Black women MPs speak out about racism and sexism in Parliament
Jess McCabe // 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.
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