'We still have a long way to go in making institutions more reflective of society': Dawn Butler on life as a black, British female MP

"The current route in reality is only available for one privileged person at a time".

06 Jun 2019

Dawn Butler is the Labour MP for Brent and she's Shadow Cabinet Minister for Women and Equalities. Plus, she's passionate about all things female and equality, making her the perfect person to share an insight into what it's really like being a black, female MP in Britain today. Here, to mark our British Digital Issue, starring Jodie Comer, she shares her story...

When I first became an MP, I was one of only two African-Caribbean female MPs – just me and Diane Abbott, and it was a very lonely feeling. Eight out of ten times I was called Diane by other white MPs and not by my actual name, other times I was just ignored.

The truth is I knew I was never the favourite candidate and that's what made my campaign so unique, I believed in me rather than the system. The fight to get to Parliament the second time was even harder, having to fight the ‘Janice’s' who lied and cheated to try and keep me off the ballot paper, to the ‘Amy’s' who told me that I should treat racism as 'banter' and just get on with things.

It is often strange to feel that as an African-Caribbean woman you can be both invisible when it suits the aggressor or visible. Since 2010, the number of Black Asian Minority Ethnic women has risen to 29. This is good progress, but we still have a long way to go in order to make our institutions and positions of power more reflective of our society.

This is what motivates me as a black British female MP. I want to use my voice to campaign for an escalator of success to replace the shaky ladder that currently exists. The current route in reality is only available for one privileged person at a time, which has held women, people of colour, disabled people and others back for far too long.

In 2017 I embarked on a 'phenomenal women tour', speaking to as many women as I could to encourage them to believe in themselves, and I’m so pleased that so many have gone on to do phenomenal things, like from being a local councillor to a magistrate.

Prejudice still exists and sadly it's a reality that I have to regularly deal with in Parliament. I recall the moment I was in a lift on my way to a committee meeting and was told by another Member of Parliament that 'this lift isn't for cleaners'. On another occasion I was confronted by a former minister who asked whether I was allowed in the members area on the terrace. When I told him I was an MP, he replied: "This place is going to wreck and ruins, they're letting anybody in nowadays."

As sad as these incidents are, I choose not to be overcome by them, but continue to be unapologetically me. I became the first black woman to speak at the despatch box as a Minister in the House of Commons, the first MP in its history to ask a question in the House of Commons using British Sign Language. And as Labour's Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, I am using my position to represent groups and people in society that are often underrepresented.

I want to see a celebration of all the diversity within the feminist movement, a recognition of one another's struggle. Sadly, there is still so much division in the movement, and far too much privilege in the structures. It is intersectionality and diversity that allows us to grow and view the world through different lenses and different points of views. So my call to action wherever I go is that we need to embrace fighting for everyone's rights as if they were our own. This is the only way I believe we will achieve true equality.