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Is Britain a racist country?

Updated: May 13

On this week’s episode of “Britain is not a racist country” – as said by our Prime Minister, we’ve seen a Black woman subjected to the misogynoir of British politics yet again. On Monday, it was reported that the biggest donor of the Conservative party, Frank Hester, made some disparaging remarks about Britain's first Black female MP Diane Abbott back in 2019. According to the Guardian, Hester claimed that looking at Abbott would make you “want to hate all Black women” and that the MP “should be shot”. 

After these remarks made headlines, Hester’s company, the Phoenix Partnership (TPP) issued a statement claiming he had since made a concerted effort to call Abbott twice to apologise and does not hate all Black women – sounds awfully apologetic, right? 

To add a cherry on top, the statement also claimed that Hester “abhorred” racism because of his experiences growing up in the UK as a “child of Irish immigrants in the 1970’s”. This ‘what I said was racist but I’m not a racist’ rhetoric is what makes this story even more shocking and yet laughable. 

Politicians across the political spectrum have denounced Hester’s remarks and Keir Starmer believes that the Tory party should return the £10m back to Hester and his company – putting their money where their mouths are while also still being held to account for the racism within his party by Diane herself. Current incumbents at No.10 have taken a passive approach by condemning Hester’s comments as ‘unacceptable’ but still refusing to return the money. 

Nearly half a century after the Race Relation Act outlawed discrimination on the grounds of race in the UK, racism appears to be  alive and well in 2024. So grab your tinnies and hit the Overground - or should we say the Suffy G - it’s time for an unmistakable take on the story. 

A look back to history…and X/Twitter

Unsurprisingly, the UK is currently in uproar since Hester comments have been published. Many are surprised but not shocked by the abhorrent comments made by the Tory’s biggest donor. People are hurt and angry that venom behind these comments is still present today, it’s almost reminiscent of the views of Conservative MP Enoch Powell over half a century ago. In his famous Rivers of Blood speech in 1968, Powell voiced his concerns that the influx of immigrants arriving in the UK after World War Two would tarnish Britain’s national – or white - character. At the time, a poll found that 74% of the British population actually agreed with Enoch’s sentiments – how many would today?

What has been comforting is the amount of the Black women rallying around Abbott and extending their support to Britain’s longest serving Black serving MP. Countless retweets, support emojis and heartleft LinkedIn posts have shown how much Abbott is truly valued and appreciated for her efforts of nearly 40 years. We’ve seen women like this user find ways to stand solidarity with Abbott including writing to local MPs. 

One user’s reaction to the sheer audacity of Michael Gove to exercise ‘Christian forgiveness’ over Hester’s remarks on behalf of Diane Abbott, is one I’m pretty sure some us are feeling.

What made things worse was Wednesday’s PMQs. Abbott stood up 46 times in 35 minutes to gain the Speaker's attention only to be ignored.To accept an apology on the behalf of a Black woman whilst participating in silencing her is just absurd.

While we could play the game of semantics, another user points out that these comments incite hatred and violence – as if threatening to shoot a Black woman is not out of the ordinary. 

It’s deeply concerning that amidst all of the noise, a man wished an act of violence – even death, on another human being. As studies show, one woman is killed every three days in the UK. Due to lack of reporting, it may seem like this issue is not prominent amongst Black communities but this isn’t the case – many Black women fall between the cracks at the hands of domestic violence.

The unmistakable take

At the Unmistakables, we often consult clients on systems change and emphasise the importance of embedding inclusion into new and existing processes. The same sentiment applies here, the state of UK politics appears to need an overhaul. The system appears to  serve and protect the opinions of white middle class men – and from this week’s news we’re left believing that Black women were never really given a ‘real’ invite. 

As much as Rishi Sunak and his ministers would love for us to believe that the racism has no place in public life - and that Sunak himself is living proof as this week’s Parliamentary lines to take demonstrate - it’s hard to deny the glaring truth that stares us in the face – racism still persists in the UK. 

This topic was deeply disturbing for us here at TU – along with many marginalised voices across the UK. 

Our CEO Asad Dhunna, adds his perspective: 

For our Principal Consultant, Cathia Randrianarivo, yet again, Black women take on the brunt of the storm: 

The varying levels of masking and code-switching a Black woman does on a daily basis has become so normalised that it goes undetected. Why has it become so exhausting to just get through the day with our sanity and safety intact? And where is the collective outrage and empathy in challenging that this isn't right?
Irrespective of whether you agree with her politics or not, Diane Abbott is an advocate for the people - a role model, a champion, and ultimately a human being. To debate, and use tax payer money to do so, whether this is an incitement for violence driven by racism and sexism is another distraction to further polarise the masses and shift the focus away from the root issues.
We are currently living in a time where money talks, power is protected, and division distracts - in this case at the cost of the life of a Black woman. And not just one Black woman - all Black women. Because if one of us is not safe, then none of us are.

Our Inclusion Executive, Eli Keery points out how the peers of Diane Abbott are also complicit in her silencing:  

The comments made about Diane Abbott by Frank Hester and their subsequent treatment by our political parties are vile but truly unsurprising. Black women routinely face worse outcomes in treatment within institutions and within interactions with studies and reports pointing to them being underestimated,  silenced and disrespected. In the circus that is House of Commons we saw all of those dynamics playing out as Diane Abbott arose 46 times to share her thoughts on what she experienced and was ignored 46 times. 
Watching the Tory government juggle their morals against investor interests is a constant source of disappointment; a waiting game for them to scope potential damage to its image and adjust marginally. Their true intentions still remain on display as we've seen already as Rishi flip-flops his position. For Labour, it is an opportunity to capitalise on the moral high ground despite inactivity internally; Abbott in her most recent Guardian article regarding these events discusses experiencing very similar racism and sexism from within.
Regards for those who are marginalised and their oppression is drawn upon by those who feign interest mainly when it serves their moral and social position. I see no difference here. Abbott's voice has been pushed to the side, her own narrative claimed by her peers in power, who seldom admit that they are instrumental in maintaining the environment that is complicit towards disadvantaged Black women in society.

This isn’t just a ‘Black’ conversation

While we might not be in America or in 1962, Malcolm X’s words have never rang truer, Black women are still the most disrespected group – in Britain today. Abbott has been a trailblazer for all Black women, especially for navigating into the political sphere, which back in the 1970s was almost unheard of. By no means is she totally flawless, acknowledging that her comments last year for saying Jewish people experience prejudice, not racism, ended in her suspension from the Labour Party. Zooming out, the politics of the UK points to the complexity of a nation that is grappling with national identity and Brexit under the sharp spotlight of a general election. 

From a personal perspective, the most triggering thing about this diabolical story is that Abbott revealed that she ‘hardened to racist abuse’, after being on the receiving end of death threats and endless insults. What is it about our skin colour, our livelihoods, our presence that is so repulsive and makes you sick? 

I think I speak on behalf of all Black women – we are tired. We’re tired of being strong. Tired of swallowing insults to get ahead. Tired of pretending barriers which have been built for our downfall don’t exist. Tired of our intelligence being questioned. Tired of trying to assimilate to cultures that exclude us. Tired of being ignored. Tired of being silenced. Tired of being gaslit. 

Watching Michael Gove repeatedly refuse to say Hester’s comments were extremist or the Conservative party drag their feet to publicly condemn their biggest donor tells me all I need to know - that a lot of politicians have amnesia or are in need of a history lesson.

This week has been hard for Black Britons like myself as we try once again to be okay with not being okay. Whilst Rishi Sunak’s run as Prime Minister may be an emblem of a ‘fantastic multicultural democracy‘ for the Conservatives, it’s nothing but a fallacy for the rest of us. 

One thing for sure, this is not just a ‘Black’ conversation, it’s one for everyone.


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