It’s a strange feeling, knowing that our new prime minister doesn’t see people like me as fully human. Johnson – I will not buy into his jocular, larger-than-life persona by using his first name – has a shameful track record of anti-blackness.
I was nine years old when he wrote a now infamous column describing black people as “flag-waving piccaninnies” who “break out in watermelon smiles” when given the supposed honour of a visit from any British royal or politician. At that time, I was a long way off making peace with my Black British identity; comments like Johnson’s, so carelessly delivered, made it a struggle to reconcile the two. There is little to suggest that Johnson’s views have evolved in the years between then and now.
“In the words of the late, great Maya Angelou: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.””
Johnson has repeatedly positioned black people as inferior to whites, demeaned the working class, and treated women with disrespect. Much like the 45 president of the United States – another premier with ridiculous hair and a penchant for making racist comments – he espouses a politics that makes marginal people even more vulnerable.
Racist prime ministers are nothing new in Britain – just think of the countless politicians behind Britain colonising half the world, men who were the architects of the transatlantic slave trade. In a 2002 Spectator op-ed titled Africa is a mess, but we can’t blame colonialism, Johnson advocated recolonising the African continent, which he referred to as a “blot.”
He wrote: “The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more… the best fate for Africa would be if the old colonial powers, or their citizens, scrambled once again in her direction; on the understanding that this time they will not be asked to feel guilty.”
At the time of the transatlantic slave trade, British ships carried an estimated three million African men and women into slavery in Americas. As Professor Kehinde Andrews points out, the profit Britain made funds our national healthcare service, the education system, and even – meagre and punitive though it may be – the welfare state. It is highly unlikely that the Johnson era will oversee the payment of colonial reparations. Nor is there hope of it improving conditions for people of colour in Britain.
In her time as Home Secretary, Theresa May planted the seeds of the hostile environment for migrants and people of colour. As prime minister, she presided over austerity driven cuts that, research proves, disproportionately hit women of colour. Members of the Windrush Generation and their descendants, who have lived in Britain for decades, are being forcibly deported. Several families made homeless by the Grenfell Tower tragedy still don’t have a permanent roof over their heads. Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre oversees some of the worst human rights violations happening in modern Britain.
As May’s successor, and our third consecutive Conservative prime minister, Johnson does not represent a change for the better. With his typical flippancy, Johnson risked adding a further five years onto Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe’s wrongful imprisonment in Iran. And although Johnson apologised, the nature of his comment and the danger in which it put a woman of colour was entirely characteristic.
“Deliberately dishevelled hair and smatterings of Latin do nothing to mitigate the harm he causes.”
Writing for the Daily Telegraph last year, Johnson mocked the way Muslim women dress by comparing them to “letter boxes” and “bank robbers”. That same week saw a rise in Islamophobic hate crimes across Britain: 21 Muslim women reported being subject to Islamophobic attacks. Johnson’s racist words have real and negative consequences.
What hopes can any woman of colour have about Johnson becoming prime minister when his words so regularly fan the flames of racialised, gendered violence? Of course, there will always be a token “taken on board” as apparent proof that the next prime minister is neither racist nor sexist. Priti Patel took on that position, giving Johnson a glowing write up in the Express. But the voice of one woman of colour looking for a seat at the table does not outweigh the prejudice embedded in the foundations of British society – structural power imbalances that Johnson aims to uphold.
For too long, the British media has been complicit in building the myth of Boris. Endless stories framing Johnson as a charming eccentric rather than scrutinising him as a member of Britain’s elite political class have paved the way to his premiership. But deliberately dishevelled hair and smatterings of Latin do nothing to mitigate the harm he causes. We cannot afford to dismiss racism as a “gaffe” or misogyny as a “blunder” when they are representative of Johnson’s beliefs and politics. In the words of the late, great Maya Angelou: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.”
Claire Heuchan is an author and essayist who blogs as Sister Outrider