Interviews

“Everything is a battle, every step of the way” for MP Dawn Butler

House left, Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch and house back right, Labour MP Dawn Butler.

Since first becoming a UK MP in 2005, Dawn has rarely shied away from living her truth, either in the UK Parliament or elsewhere. A vital tenacity as the third Black woman to become an MP in the UK, and the first to be appointed as a government minister. “I went into politics to do the things that I felt passionately about and believed in.  People told me, don’t be too Black, [if you] talk about Black issues, you’re never going to go anywhere.  I had to explain to them that I will talk about the issues that are important to me. I thought, well, even though there’s nobody that looks like me in politics or sounds like me in politics I could do this. And I could make an impact.”

Dawn’s impact has definitely been felt, likely beyond the reach of even her own expectations. She has won awards including two Patchwork Foundation awards: Overall MP of the Year and the Labour MP of the Year Award for reporting health inequalities data in the Covid-19 pandemic. She’s even made it onto British Vogue’s 25 Most Influential Women of 2020.

“THANK GOD FOR BLM”

Reflecting on her time as an MP, Dawn shares that one of the biggest challenges she’s faced is navigating discussions around race in politics. “I always think ‘Thank God for BLM’,” says Dawn.  Dawn discloses that prior to 2020, she had shied away from speaking candidly and employing the language to match. “I never even used to use the term white supremacy because I was almost scared of using it.” Dawn believes one of the lasting impacts of Black Lives Matter has been the forcing to the forefront of honest, open dialogue on the realities of race and discrimination in the UK. The kind that many Black people are used to having in private but rarely see play out on national TV as it did on April 20, when she confronted Kemi Badenoch in Parliament over the disastrous government race report. The internet erupted. “Gaslighting on a national scale,” was how Dawn described the report and Kemi’s fervent defence of it. “It was very frustrating. I was embarrassed watching the debate play out in the chamber, to be clear, I was embarrassed by the government minister,” she recalls. Despite her discomfort at that moment, Dawn says the conversation in parliament and the online conversation it sparked were worth it “you kind of realise that if we are going to tackle it [racism], you’re gonna have to fight through and have these difficult conversations, says Dawn.

One video has now been viewed over 21 thousand times, with mostly positive responses. As expected, there were negative responses too. Speaking out has been made easier, Dawn says, by BLM. “Without [BLM] some people wouldn’t have seen racism for what it is. The murder of George Floyd laid bare for the world to see the end result of racism. If the government report had been published before the murder of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests then I am sure that there would have been a different reaction. The government would probably have won that ‘culture war’. People may have blindly followed their narrative and proclaimed there is no racism. But peoples eyes had been opened.”

“Every generation has its Kemi”

During the debate, what seemed to divide opinion (along the usual lines) most was Dawn’s use of the phrase: “racial gatekeeper.” Racial gatekeeping and terms like it have been cropping up in the debate around racism in the UK with fervent frequency over the past few years. In 2019 Musa Okwanga explained the concept in relation to Priti Patel’s rigid defence of immigration policy:

“Racial gatekeeping put simply is the assertion that the political figure in question could not possibly be criticised for regressive policies against a particular racially marginalised group because they themselves are members of that group…The racial gatekeeper is a crucial role because it allows a group of white people with racially regressive views to say: “Look at us, we have found a non-white person who agrees with us, our policies, therefore, do not have racially regressive effects”

Musa Okwanga, Byline Times 2019

Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu’s This is Why I Resist offers another in-depth exploration of the term and what it means in practice or how racial gatekeeping manifests.

“Ultimately, we have to change society. So all these people who are pretending that racism doesn’t exist, make me angry because that doesn’t help those who face racism. And there’s no point in doing something in life – in society if you’re not going to help anybody else. If you’re just about you, “well I’ve made it,” then what is the point?” Dawn says she often utilizes the example of domestic violence to explain how problematic Kemi’s statements are to those who can’t understand them. “Just because you’ve never suffered domestic violence, would you be legitimate if you turn around and say it’s not a problem? I doubt anyone would dare to do that especially as one woman is killed every three days by a man from domestic violence.” Yet there are still those who will never listen or even try to understand, and as hard as that truth is, Dawn says it is a part of the struggle. We need to accept that and rely on the law to protect us.  However, we should not and must not allow them to halt progress.

“It’s sadly nothing new. Every generation will have a Kemi…. even back in the day during colonialism …there was a Kemi there… it’s all about how we tackle it.” For now, at least it would seem Dawn has chosen to tackle them head-on.

“Everything is a battle, every step of the way”

Before she goes, we’re keen to know why Dawn chose politics. Why not grassroots activism or local organising that might attract less abuse?

“It was never really on my radar to become a politician. I came to politics from the grassroots so I was always fighting for truth and justice. And I had the drive to make the place I live, the UK, but in particular London, the best place to live. Being a politician wasn’t something that I really wanted to do.” On reflection, Dawn says her family also had their doubts and, “were never really keen on me being in a public-facing role”. Perhaps what they pre-empted was some of the hate she’s received over the years. There are of course the high-profile incidents that make the press. Dawn being racially profiled and stopped by the police last summer, or her offices being forced to close down due to threats of violence (which eventually led to an arrest). But the torrent of abuse runs much deeper; “There’s a court case going on at the moment with somebody who threatened to shoot me in the back of the head. Then there was somebody threatening to kneel on my neck…there has been some consequence to people’s abuse, there is clearly not enough, because there’s still so much abuse. And it’s not just about my mental and physical welfare – it’s also the welfare of my team. So everything is a battle, every step of the way. But it is not just about the battles but the war, I think if we all work together we can win the war on racism and discrimination.

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