Near the beginning of this month, a clip from BBC Politics Live went viral, in which Dawn Butler MP accused Boris Johnson of racism. Butler pointed out multiple instances when the Prime Minister has used unapologetically offensive language, including his oft-cited description of Muslim women in niqabs as “letterboxes” and his use of the word “picanninies” to describe black people. The Prime Minister was defended by the Conservative MP for Sevenoaks Laura Trott, who called Butler’s comments “rude” and “offensive”. Fellow guest and radio presenter Nick Ferrari similarly argued that Johnson’s comments were “robust, unfortunate” but not, crucially, racist.
Is the leader of our country bigoted, then, or simply accident-prone? Does the commander-in-chief simply have a penchant for error in referring to historically marginalised communities? Or does the Prime Minister harbour a deep-rooted belief in the inferiority of Muslim women, black people, or, indeed, anyone who does not fit the publicly-educated, straight, white, male profile of the figures he surrounded himself with during his time and Oxford and who now stock his Cabinet? It’s not a question that we can answer with any absolute certainty. What we can say is that the Prime Minister has a record, past and present, of careless, insensitive, offensive comments, spoken offhand or written in print. Comments that are often aimed at members of the BAME community at home or abroad.
The more interesting question is where this carelessness comes from. Whether Johnson’s comments slip out time and time again on accident, or whether they come from the truth of his convictions, they are evidence of the same defect of British political culture. The Prime Minister is taken from the same insular, cosseted pool of so many of his predecessors; one where boys can enjoy the confidence instilled in them by their elite tutors, revel in the safe spaces of their all-male drinking societies, and go on to comfortably take whatever job in finance, journalism or politics they can network themselves into. It is an environment in which a person never has to watch their step. They are born with an in-built safety net.
If Boris makes mistakes, it is because he has never had to face their consequences. If he is careless, it stems from the experiences of someone who has never had to care. This is not an experience Butler can relate to. Black Britons, in particular black women, don’t have the luxury of their actions being called “unfortunate”.
The composure Butler displayed in the interview has already been commented on as an example of the way black women in politics are forced to conduct themselves, just to be taken as seriously as their white colleagues are. Dawn Butler does not get the option of her words being defended as merely unfortunate in an environment where any potential mistake or misstep will be upheld as evidence of another angry black woman; ignoring the way the words of people like Boris Johnson have followed Butler for her entire life – or the fact that she has every right to be angry.
From the Windrush scandal to the rapid increase of hate crimes under the Tory government’s watch, the Conservative Party has been accused of racism by more members of the BAME community than Butler. Calling the Prime Minister and his party “racist” does not mean that every Conservative MP harbours a silent hatred of every ethnic minority. But it does mean to highlight its history of ignoring, marginalising or indeed, offending the views of groups who do not have the past legacy of being included and protected. And at the end of the day, whether racist or unfortunate, the consequences – and the hurt caused – for the people Butler represents are the same.