20 December 2021

A year of sport, race and identity

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Britain's national conversation about race and identity is often mediated through sport - and 2021 was no different, as British Future intern Michelle Midzi points out in this look back at a year of sport and identity.

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Has there been another year that had so much riding on its sporting events? At a time when social distancing-friendly pastimes have been desperately needed, watching the Euros, the Olympics or the tennis has provided us with some much-needed escapism, writes British Future intern Michelle Midzi.

If a sport is a reflection of a society however, what has been inescapable, if not magnified through the lens of sport, has been that race and integration in Britain still have a long way to go.

A few weeks after British Future released ‘Beyond a 90-Minute Nation’, a publication which examined football’s unifying power across social and racial divides, England lost its Euros campaign to Italy and a racism scandal centred around social media erupted.

Tribalism is an integral part of football. Fans often don’t see themselves as passive admirers, but rather as members of the team itself and any person(s) that comes between the team and victory – even if they play on the same team –can quickly become a target. Add social media platforms like Twitter where users can enjoy anonymity into the mix, and you have a recipe for some serious harassment.

On this football mad island, an estimated three fifths of the population is on social media, including 82% of all 15 to 25 year olds, which gives it a huge amount of sway in our society. If we want to stop social media from being used as a radicalisation tool especially on young people, it’s imperative that we get ahead of the problem and ensure that social media companies take racism seriously, properly resourcing efforts to kick racists off their platforms.

Where Gareth Southgate and his boys failed, tennis star Emma Raducanu succeeded by bringing home a coveted Grand Slam title. Even so, whilst the nation celebrated her success, Emma unfortunately found herself turned into a political football as different sides engaged in a back-and-forth about what her multicultural identity signified. 

Being multicultural in Britain is a complex experience.

For third-culture individuals like myself and Emma who are raised in cultures different from our parents’, integrating into new environments is second nature. And although the country we call home may tout the values of diversity and multiculturalism, our acceptance into society can feel contingent on being a ‘good’ migrant -one that works hard, stays out of trouble, and makes the lion’s share of effort to integrate.

Since the debate, Emma Raducanu has won Sports Personality of the Year 2021, further proving the general public’s acceptance of her. However, we mustn’t fall into complacency. 

It is clear that we need a nationwide integration strategy that can help to affirm immigrants’ belonging in Britain and help them to become fully participating members of society. This strategy would by no means be a magic cure, but it would certainly be a step in the right direction.

To round off the year, cricket made the headlines as news of racism against retired Yorkshire cricketer Azeem Rafiq broke.

In mid-November, Rafiq provided devastating testimony to the DCMS Committee about the racist bullying he faced from teammates during his time playing in Yorkshire.

Speaking of the effects that this abuse had on him, Rafiq shared that the slurs about his Pakistani heritage gravely affected his mental health. And who wouldn’t be affected if they had to deal with the dissonance of breaking barriers and achieving success as the youngest man, and the first of South Asian heritage, to captain a Yorkshire cricket team, whilst simultaneously fielding outdated insults passed off as ‘banter’.

It’s almost the perfect metaphor for the dilemma that British society faces today. While the nation makes leaps and bounds in the pursuit of racial equality, especially compared to some of its European counterparts, this progress risks being backtracked if no effort is made to confront the racist minority that deprecates inclusion, as well as casual racism that often rears its ugly head in sport.

The Yorkshire cricket racism scandal and how the Yorkshire club’s leadership dealt with it is a blueprint for how not to react in the face of racist allegations; by downplaying and being dismissive, you embolden racist behaviour and undermine the valuable progress that is being made everyday towards inclusion. 

Sport has served us very well this year. Let us not forget its standards of inclusion and equality but rather make sure that we learn from the lessons it has taught us about ourselves in 2021 – so that we can have a much more enjoyable, scandal-free sporting experience in 2022 and beyond

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