Racism has absolutely no room in sports. By their very definition, sports bring together people of all races, castes, creeds and religions to compete without discrimination. And international sports bodies are right to insist on a zero-tolerance policy for racists remarks on or off the field. Yet in zealously pursuing equality, are we hyper-sensitizing certain media buzzwords to the detriment of sporting tradition? Are we taking the ‘air’ out of flair? The latest case in point is Pakistan cricket team’s captain Sarfraz Ahmed, who in late January was banned for four-games by the International Cricket Council (ICC) for referring to South African all-rounder Andile Phehlukwayo as ‘kale’ (black) during a one-day game in Durban. The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) immediately ordered Ahmed back home from South Africa after the announcement despite the possibility of playing him in the last final T20 match. Though he had preemptively admitted his guilt and delivered a personal apology to both Phehlukwayo and the South African cricket team, the ICC deemed it necessary to levy an additional sanction to stress that such behavior was unacceptable under its Anti-Racism Code. His taunt appeared to verbalize his frustration at Pakistan again floundering in South Africa after Phehlukwayo carted them around the park with great abandon and no small risk. Cultural context is imperative to assess if any remarks uttered during the passage of play are racist. For example, if black West Indian or African cricketers refer to each other as “nigger” or “boy,” are they being racist? Things have been no better for Ahmed off the field either, where the voices calling for his head grow louder with every defeat. A worked-up Wasim Akram, the former Pakistan bowling great, however pounded the PCB for yielding to Pakistanis who had “hyped up his comments and created an issue.” But was he being racist by calling Phehlukwayo ‘kale’? That is a harder argument to uphold. After all, the moral brigade of the social media generation, especially in Pakistan, tends to borrow ideas from an entirely alien milieu. So, while Facebook and Twitter lit up with outrage over Ahmed’s comments, did anyone pause to consider what racism truly means? This is what significantly broadens this debate and its consequences. At the risk of sounding insensitive, I believe it is the “white man’s burden” that the ICC carries around its neck when dishing out punishments for racist remarks with little accommodation for cultural realities or context. What is racism? A definition I particularly like comes from Forbes.com contributor Chris Ladd: “Racism is the belief that race determines certain individual human qualities, and those qualities render some races inherently superior to others.” Does Ahmed think himself “superior” to Phehlukwayo? Doubtful, for that is not his historical or cultural burden. In fact, it would not surprise me if he has faced the “kale” taunt once or twice himself from fairer-skinned opponents as a youngster playing street cricket in Karachi. Moreover, it is commonplace in Pakistan to invoke ethnic or clan affiliations as derogatory stereotypes. It is also perfectly acceptable to make fun of one’s own for the same reason. Such words are hurtful in the way “fool” and “buffoon” are, not “nigger” or “kaffir.” Did he mean to “disparage” the South African? Probably, but that does not equal racism and we should be cautious of implying so. The ICC’s own reading of racism as writ in its code is so absurdly expansive it may as well cover a sneeze that sounds funny. Racism, we can all agree, is a bad thing because it stirs up emotional distress and grievances that are often generations old. More significantly, it holds entire social groups hostage to their past in a feedback loop of negativity. Brown-on-black racism is also a reality, just look at India and its treatment of Africans. In this episode, Phehlukwayo had no idea what Ahmed had said until someone in the dressing room alerted him to the fact. And the culprit himself used “kale” to front-load a burst of colorful slang that is second nature to Karachi’s inhabitants. Harm was not intended nor caused by the act itself, hence failing the culpability test for racism. Next, we must recognize that “kale” does not equal the American “nigger” nor the Afrikaner “kaffir,” the latter two words having inspired legions of folklore and civil activism for the express reason that both are historically and culturally toxic. Until civil rights movements emancipated blacks from the clutches of white-dominated segregationist regimes in the US and South Africa, the color of their skins resigned them to systemic socioeconomic discrimination in housing, healthcare, schooling and employment etc. They couldn’t even drink from the same water fountain. Likewise, there was material harm caused by the white elites who not only believed blacks were beneath them from birth, they made sure the social hierarchy mirrored their beliefs. Ahmed did not grow up with such baggage, which is why it is unfair to use the same lens to rationalize his intent. Cultural context is imperative to assess if any remarks uttered during the passage of play are racist. For example, if black West Indian or African cricketers refer to each other as “nigger” or “boy,” are they being racist? And if the words themselves are not the problem, but the ones uttering them, shouldn’t sports bodies decide punishments for racism based on the source’s skin color? Next, the slur “kaffir” for South African blacks brings back bitter memories of the oppressive apartheid regime, yet the descendants of the Bantu slaves shipped to Sri Lanka by Portuguese traders in the 16th century wear that name with pride. Why? Because it highlights their historical roots. Cultural context and historical toxicity are hence key when assessing racism, which is why the ICC must allow wiggle room for such or risk turning into cricket’s version of the now cartoonish #metoo social media movement. In short, punish athletes when they cross a red line, but don’t go chasing after moral absolutes where none exist. The writer is an Ipoh-based independent journalist Published in Daily Times, February 2nd 2019.