10 February 2021

If you’re an ethnic minority Conservative, you just can’t win

By Neil O'Brien MP

One of the first things you learn as an MP is that there are two sides to every story.

In recent days, there’s been a row about my colleague Kemi Badenoch. Over recent months she has been doing great work combatting anti-vaccine misinformation, and was one of the first, months ago, to raise the alarm that such disinformation was particularly targeting black communities. She’s also led from the front by taking part in vaccine trials herself.

So I was surprised when a HuffPost journalist, Nadine White, accused her of refusing to take part in a video promoting vaccine take-up among ethnic minority groups. Kemi explained herself in a thread which reproduced a screenshot of emails Ms White had sent her, leading to a huge flap and the HuffPost running at least four stories about the incident.

Kemi was accused of “violating the ministerial code”, accused of being a “danger” to journalists.  She hasn’t, she really isn’t, and officials have concluded that there is no case here.

I couldn’t help feeling from the intensity of the row that there was some sort of back story here.

And it turns out there is. 

For some time Nadine White has been targeting Kemi, and her reporting has consistently distorted the facts. Take for instance, her piece of November 14, headlined ‘When will you admit Black Lives don’t matter’. It states, as if it were a matter of public record, that “Kemi Badenoch, a Black woman, has suggested that racism isn’t an issue in the UK”. This is the direct opposite of the truth – indeed, Kemi has talked about her own experience of racism.

There have been many more articles in this vein. On July 25 White wrote a piece criticising the Government’s new Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. Among her complaints was that the Commission “includes equalities minister Kemi Badenoch”. 

On July 28, White published another piece about Kemi, this time headlined: ‘New Race Commission “Was Set Up To Find Out Why People Think Tories Do Nothing On Racism”‘, with the subhead: ‘Equalities minister Kemi Badenoch also says it is “certainly not true” that the police are killing people’.

Again, Badenoch obviously did not say the new commission was established simply to examine or rebut people’s perceptions of racism. Instead, she said it exists to understand and tackle the real problems ethnic minority people face. However, if your only news source was HuffPost, you would think the minister was washing her hands of the idea that such problems even exist.

On October 30 we saw another campaigning piece: ‘100 Black British Writers Back Reni Eddo-Lodge Over Kemi Badenoch Segregation Claim’. On November 10 even a piece by White about the American election somehow shoehorned in an attack on Badenoch.

Ms White has also tweeted critically about Kemi Badenoch on July 15 (twice), 28 July (three times), 30 September, 30 October, 28 November, 29 November and several times in the last couple of days.

So the build-up to the vaccines row was a whole history of distorting Kemi Badenoch’s positions.

However, there’s a much broader phenomenon at play here which is worth examining.

On social media I see certain tropes and smears against black and Asian Conservative MPs. One that I’ve noticed again and again is the complaint that several are married to white people.

Take this tweet, with a picture of Kemi and her husband and other black Conservatives, which describes them as “race traitors”. Twitter, how is this tweet even still up? And there are more like it. Indeed, I saw it posted in response to one of Nadine White’s tweets about Kemi. If even I, a middle aged white guy, am noticing this sort of stuff, then you can bet there’s plenty more where that came from.

Nor are Asian Conservatives immune from this kind of attack. They are just as likely to have the racist slur “coconut” thrown at them. This sort of straightforwardly racist trope extends surprisingly far into the mainstream: comedian Guz Khan regularly appears on the BBC, mocking Priti Patel’s “level of Indian” by making childish jokes about Indian food. Or what about leftwing pundit Ash Sarkar, another regular face on TV, publishing a series of tweets implying Sajid Javid was not authentically Asian. Or Pran Patel, the founder of a campaign to “decolonise the curriculum” says that “Priti Patel is the perfect example of whiteness inhabiting a different vessel”.

It extends into Parliament too. Labour MP Clive Lewis MP, for instance, approvingly quoted a Guardian article by Kehinde Andrews which said: “Do not be fooled: a cabinet packed with ministers with brown skin wearing Tory masks represents the opposite of racial progress.” Lewis has also accused Foreign Office minister James Cleverly of lacking “self respect” and suffering from “self-loathing”.

Again, it’s the same trope: if you have certain political views you are not what you seem. Different on the inside to the outside, like a… 

Even when Priti Patel talked candidly about her own experience of being racially abused, Labour MP Naz Shah accused her of trying to “gaslight” ethnic minority communities. It seems that if you are Conservative and black or Asian, you just can’t win.

The idea that you are not “really” black if you have certain views, and that departing from those views makes you a ‘traitor’, is straight up racism that harks back to the Victorian era. It means Black and Asian Conservatives sometimes end up being hit with racism from both sides. 

Badenoch gets exactly the same types of slurs thrown at her. Someone commenting on one of Nadine White’s tweets called her a “house negro”. This is bleak stuff.

My point is as simple as this. You can think Kemi was right or wrong to post screenshots of emails from a journalist who has been pursuing her for months. But whatever you think, there’s a context here that is worth people like me understanding. 

I see only a fraction of this stuff. No-one says this stuff to me. But if everything I said was misrepresented, and if I was accused of being a race traitor, I don’t think I’d enjoy it much.

There are two sides to every story. 

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Neil O’Brien is co-Chairman of the Conservative Party’s Policy Board, and MP for Harborough.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.