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Michael Holding: 'Racism strips away your humanity, takes away your feelings of self-worth'

The legendary former West Indies fast bowler looks back at times he was on the receiving end of racism in a book co-written with Usain Bolt among others

Michael Holding
West Indies were heroes to cricket fans the world over, but that didn't insulate them from racist attitudes  •  Robert Pearce/Fairfax Media/Getty Images

West Indies were heroes to cricket fans the world over, but that didn't insulate them from racist attitudes  •  Robert Pearce/Fairfax Media/Getty Images

Usain is thirty-four years old. And that could have been me talking at the same age. I travelled. I saw it. I heard it. And then I came home again. And did I talk about it with my parents? Not really. We didn't dwell on the things that happened when I was away. I wanted to concentrate on my sport and career. Get on with building a life. And for Usain [Bolt], the same is true. When you are the fastest man the world has ever seen, life tends to get pretty busy and your mind is occupied. When I got back to Jamaica after a cricket tour or a stint playing county cricket in England, the last thing I wanted to do was rake over all the racist incidents during a chat with my parents. And, boy, was there a lot of that stuff.
On my first tour to Australia as a West Indies player in 1975 I was abused from the crowd in Perth, Western Australia. "Go back to the trees!" That sort of thing would be headline news now, although as I type this, I have to say that I've just read a story about India players getting abuse from the crowd in a Test match in Sydney. Back then, I just shrugged and thought, Glad I don't live in this country. But 2020 and it's still going on? Pathetic.
When we were travelling around Australia I distinctly remember being in an elevator with my team-mates and, on the way down from our floor to the lobby, the lift stopped on a floor below ours. The doors opened to reveal a middle-aged white guy who was awaiting the lift to go down as well, but when he saw four or five big Black guys, he stepped back. Fine. Maybe he was intimidated, we were a tall bunch. But as the doors shut, he shouted a racist slur. And do you know what we all did? We laughed. We thought it was funny that there were people as stupid as that in a country like Australia. In the Caribbean, where we all came from, we didn't encounter such behaviour.
My next overseas tour was in 1976 to England. I was there again in 1980. There the abuse came mainly in the form of letters delivered to the dressing room. Most were seeking autographs, but there were quite a few letters that were uncomplimentary to put it mildly. They went in the bin. I can't remember the precise words but I'm sure all the old favourites were in them. "You Black this, you Black that, go back to your own country."
On the field of play I never had an opposition player say anything untoward. But I do remember a moment in a game when I was "guesting" in a reserve match for a professional team before I started playing county cricket, when I was made aware of the colour of my skin. We had just taken a wicket and were talking in a huddle about what the next move would be and one of my team-mates said something along the lines of "Get the Black so-and-so on to bowl." Anyone who watched the West Indies team in my era will know that whenever a wicket fell, the entire team gathered together, whether to celebrate or just chat among ourselves until the next batsman appeared. Even those fielding right on the boundary edge made the trek in, but that was peculiar to us, not many other teams did it and especially not county teams. This player obviously didn't realise that I had made my way in from my fielding position. It stung.
And I've come across racism in pretty much every corner of the globe that I've travelled to down the years. That includes when I was playing as well as when I wasn't. It's taken on almost a different form, too, because I am often accompanied by my wife, Laurie-Ann, who is white. She is from Antigua but has Portuguese heritage. We've walked into a hotel in South Africa, and while I'm being attended to, someone else behind the desk will approach her and ask if she needs help to check in. She's standing right beside me, but of course, in their mind, there is no way she could be with me.
When on holiday in Nassau we've turned up at a restaurant with a booking and the maitre d' will look at her, not me, and enquire about our reservation. At the end of the meal the waiter hands her the bill. Obviously, she came to Nassau and picked up this Black guy on the beach. The guys attending on us are Black. The brainwashing and unconscious bias work both ways. We laugh about that one. But if we weren't laughing, we'd be crying. And there are loads more stories like those. The situations I have recounted are the ones that stick in the memory for one reason or another. And they each have the same impact. They strip away your humanity, they take away your feelings of self-worth. You feel as though you don't belong, and I suppose, on a very basic level, that you are not wanted or liked. I think all human beings can relate to that. Like me, loathe me or be indifferent - that's cool. Just don't form a negative opinion about me because of the colour of my skin. It's irrelevant.
"I just want to keep preaching love," Usain says. "And hope that we can see something change."
Maybe he's right.
Extracted with permission from Why We Kneel, How We Rise, by Michael Holding (with contributions from Makhaya Ntini, Usain Bolt, Naomi Osaka, Michael Johnson, Hope Powell and others), published by Simon and Schuster, 2021