A study carried out by the broadcaster ITV has shown that almost two-thirds of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) MPs have experienced some form of racism while working in parliament. Not a single figure or piece of testimony from the survey shocked me – even though I am a brand new MP. Being an MP does not make us special. In reality, I am just another black person at work. I face racism and so do my colleagues.
There is a culture in parliament and the media that is largely unchanged by the fact of increased diversity. The tone and leadership regarding what is acceptable comes from the very top. And the top is rotten. Politicians and commentators pander to anti-immigrant rhetoric, with no regard for the fact that immigration in this country is synonymous with race. BAME MPs who challenge racism will hear in response, often on social media, that they are “race baiters”, are ignoring people’s “real concerns” and will be told “go back to where [they] came from”, and worse.
Two months into being an MP I have already experienced this personally, but as a staff member for Diane Abbott I watched it go on for years. It’s common for black members and staffers to be asked to produce their passes and be questioned on the parliamentary estate. I know one new member, a black woman, who had an MP hand her his bag and ask her to hold it for him. When working as Diane’s staffer, even in my early 30s I was asked if I was her niece or daughter, including by other MPs.
And when a racist incident makes the news, the pattern is predictable: the establishment feigns shock about how awfully black people are treated, a few BAME MPs are pulled on the TV to talk about it. Wash, rinse, repeat. The prime minister’s spokesman’s refusal this week to condemn the views of a No 10 adviser who was found to have claimed that intelligence is linked to race shows just how deep these problems run.
Boris Johnson’s own opinions are well known: take his appalling words comparing women wearing burkas to letterboxes or describing black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon” smiles. There should be no surprise when the rest of parliament and even the public treat BAME MPs this way.
As a result of the sexual abuse and bullying inquiry, all MPs are required to take “valuing everyone training”. MPs need similar training on racism and diversity. It is clear that some cannot grasp the issue for themselves.
I am an anti-racist. I understand and accept that as long as discrimination exists in society and I am a minority in parliament I must challenge it. I am happy to do that. But that is an additional role not required of others: those who accept the rise in racism and discrimination.
In my maiden speech, when I spoke about the litany of injustices BAME people have faced in this country, I asked: “How can I be equal to every other member in the House of Commons when this is how it treats people who look like me?” The answer is simple, I am not. And as my colleagues have demonstrated in the responses to the survey, there is still a very long way to go before we are.
This article was first published in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/feb/18/black-minority-ethnic-mps-racism-abuse