Dawn Butler: It’s time we stopped downplaying racism in the UK

Dawn Butler
·11-min read
Photo credit: Barry Lewis - Getty Images
Photo credit: Barry Lewis - Getty Images

From Harper's BAZAAR

I have lived with racism all of my life, from the moment I can remember. My brothers gave me ‘the talk’ when I was 12 or 13. You always hear about Black boys and men being given ‘the talk’, but actually my brothers were the ones to talk to me about the police. They told me to never call the police if I was in trouble, and that I should call them instead. They told me that the police wouldn’t help me, and I accepted it. When your lived experience of a force is that they are against you, which is how my brothers felt, you don’t want anyone you love to go through that.

I was just 18 when I realised how much foundation their advice had. I was at a friend’s house party when a white man threw a brick at my car window, which I had parked outside. He was apparently angry about the noise levels coming from inside, so decided to unleash his anger on my car. Someone pointed out that this man lived two doors down, so I knocked on his door and he came outside with a brick in his hand. We ran and I remember calling my brother (because that’s what you do, you don’t call the police) and he turned up. He knocked on the door and the man came out this time with a knife. I thought, ‘He’s going to kill my brother.’ I hesitated and called the police. The first thing they did when they arrived was arrest my brother, and I thought, ‘I’m going to get my brother killed.’ I was hysterical. I told them, ‘I am the person who called you and this man is still holding a knife, he’s trying to kill my brother. If you’re going to arrest my brother, you have to arrest the man threatening us with a knife.’ Eventually, they arrested both of them and later my brother was released without charge. That is why I was always told never to call the police.

It’s been nearly two weeks since the death of George Floyd and I have experienced a rollercoaster of emotions. There’s obviously the initial pain of watching a Black man be murdered by, not just a white man, but a police officer, whose very job it is to protect and serve their citizens. I couldn’t watch the whole eight minutes and 46 seconds. I watched the first 30 seconds and just the fact that I knew how it ended was extremely painful. I felt so much pain.

When people say to me that racism isn’t as bad in the UK as it is in the US, I say the first word you’ve used is racism, so you’re admitting that there is racism. If you can identify that there is racism, on any level, that is bad. It should be, ‘There’s racism – what can we do about it?’ There is structural racism – how we do move the structural barriers so that there is long-lasting change? How can we work together to do that?

What happened in America is very important for the UK. Although we’ve spoken about racism, although we’ve highlighted it, although there is empirical evidence of discrimination, although we can see all that, people still try to explain it away. The PHE report says there’s nothing internal that explains why Black people are dying from Covid-19 at a higher rate than white people. If there’s nothing internal, if it's not rooted in genetics, it must be external. The report says the reasons are “complex”, but states that BAME communities are at an increased risk of contracting the virus because they are more likely to live in overcrowded housing and/or deprived and urban areas and also to have a job that gives them greater exposure to Covid. They are also more likely to have comorbidities, i.e. to have an existing health condition. The report also notes that BAME communities from overseas “may face additional barriers in accessing services that are created by, for example, cultural and language differences”.

Racism has always been there, the struggle has always been there, but now it’s been televised. When you see it in front of your eyes, how do you explain it away? When you see a police officer with his hands in his pockets kneeling on a Black man’s neck, slowly killing him, how do you explain it away? You cannot explain this lynching without excusing racism.

Photo credit: Nicola Tree - Getty Images
Photo credit: Nicola Tree - Getty Images

Protests have been the only thing that has ever achieved change. No one has ever achieved anything by just writing a letter or by having a quiet word. When people talk about the revolution of women getting the vote, they don’t talk about them writing lots of letters. They talk about the suffragettes marching in the streets… they talk about suffragettes being force-fed in prison. Why would you talk about white protests as a cause or at least a factor in prompting change, and Black protests in a negative way? The fact that people talk about protests in those terms is another form of racial bias. To anyone complaining about the lack of social distancing, I say this – did you say that about the people out celebrating VE Day? Did you say that about the people out on the beaches in Devon, Brighton and Blackpool? Did you say that about those who were forced to travel on the Tube? If you didn’t say exactly that, then why would it say it about those protesting racism? It is a fact that if you mix in large groups you are more likely to catch or spread the virus; this is a fact that was also true when people flocked to the beaches for a suntan. People are risking their lives to fight for basic human rights: they are campaigning for justice. I have reported the violent and racist abuse I have received over my defence of the protests to the police. I will not be silenced.

As a Black woman, I suffer racism on a daily basis. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes things happen and you question yourself. It’s exhausting. You think, ‘Did that just happen because they don’t like me or did it happen because I’m Black, or did it happen because I’m a woman? Why did this situation happen?’ At Westminster, I have been mistaken for a cleaner getting into a members-only lift. I have been confronted about whether I should be allowed onto a members-only area on the terrace. But these things happen all the time. Sometimes, I feel exhausted and don't have the energy to deal with it. Other days, I feel angry and I know I have to challenge it. But always, in every instance, I ask myself when this is going to change. When are people going to respect others for who they are, rather than judging or belittling them? When are people going to stop flouting their white privilege? When will this stop?

When you have a Prime Minister who gets away with what he does, who gets defended for it and rewarded, you know that the battle is real. When you have a government that, by its own research has shown that its policies and laws have a disproportionate negative effect on Black and brown and minority ethnic people, and who have done nothing about it, you know that the struggle is a huge task to overcome. In March, I appeared on BBC Politics where I called out Boris Johnson’s quoted racism, referencing in particular the newspaper column in which he compared Muslim women in burkas to letterboxes (of course this isn’t the extent of the Prime Minister’s racism – he has also described Black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”). I was told by the Conservative MPs on the panel that I was being “outrageous” and that Johnson’s comments were simply “unfortunate”. It made me feel ganged up on. I had no support on that panel. I took a deep breath and got beaten up on the panel in order to make a point and I did. What is additionally unfair is that if I hadn’t stayed calm in that situation, I would have been labelled an angry Black woman. In fact, I was still branded with that tag on social media afterwards anyway. As a Black woman, I have to be exemplar in my attitude and language in order to be taken seriously and to survive. That has been the struggle over the past 400 years, and we are so very tired of having to survive situations.

There are examples of British racism everywhere. I am sick of being mistaken for black colleagues, as I was earlier this year when the BBC and the Evening Standard confused me for Marsha de Cordova. The media needs to make an effort. If there is no one in the room who can differentiate between the Black women in parliament, then they need to have someone in the room who can. It’s a vital component to having a good media outlet. It’s not just about ticking boxes. Just get someone in the room who can identify me, Dawn Butler, from Marsha de Cordova. There are over 400 white men in parliament and they’re rarely confused. It proves that the media is full of white people who are able to identify white people. We need Black people in front of and behind the camera, in the newsrooms and in print media. If there’s more diversity in the media, then those mistakes will happen less.

Brexit, Trump and Boris have been a cauldron of intense circumstances. It has brought racism to the fore where before it was, in the main, hidden. Those three factors have helped make it acceptable. When the leader of the far right refers to our Prime Minister as his leader, it’s hard to take. The rise of the far right globally is one of the biggest threats that we face. Now with the George Floyd lens, many are rewinding and realising how much of a role racism played in tabloid treatment of the Duchess of Sussex. Racism drove her from the UK. We should be ashamed as a country.

We must have honest conversations about racism, but more importantly now is a time for action. We must call out racism when we see or hear it – even if it’s within a family or friendship group. Now is the time for our allies to be brave. Our allies must acknowledge that they might benefit from racial injustice, but still take a stand against it.

While we’re here, in whatever roles we’re playing, we have to tackle racism. We must strive for equity, rather than equality. They both strive for fairness, but equality achieves this through treating everyone the same regardless of need, while equity achieves this through treating people differently dependent on need. I want social equity; I want equity in economy and education. I want for all the structural barriers to be removed, otherwise this will happen again and the next generation will have to deal with it. Structural inequalities won’t just benefit Black or brown people; it will benefit the whole of society. If we have social equity, everyone wins.

We all have a responsibility – we need to call it out if we see it in the street, if we see a young Black man being handcuffed for no reason. If we are in the boardroom and the Black person’s voice is being silenced, we must call it out. If we’re in our local shop, and the Black person gets ignored, we call it out. Then there are structural issues. It requires bravery. We need to stop saying things like, ‘I’m not racist’ or ‘I haven’t got a racist bone in my body.’ Racism doesn’t exist in your bones; it exists in the hippocampus part of your brain. Stop saying, ‘I have a Black friend’ - that’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card. Don’t say, ‘I don’t see colour.’ It doesn’t help. In fact, it’s offensive. How privileged you are not to have to see it.

Someone asked me last week how I was feeling politically. They wondered why, given all the things that have happened to me personally, I hadn’t given up. I was reminded of Maya Angelou’s poem ‘Still I Rise’. When you have been oppressed, underestimated, pre-judged, persecuted and wrongly accused your whole life, the things people think will break you won’t. You think about those who have gone before you and how they have suffered, and you just have to keep going. One day, I’ll stop fighting – I’ll take that pause – but that day will be the day that there is no more fight to be had.

As told to Ella Alexander.

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