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Why it was so difficult for Azeem Rafiq to figure out he was in a racist environment

When it is part of the furniture, discrimination is hard to see for what it is

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
Of the many truths Azeem Rafiq was speaking to all the powers assembled in front of him, assembled behind him, sat alongside him, who have employed him, who have played with him, who are his friends, who are not his friends, or who were simply watching on, this one resonated that little bit more.
"For people of colour, to start accepting you're being treated differently, it's very difficult. After that you're always asking why.
"Right up to 2017, I didn't believe it. I reported it as bullying. For me to believe I was being treated this way because of my colour, my race, it was difficult for me to digest."
In 2017. In a second stint with the club. Having been with the club for the best part of a decade. Until then, Rafiq said, he had been in denial.
It is a truth that many individuals who are in that position of minority - of colour, of ethnicity, of race, of gender, of sexuality - may recognise. If the difficult part of racism is dealing with it post-hoc, then the first step of recognising it for what it is in the first place is no less a challenge.
Racism doesn't always come with a calling card. It doesn't always come in white robes and hoods. All too often, stray racist remarks, broader racist behaviour, even entire systemically racist environments, slip by in the fog of trying to fit in; as tolerable collateral hits, so to speak, one must suffer for acceptance.
Acceptance explains why, for instance, when, as a 16-year-old, Rafiq was pinned down and forced to drink red wine by a team-mate at Barnsley Cricket Club, he did not at first see this for what it was. He had never drunk alcohol before. He started drinking after that because he thought it was the way to fit in. Other than school, where is the pressure to fit in greater than in a sporting environment?
It also helps explain why nicknaming non-white players "Steve" or "Kevin", as Gary Ballance and others at Yorkshire are said to have done, did not immediately come off as racist, or exclusionary, behaviour - or at least not, comparatively, to players being called "elephant-washers" or "P**i". Cheteshwar Pujara mentioned being nicknamed Steve in an interview with ESPNcricinfo a few years ago and nobody thought much of it, not even Pujara himself (though, of course, he was coming to it from the outside). It might even have seemed funny - if cliquey - in the way that nicknames within sports teams are a signifier of acceptance into some sacred inner circle. Maybe it's passed off as a bit of the ol' eccentric British wit.
But at its heart, what is a refusal to make the effort to call a person of another culture by their correct name, and then to give them a generic Anglo-Saxon name? What is it other than unarguably exclusionary behaviour? It is the denial of an identity, an othering. It may sound innocuous but it is far more insidious than that.
Recognising environments or institutions as systemically racist is even more fraught. If this is all you're used to, unless you can step away from it, or are yanked out of it - as Rafiq was by the tragic loss of his son and his deteriorating mental health - it's not always possible to see it for what it is. It's not always possible to see that "banter" is just racism but cloaked; or to see that practices such as not ensuring halal food for Muslim players are exclusionary, not normal.
Systems, unlike individuals, are nebulous targets - this is what Rafiq knows well now and has been at pains to point out. It is why he can reconcile Joe Root not remembering racist incidents - despite Root being present on nights out with Rafiq and Ballance, Root's housemate when those incidents happened - with considering Root to be, essentially, a decent man.
"He might not remember it, but it just shows how normal it was in that environment, in that institution, that even a good man like him doesn't see it for what it is," Rafiq said. "It was strange, but it's the environment and the institution that made it such a norm that people don't remember it. And it's not going to affect Joe. It's something I remember every day. But I don't expect Joe to."
It is also why he doesn't care about Michael Vaughan's denials of the allegations made against him, that he too was of this environment. "He may not remember it because it's not important to him."
There's a sadder truth in all this. Rafiq was unhappy that his case wasn't escalated enough by officials such as Hanif Malik (the head of Yorkshire Cricket's equality and diversity committee) and institutions such as the National Asian Cricket Council. A body such as the NACC has a bigger picture to look at, of course, and must still strive to build rather than burn bridges.
But a broader point, at the level of community, will still ring true. Sometimes your own will become enablers in you not recognising what is happening. It isn't uncommon for people of your own community to tell you, in different ways, that it's nothing, or that you're making a mountain out of a molehill, or that this is just how it is and that you had best get used to it.
Underlining all this is the simple fact of the cognitive dissonance of racism. You know it exists, because all the evidence of human history shows you; you sense it exists, but you don't think it is happening to you - or that it can. Somehow, on a regular day on which Rafiq isn't testifying, for example, or an SJN hearing has not taken place, it can still seem impossible that people or systems will discriminate purely because you're different to them; and that, even if they do, it won't be a barrier to your progress.
Rafiq has often been asked why he came back to Yorkshire if he knew the club was institutionally racist. He was asked by an MP at the hearing. It's an egregious question because implicit in it is the assumption that he is at fault, or that he's lying: why would you go back to such a toxic environment unless the environment wasn't so toxic? Well, aside from the fact that he had to put food on his family's table and this was his only option, for a long while he also didn't think - or want to think - that the club's institutionalised racism would be able to hold his talent back, that he would somehow defeat the system and thrive.
What, then, once you recognise it? Some self-hate and shame. Rafiq was angry at himself for not seeing all this before, for looking the other way. So much so that, at the hearing, he was still blaming himself for being forced to drink that red wine.
And once you start accepting that, yes, you're being treated differently because of your colour, nothing, as Rafiq noted, can be the same again. The curtain's not been pulled back, it's been ripped off. It's an incredible, overwhelming burden to live with, an anchor that, on good days, grounds you but every other day chains you. Clarity, yes - Rafiq can see now that "you had people who were openly racist and you had the bystanders".
But also a tint forever on how you see the world in front of you.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo