24 Jun 2024

Banter or Bigotry? Casual Racism in the Workplace

Banter or Bigotry? Casual Racism in the Workplace


Faisal Amjad
Faisal Amjad is a serial entrepreneur and founder, with previous start-ups in the EdTech and Smart Home space. He is hugely passionate about knowing yourself, finding your purpose and lifelong learning which he helps people with through his non-profit, KNOW. He writes about purpose, polymathy and fulfilling one's potential.

Banter or Bigotry? Casual Racism in the Workplace

The Azeem Rafiq racism case against his former employers Yorkshire cricket club and ex-England captain Michael Vaughan has been deliberated over the past week and comes to an end today.

Rafiq claimed there was a history of prejudice and racism within the club as many of the coaches and players casually used racist slurs against him and others and then the club failed to respond appropriately when he escalated it.

Whatever the result or whatever your stance on it, there are two things this whole case reminds me of.

The first is Maya Angelou’s famous quote:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Very relevant.

The second thing is a story from my days in the corporate world.

There used to be an ex-colleague of mine, quite an old-school bloke, the kind that had worked in the same role for 20-odd years. Part of the furniture. He’s the kind of guy once you got to know him, you would say is a ‘character’. In other words a little eccentric, with a very particular sense of humour.

When I joined the team, he after a short time, for some reason would call me the ‘Sultan’.

Every time he would see me he would be bowing his head in mock respect, and talking about how jealous he was of my harems of exotic women and how he is sending me a gift of a thousand golden tusked elephants or 5000 speckled hens etc

“Oh, we are not worthy of the sultan’s presence”, he would say. I would smile.

When I was with my other younger Muslim colleague he was either my vizier or sometimes he was a prince in this weird orient fantasy role-play thing we were apparently doing.

He would do it EVERY single time – even if he was going past my desk to go to the bathroom he would mock-prostrate in the air and mouth the words Sultan.

If I needed his help or had a query we would first ‘do the ritual’ and then I’d ask the question.

To be honest, it was all fairly good-natured and I put it down to old-fashioned, harmless ‘banter’ – although as with any joke it obviously gets tiresome the 57th time.

But I took it in good spirits and would play along – sentencing him to a thousand lashes, signalling to cut off his head or giving him a hypothetical piece of land for his loyalty to my kingdom, playing into my part of the stereotype, as you do. There are worse nicknames after all, and to be honest, I’m not the overly sensitive type to really read sinister intentions into it, perhaps that’s the self-deprecating Brit in me. And what I found most funny was his commitment to the role, he was certainly consistent and creative with it too, with a new type of scenario thought up almost every time.

Anything to make the boring work days pass, right?

At my workplace, there were TV screens which displayed the news. One day, the whole Lee Rigby thing happened (he was a soldier who was attacked and killed in the street by someone who claimed to have converted to Islam).

His tone when I saw him that day, showed me what he really thought.

He didn’t do the whole sultan routine.

He just said ‘so, what you got to say about all that, then?’ In a quite stern way.

No hello, no pleasantries.

I replied, a bit taken aback – “nothing, what has that got to do with me?” I said.

He muttered something under his breath and the incident fizzled out into nothingness.

To be honest – that question, directed to me and me only, said in that way told me everything that sultan routine was really about.

I never participated in the sultan routine again.

Later that year I had come back from Mecca and had shaven my head. He went to make a joke and resume the bants but I didn’t let him, this time.

He knew where he now stood.

This is not to say he or the workplace were racist or anything. Misguided, sure.

I don’t hold any ill will or grudge, it was years ago and he’s from a different era, after all.

But upon reflection, what I most regret about it all is that I actually never took the time to educate him.

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