were not curious to know the meaning of the word back then?
No, I knew. I knew the meaning. For me it meant strong stallion. That's what I understood it meant. So there was no reason for me to go back and say it was a racial or a degrading thing.
So did you not get the same feeling when last year, Pakistan captain Sarfaraz Ahmed was sanctioned by the ICC for calling South African allrounder Andile Phehlukwayo by the same word?
I heard Sarfaraz used (a) racial slur, but I did not really dive into the story. I saw it pop up, but I did not get into the details. I wasn't aware it was that word he used back then. But I know he issued an apology right after. That in itself is why I am having this conversation - whether you didn't mean it in any way like that we need to stop. That is why I want to have a conversation with the people who used it in the dressing room. Let's stop it for us to avoid situations like what Sarfaraz did thinking it was innocent. If it could mean anything that could be taken as degrading or insulting, you don't use it. Full stop.
England and Liverpool player Raheem Sterling said a task force should be created in football to deal with racism. Do you think cricket should have a similar task force?
Just like there is a task force for anti-corruption there should be the same energy put towards racism. But you have to understand why is it there is so much attention paid to anti-corruption? Because it diminishes the cricket game. But now racism is personal. And it is uncomfortable. I think yeah they should have something put in place to ensure that the education starts.
Finally, Daren Sammy is not being opportunistic. He is not being an activist for black cricketers. What he is trying to do by coming out and talking, opening up a discussion forum which is very important in cricket?
There is no special time to speak about the truth or the issues. I could care less what they think about me, but it's a conversation, it's an issue that is within the game that has to be addressed. Whether you say I am an activist for black people, why not. Who has been speaking on our behalf?
Like I mentioned, we dominated the world for 17 years and within that period look at the laws that have changed in cricket. Who has been our voice? Right now West Indies is in England, among all the coronavirus, helping. We are compassionate people. Where is the compassion shown towards us? I am just speaking about my experience and how I think the cricket world could be better. If that's wrong, then I am okay with that.

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo