Monday, 29 February 2016

Cleaner or MP? Lift operator or Judge?

Did you see the story about MP Dawn Butler?

She was the Labour MP for Brent South from 2005 to 2010, when the seat was abolished. But she stood in Brent Central in 2015 and has been an MP again since then. She told the BBC that she was recently told, while travelling in a members only lift in the House of Commons, that it “really isn’t for cleaners.”

Back in 2008, she told the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for equality, that she had been accosted by a former Minister in the members area of the House of Commons terrace. He challenged her right to be there, and when she assured him that she was a member, he replied “they’re letting anybody in these days.”

Does this all seem odd? It isn’t. Dawn Butler is, naturally, black.

Now it all makes sense, right?

Dawn Butler? MP or House of Commons cleaner?
This all puts me in mind of the first ever black justice on the US Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall. He was a man with a fine sense of humour – even his name has a colourful history: he was originally named Thoroughgood but decided, as a child, that it was too tiring to spell, so changed it to Thurgood.

One of his favourite stories of his tenure at the Supreme Court was being in a lift – sorry, elevator – when a couple of tourists climbed in. A black man in an elevator? Had to be the elevator operator.

“First floor, please” one of the tourists said.

“Yowsa, yowsa,” Marshall answered. And pressed the button.

It’s hard to avoid the feeling that organisations such as the Fawcett Society have a bit of way to go yet before we can claim that equality has been fully achieved.

I was irritated with the Oscars being so white this year, yet again. But maybe that doesn’t matter quite as much as I felt. It seems to me that it’s even more important to sort the problem of black MPs not being taken for cleaners in the British House of Commons, or black Associate Justices taken for elevator operators in the US Supreme Court building.

Thurgood Marshall. Not an elevator operator
Although there’s no reason not to make sure that black actors get the recognition they deserve at the same time...

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