As Dawn Butler discovered, you can't call out racism – it's just too rude

When did stating facts become impolite?

Shaparak Khorsandi
Friday 06 March 2020 19:29
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Dawn Butler calls out Boris Johnson racism during panel debate with MP Laura Trott

To call someone a racist when they have been racist, is now officially “rude”.

In the spirit of the kindness and compassion that we have signed up to since it’s become clear that people can literally be trolled to death, we need to allow powerful, rich people to use whatever degrading language they wish to describe those of a darker hue with impunity. We must trust that no malice whatsoever is meant and that they are definitely not racist. And that includes our prime minister.

Laura Trott, Conservative MP for Sevenoaks, was clearly hurt on BBC Politics Live this week when Dawn Butler MP pointed out that the prime minister had unapologetically used racist language. Butler was – of course – hardly qualified to explain what racism is, where she sees it or how it feels, having only experienced it regularly, first hand, her entire life.

She cannot possibly understand how appalling it is to be accused of being a racist, when all you have done is say a few bigoted things. Trott was quite right to be outraged at Butler’s refusal to simply move on from Johnson’s language.

Trying hard to stop her bottom lip from wobbling, Laura Trott (MBE) told Butler, in no uncertain terms, that she was “undermining politics” by being a real stick-in-the-mud and refusing to be more tolerant of racism.

As a black woman, Butler did not even have the decency to be ruffled or lose her cool in any way, whilst Trott talked over her and told Butler that she was being “offensive” and “rude” for calling out racism. Thereby denying racists watching at home – and in the media – the opportunity to shriek that Butler was being angry or aggressive towards the nice blonde lady. Naturally, Laura could get as angry as she liked, because from her, it is simply “passion” and “emotion”.

So there we have it. The Tory line is that Boris Johnson’s comments regarding “piccaninnies” and “watermelon smiles”’ were not racist, to suggest they were is rude and inconsiderate, and we should all send him flowers and tell him we are sorry. According to Nick Ferrari, the right leaning radio presenter, these words which Johnson used to describe black people were “unfortunate and robust, but not racist”.

(As a personal aside, it’s always good to hear the hot take of a man who, in 2003, had complaints that he encouraged racism towards asylum seekers by his listeners, upheld by the Broadcasting Standard Commission).

So what is racism – if it’s not using racist language which you know that, even if you are not a racist yourself, will encourage those who are, to vote for you and put you in power?

Is it, for instance, willfully courting racists by calling Muslim women “letterboxes”? Yes? How dare you be so rude?

I hear racists on Twitter screeching, “Islam wasn’t a race last time I looked. I am not a racist, I prefer the term hateful bigot”. Whatever you say mate.

It is a strong tactic of the right, to somehow make themselves the victims, when they are pulled up on bigotry and hateful rhetoric. They are bloody good at it – and it works. Laura Trott will have been briefed to the eyebrows on how to handle Butler bringing up racism in the interview (“Well she’s bound to Laura”, I can hear her advisors saying, “they always do. Shout that it hurts your feelings. Call her rude. Decent people don’t call other people racists, it’s impolite and uncivilised”)

People gaslight because gaslighting works. Laura Trott was gaslighting Dawn Butler live on television, and Butler dealt with it with the calm and grace that only a women who has had to handle this kind of thing week in, week out, can muster.

Racism isn’t just about beating up brown people in alley ways. That was 1980s racism, when we brown school kids were terrified of being attacked by skinheads. We were so busy running away we didn’t have a chance to stop for breath and call out the times we were demeaned with language from those in authority. Remind me to tell you one day about the teacher from my high school, who cheerily told us once that he was “going to make you work like a n***er!”.

The “skinheads” these days have evolved. They have lush locks and are privately educated. They are sitting in seats of power and boldly telling us they are not racist, as they call us names and contribute to dehumanising us. The same people who have created the environment where two working class white girls can pick on a hijabi Somalian woman, as I saw recently at a supermarket.

They jeered and mocked her. All I could think was that those girls, if they cared to get speak with the woman, may well find they have more in common with her than they do with the Trott's and Johnson's of the world, who no more care about the white working class, than they do about Somali women. With his letterbox jibes, Johnson has primed those girls to believe that the immigrant woman doing her weekly shop with her young children at her side is their enemy, rather than his own ilk.

But that does not mean he is a racist. Please, mind your manners.

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