Black women MPs speak out about racism and sexism in Parliament

// 14 April 2008

Update: The report which this story is based on, and edited by zohra, is now available online. It includes a full interview with Dawn Butler MP, which is well worth reading, as well as other commentary on the intersection of racism and sexism, and a piece by Hannana Siddiqui explaining the history of activism to tackle violence against ethnic minority women.

For example:

Cultural values within minority communities are regarded as the underlying cause of violence against ethnic minority women rather than patriarchy. This means that proposed solutions are based on changing minority cultural and social attitudes rather than empowering women by changing gender power relations.

This lack of a feminist analysis has allowed some politicians to use the

issue of forced marriage for racist agendas including promoting ever

stricter immigration controls.

Linda Bellos provides some thoughts on the wider history of anti-racist and feminist movements. For example, she says:

It was a shock in the days of an active and growing movement to recognise that collective action for all women still needed to acknowledge that all women are not the same. The shock on my part grew from the fact that I had previously, naively, believed in the notion that sisterhood was about sameness and collective experience. Yet I was now learning about how black women like me were only able to have abortions if we agreed to be sterilised. When I spoke to my white middle class heterosexual friends, they complained that doctors refused to sterilise them; meanwhile for my working class friends, whether black or white, sterilisation was a pre-condition from the outset.

Go read the whole thing!


Dawn Butler, only the third black woman ever to have become an MP, said she faced such frequent racism from politicians of all parties that she had to ‘pick her battles’ to avoid being constantly in conflict with her colleagues.

Despite the headline and lede*, this story in the Guardian is about how black women MPs experience double heapings of bullshit from their mostly white, mostly male ‘colleagues’, in the form of racism and sexism.

Should we be surprised by stories like this?

Butler, who won the Brent South seat in 2005 when she was 35, described how shocked she was by the attitude of a senior Conservative who challenged her right to have a drink on the Commons’ Thameside terrace, a privilege reserved for MPs.

In an article written for the Fawcett Society’s new collection of essays, Seeing Double: Race and Gender in Ethnic Minority Women’s Lives**, Butler describes how former Tory minister David Heathcote-Amory confronted her as she went to sit in the members’ section on the terrace. ‘He actually said to me: “What are you doing here? This is for members only.”

‘He then proceeded to ask me: “Are you a member?” And I said: “Yes I am, are you?” And he turned around and said to his colleague: “They’re letting anybody in nowadays.”

It actually gets worse when this dipshit tries to explain how he wasn’t be racist after all, oh no!

‘What she is actually objecting to is that I didn’t recognise her as a new MP. I simply asked her what she was doing at that end of the terrace, and they are quite sensitive about this kind of thing, they think that any kind of reprimand from anyone is racially motivated.’ He agreed that there was a problem with too few black and minority ethnic MPs being elected.

“They” presumably being “those over-sensitive black women”, hmmm?

‘The trouble is that feminism has trumped everything. We are a bit obsessed with getting more women in and I think genuinely broad-based politics is one that takes people from every social and religious group. But we are exaggeratedly courteous to anyone with a different skin colour, so the idea that anything I have said is racist is absurd.’

Gah! As Butler tells it, feminism and anti-racism still has a lot of work to do before “trumping everything” in the House of Commons. She was basically stonewalled when she tried to bring a complaint to the Conservative party’s chief whip and the Speaker of the House.

And it was not a one-off incident:

‘I was using the members’ lift in the middle of last year, when a number of politicians started talking about how cleaners and catering staff shouldn’t be allowed to use that specific lift,’ she recalled. ‘It was obvious they were talking about me and so I started to drop hints that I was an MP.

‘They didn’t pick up on my hints and continued complaining in a loud voice. When we all got out of the lift, I ran along the corridor after the particular person who had been most involved, and tried to make them realise how rude it was to talk like that; it would have been rude even if I had been a cleaner or caterer,’ she said.

She has been backed by the only other currently-serving MP who is a black woman, Diane Abbott “who said she had suffered 20 years of prejudice. ‘In the beginning, some of it was sheer ignorance”.

* Of course, it’s great that the Guardian ran a story on this. But they were wrong to narrow it down to an issue solely of racism, when the whole point of this book appears to be about the intersection of racism and sexism.

** Note: this was edited by our very own zohra!

Photo by Joe Dunckley, shared under a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

Wiggly // Posted 13 April 2008 at 2:16 pm

I was disgusted when I read this article last night and the remarks by David Heathcote-Amory – the man is blind to the fact that racism is inherent in the language he uses. Typical of someone who gets called out on this he tries to deny that he holds any prejudiced views and goes on to blame the victim as being ‘too sensitive’. How utterly depressing…

Anne Onne // Posted 13 April 2008 at 4:05 pm

Yeah, they let anybody in. And I’m darn proud of that fact. And you know what? That means little idiots like you can’t hold the monopoly as much as you used to. You don’t hold as much power as you’d like over the lives of, and the very bodies of people like her, as people like you have done in the past. Even the power you still unfairly hold over them is not enough for you, because you feel it slipping, slowly being eroded by years of sweat and blood and guts.

You fear your lack of power, because your white skin and Y chromosome won’t always give you an easier ride, and your life is already getting harder. You have more competition, because you can’t keep people like her in the kitchen or cleaning, like you would like to. Because they are as smart as you, as hard working as you, and probably more of both to boot. You’re scared, because eventually, you’ll have to prove your worth, instead of everyone assuming you’ve earned it, and deep down inside, you know you’re just a weak, incompetent coward who needs to have others to look down on, in case you realise you actually are the lowest yourself. Have fun, because it won’t last forever.

Or that’s what I’d say to the creep if I could. Anybody who wants to pass on the message is welcome to. :)

I’d rather all our MPs were WOC, than them all being middle class white men. For too long, we’ve been forced to suffer them making the decisions that affect us much more than people of their kind. It’ll be about time we all ahd more representation (women, POC, LGBTQ, all of us.)

shatterboxx // Posted 13 April 2008 at 8:59 pm

I’m glad the guardian ran the article. I’d really like to know more about the inner workings of parliament but obviously it’s a closely guarded subject. I feel like we as citizens of the UK have a right to know who precisely is running OUR country, and if it is cretins like Mr Heathcote-Amory then frankly I am ashamed to be British.

Abraham Mehti Anthony // Posted 13 April 2008 at 9:16 pm

I have an interest in the subject of racism and sexism. I am very supportive of women, ethnic minorities, disabled and just about any other group wrongly treated as subordinate. I try my very best not to be biased towards or against any particular group, however, when it comes to comedy, I have no problem with jokes about stereotypes. Often the jokes are about the way we look at different groups as opposed to the actual groups. If people made jokes and friendly banter about my race, I’d laugh. The fact is, controversy makes good comedy in my view. In your opinion, should there be a clear distinction between comedy and blatant attack on different groups or should such issues be banned from comedy altogether?

Anna // Posted 13 April 2008 at 10:35 pm

as sick as it makes me I’m the first to laugh at a well-told rape/paedophile joke (having experienced both myself)… my philosophy lecturer once told me sick comedy is how people make sense of tragedy, and that makes as much sense to me as anything.

Anna // Posted 13 April 2008 at 10:48 pm

as sick as it makes me I’m the first to laugh at a well-told rape/paedophile joke (having experienced both myself)… my philosophy lecturer once told me sick comedy is how people make sense of tragedy, and that makes as much sense to me as anything.

Anne Onne // Posted 14 April 2008 at 12:37 pm

Personally, I think what matters most in this kind of joke is an awareness of the audience, and that the joke have an element of subversion. If it’s just enforcing stereotypes of a particular group being inferior and just kicking the vulnerable, it’s not funny. If it’s a different take, it might be. Depends on your sense of humour. But the comedian must be aware of the thin line they are skating on.

Also, a joke is only a joke if the person making it doesn’t want to offend their audience. If they unintentionally do, and aren’t a rude idiot, they will apologise and be aware they have crossed a line. If they just try to hide behind the ‘it’s just a joke, don’t take it so seriously, jeez’ mask, when somebody is hurt by it, it’s what they wanted all along. You don’t hurt somebody and not regret it unless you like doing so.

Sarah // Posted 15 April 2008 at 11:09 am

I don’t think anything should be ‘banned from comedy’, whatever that means, however it’s important to realise that jokes are often used as a means of denigrating a group or people, or perpetuating stereotypes and negative beliefs about them. It is often not at all the same as ‘friendly banter’ between members of one of the dominant groups.

I also agree that comedy can be used for the opposite purpose, as a subversive way of exposing and exploring these attitudes. I don’t think there’s a need for anything to be banned, just for people to have a bit of sensitivity and awareness of what they are saying, and of the context

Lara // Posted 16 April 2008 at 3:49 am

Comedy, like everything else in society, is used to reinforce status quos: sexual, racial, ethnic, ablist, etc. Comedy is often used to attack women, for example, to make jokes out of their rape. It is usually, if ever, “subversive.” If people can laugh about the mere subject of rape then something is wrong. How can one say a rape joke can be funny when at least 1 in every 4 women around you have been victims of rape? Yeah, Abraham, your privileged white ass can laugh at a joke about your race because there are no tangible consequences for your life when people make fun of you for being white. For black people, for instance, this is NOT the case: black people; Arabs; Asians; Latin@s have been systematically discriminated against, there is a whole CONTEXT of racism and oppression. So you can’t separate a racist joke from the context you live in: the context of racial oppression.

You as a male can NEVER understand the harm of being a female rape victim, you therefore have no right to make jokes about it. Period.

Yeah, Anna, you are sick, but you’re like everyone else, sadly :/

Anna // Posted 16 April 2008 at 10:09 am

I find it weirdly cathartic, and unlike Abraham I’ve first hand experience of being raped. *shrug*

Abraham Mehti Anthony // Posted 5 May 2008 at 3:48 pm

Sarah, you said “Yeah Abraham, your privileged white assed can laugh at any joke because there are no tangible consequences for your life when people make fun of you for being white.” On what criteria are you basing the statement of me being white? We are supposed to abandon such preconceived notions. First and foremost I’m proud of who and what I am. My mother is from Iran and my father is from Mauritius. I have lived all my life in Britain and I am proud to be all three. When people make jokes about my kind, provided they are meant as a joke (not as an attack) I’m perfectly fine with it. Just be careful about what you said. The comment you made is more inflammatory than any racist joke that I could possibly muster up. I’m not judging you, I’m just judging the comment you made.

Abraham Mehti Anthony // Posted 9 May 2008 at 11:52 am

Sorry Sarah, I made a mistake I meant Lara. Much of what I say is open to misinterpretation. I’m deeply sorry if that is the case. I have really no problem of any comedy that pushes the boundaries however, only if it is in tongue n cheek as opposed to a blatant attack on a particular group.

Wasim Wagha // Posted 20 November 2008 at 11:13 am

I work with Aurat Foundation, a women rights organization working to repeal discriminatory laws against women, end honour killing and support the women parliamentarians. Currently I am doing a study on ‘the level and substance of women parliamentarians’ interventions in the parliament’ in Pakistan.

I found the material on your website as interesting and useful.

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