It doesn’t matter that Boris Johnson actually said ‘people of talent’ – his views on race speak for themselves
The prime minister’s handlers may have clarified his statement, but that doesn’t change the Tory party’s shocking record
“Funny tinge”, “coloured woman”, and now... “people of talent”? The past year has featured a number of discussions about race and terminology. As 2019 comes to a close, Boris Johnson has made a late entry on his campaign trail with a “blunder” that left both Channel 4 viewers and subtitlers equally confused.
In a speech today, Johnson took on one of the Tory party’s preferred topics – immigration. An extract of the video launched on the broadcaster’s social media channels soon after, with the subtitling: “I am in favour of having people of colour come to this country but I think we should have it democratically controlled.” The video was then pulled and a swift apology was posted by Channel 4, stating: “Boris Johnson says ‘people of talent’ not ‘people of colour’. Our earlier tweet was a mistake. We misheard and we apologise.”
A senior Tory source retorted that this is why the party is reluctant to work with Channel 4 News, but personally, I can see how the mistake occurred, for two reasons.
Firstly, and most straightforwardly, if you’re listening to the video with low-res audio quality, it does sound a bit like he said “people of colour”. The audio is muffled, making the whole thing feel eerily reminiscent of the ambiguity we saw during “stupid woman”-gate. Cameras and microphones can be deceiving, particularly when we factor in heuristics – that is, when the viewer expects to perceive or hear one thing, they are, as a result, more likely to actually think they heard it.
Which leads us to the second crucial factor to consider – the question of euphemism. Unlike Johnson’s invented “people of talent”, “people of colour” is a real phrase that we are used to hearing in the context of immigration. As a person of colour myself, if Johnson had said this, I would be upset about how blatant this manifestation of racism was, but not surprised. After all, I believe it’s what Johnson really means.
We are in the fifth week of this election campaign, so we know the quotes by now: Johnson has called black people “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”, and has compared Muslim women to letterboxes and bankrobbers, but crucially, led a Leave campaign that demonised migrants, seeing a resultant spike in race-related hate crimes after the referendum. Johnson is also prime minister of a party that created (and is yet to put the brakes on) the hostile environment. The same system that has seen a number of people of colour die waiting for medical care or be put in life-threatening circumstances, and be wrongly deported to countries they have never visited.
When Johnson talks of his plans for a “points-based” “Australian-style” immigration system, we should make no mistake: this is very much about race.
So, it’s interesting and somewhat ironic that while Johnson didn’t say “people of colour”, if he had done, his previous remarks indicate that’s probably how he really feels. For this reason, I’m left wondering, was the phrase a Freudian slip by Johnson, or one of his speechwriters? Or were they, perhaps, just contributing to the co-option and misapplication of activist terminology in the same vein that brought us Chloe Moretz’s infamous “woman of diversity”? We can’t know for sure, but what we do know is that the Tory party is no friend to migrants, and relatedly, no friend to people of colour.
While the Tory party “seniors” likely breathed a sigh of relief at Channel 4’s clarification, we shouldn’t overlook that his actual statement, “people of talent”, is no better. This points-based immigration system based on perceived “talent” would, regardless, still disproportionately impact non-English speakers and people of colour. And, as Nikesh Shukla, Furaha Asani and so many other writers of colour have pointed out, this “good immigrant” narrative – which assert that migrants must be deemed by white gatekeepers as substantially contributing to the workforce or the economy – is dangerous and equally oppressive.
The idea that people only deserve a safe place to make a home because they have “earned” it and will “contribute” to the UK by arbitrary standards, suggests that others, who do not fulfil these requirements, deserve to die at the border. This is obviously inhumane, yet matches up with the Tories’ record of deportation and detainment. Asani also explained in the The Guardian that we must acknowledge “the foundational role colonialism and present-day coloniality play in migration ... When we divorce these historical narratives from our everyday conversations around migration, we ignore the real reasons why so many people with less privilege than me are forced to migrate.”
Johnson’s “handlers” may have clarified his statement, but that doesn’t change the Tory party’s shocking, inhumane and undoubtedly racist record on immigration. Meanwhile, any rhetoric that implies that migrants must “earn” their place in the UK is equally dangerous, but more insidious. In the week ahead, we must remember recent history, which tells us: the Tory party does not care about people of colour – or should I say – “people of talent”.