The government is keen to win the public’s trust when it comes to coronavirus messaging – in particular, the ethnic minorities who have been disproportionately affected by the disease. But there is a problem.
Many people in those same groups are still reeling from living under a prime minister whose previous comments on race and religion have helped exacerbate and underscore prejudice.
June Tuitt first knowingly experienced racism while riding her tricycle down the street of her family home in Leicester. She was three years old.
“I was slapped around the face by a white neighbour who used the ‘N’ word and told me: ‘Go back to your own end, we don’t want your sort here,’” the now 55-year-old told HuffPost UK.
Despite her young age, the vivid memories of the encounter stayed with June. It was the first of many other incidents.
“I was slapped around the face by a white neighbour who used the ‘N’ word and told me: ‘Go back to your own end, we don’t want your sort here,’ I was three.”June Tuitt
“I was just a child riding my tricycle,” she said. “I had never noticed anything about colour before then. It was the first time I thought of Black and white as an issue.
“I remember going home and putting talcum powder on my face and a tea towel on my head and telling my parents I wanted to be white.
“I was too young to understand that what I had experienced was racism. But what I did know was that it was hatred.”
So by the time Boris Johnson described Black people as “piccaninnies” and having “watermelon smiles”, the only thing that surprised June was other people’s shock.
“In some ways, the comments made by Boris Johnson were quite refreshing as at least he was open with his thoughts. It wasn’t done in a covert way, but was blatant. He just came out and said it.”
But now she worries the scars left by his remarks mean there is little hope of rebuilding any trust among those hurt by them – especially amid a pandemic.
“Even if we don’t look at ethnicity, people are already confused. Add to the mix Boris Johnson’s past and present racism and it makes Black people even more unlikely to trust him.
“Why should we trust him when everything we believed people thought about us was confirmed by his racist comments?”
While running for mayor of London in 2008, Boris Johnson said his words, written in a 2002 column, had been “taken out of context” and said he felt sad that people had been offended by them.
And in June 2019, when he was frontrunner to become the country’s next prime minister, when questioned about the racist phrases, Boris Johnson claimed the remarks had been made “in a wholly satirical way”.
June strongly believes that Boris Johnson’s comments and lack of a proper apology have sown the seeds of a potentially deadly mistrust among the Black community.
“These sorts of comments feed into misinformation and stereotypes and the racist element of society,” she said.
“Having a prime minister who has spouted those kinds of views adds to the racist rhetoric. When we are going through difficult times economically and psychologically with Covid, people are angry and looking for answers and blame and are looking for a target.
“When people are feeling disenfranchised, they will believe the stereotyped comments people like Boris Johnson came out with.”
June, a mother and grandmother who now lives in London, added: “I am not a Boris hater or a Boris lover. But he represents the establishment and gets away with a hell of a lot with his comments.”
“I just feel disheartened about where it will end. The saddest thing is that it seems my children and grandchildren will suffer systemic and institutional racism for years to come.”
As a Muslim, Talah Ghannam tells HuffPost UK that Boris Johnson’s well documented remarks about Muslim women wearing the niqab veil as looking like “letterboxes” and “bank robbers” was a real point of contention in the run-up to elections.
Talah, 31, who lives in the Midlands, said: “Any remarks anyone makes about someone else which are offensive will naturally have a lasting effect.
“People of any colour or creed, if they feel marginalised or singled out by someone’s comments, they will always be more reluctant to listen to or trust that person.”
But he doesn’t believe they ultimately led to a flouting of the coronavirus rules.
“I don’t believe that Muslims have not been listening to the coronavirus messaging because of their mistrust of Boris,” he said. “Research has shown that there are many reasons why people from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds have been affected more by Covid than other communities.
“There are many sociological reasons such as Muslims living in houses with multi-generational households and living in poorer areas or having jobs where they are at greater risk.
“Mistrust of politicians is at an all-time low. But I think the pandemic has its own set of circumstances and there are many reasons why people from all communities are abiding or not abiding the rules.”
We wouldn’t want our children to call other people names,” he argued. “When politicians begin to get toxic, that’s when society begins falling apart.”Talah Ghannam
Freedom of speech is important, he said, but it can be exercised without resorting to “insulting and offending people”.
“Regardless of what people think about an issue, such crass remarks about something so sacred by saying Muslim women look like letterboxes are widely regarded as being highly offensive,” he said.
“For Muslims, our religion is sacred. We encourage and welcome discussion, but these remarks were like a dog whistle – deliberately using inflammatory language to win votes by marginalising others.”
One thing Talah is sure of is that inflammatory language used by those in power to target certain communities and make them feel like outsiders shouldn’t be condoned.
“We wouldn’t want our children to call other people names,” he argued. “When politicians begin to get toxic, that’s when society begins falling apart.”
As a Muslim woman who wears the veil, Thaminah Aziz says Johnson’s inflammatory and divisive comments were distressing.
“I felt upset and angry that someone who was campaigning to be prime minister had made such remarks,” she said. “I was concerned that someone who felt confident enough to spout Islamophobic comments wanted to lead the country.”
Thaminah, a community activist who lives in Birmingham, says Muslims are integrated and part of society, but believes Boris Johnson’s remarks “undermined that” and “fuelled the flames of Islamophobia”.
“There is an idea among some people in society that Muslim women who wear the veil are a certain way and these kinds of comments are unhelpful and it led to a real mistrust of Boris Johnson and the government.
“There have also been allegations of Islamophobia among the Tory Party.
“We look at the government for support and guidance. But if they are not able to tackle Islamophobia within their party, how can they tackle Islamophobia and racism on our streets?”
Thaminah says the coronavirus crisis only further highlighted inequalities and made communities such as Muslims feel neglected and targeted.
“When we first went into lockdown, as a Muslim community, we thought we were all in it together and that everyone would be following the rules and protocols,” she explained. “We closed down mosques and isolated ourselves from each other.
“But the coronavirus pandemic highlighted a lot of inequalities, lack of understanding and lack of compassion and empathy towards Black, Asian and minority ethnic people.”
Thaminah pointed out inequalities such as the disproportionate number of Black and Asian people who have died as a result of Covid-19, racists blaming certain communities for spreading the virus, and Eid celebrations in some parts of the country being cancelled with just a few hours’ notice with new lockdown rules being suddenly imposed.
“All these things have been very upsetting because we are British and this is the place we call home – but we are made to feel like we don’t belong,” she said.
“A lot of people have lost faith in Boris Johnson and the government. It really makes us feel we are not welcome in society.
“It has given people a feeling of hopelessness. They feel that no matter what they do to fit into society, Boris Johnson and whoever else will not fully accept them. It makes some feel what is the point of trying to integrate.”
When it comes to the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Thaminah feels many people lost faith and confidence in the government due to the feeling of “confusion and shambles”.
Although recent figures show uptake of the coronavirus vaccine has improved dramatically among people from ethnic minority backgrounds, Thaminah believes there was a lack of education targeted at harder-to-reach communities at first.
Things only got better, she says, when community, faith leaders and high-profile Black and Asian people stepped in.
NHS England figures show uptake among ethnic minority groups tripled from February 7, 2021, to April 7, 2021 – an increase of 235% from 1.89m to 5.78m. This outpaced the national average among all ethnicities over the same period (154%).
“There was already a fear because of all the shambles and constant changes,” Thaminah said. “But this was even worse for people for who English is not their first language.
“I was happy to have the vaccine as I did my research and educated myself about it. Unfortunately, not everyone is able to do this, particularly if they struggle with English.
“I felt there should have been more discussion from government with cultural and religious sensitivity about how the vaccine would help everyone.”
Thaminah also believes there was unfair criticism and blame directed towards people from different ethnicities by blaming them for flouting coronavirus rules and not abiding by social distancing.
“I feel some people have slight amnesia when it comes to targeting the BAME community and blaming them for spreading coronavirus,” she said. “When you look back to last summer, the majority of people gathering on beaches were white.
“But as British people, we all have to take responsibility for following the rules and we can’t point all the blame to any particular ethnicity or make it personal.
“There are some people who have been breaking lockdown rules and restrictions – but that applies across all communities.
“Coronavirus doesn’t care about ethnicity or the colour of someone’s skin so we should all be working together to tackle it.”
Gary McFarlane, 60, told HuffPost UK he believed Johnson’s comments were responsible for “spreading racism” and “giving confidence to racists in society”.
Gary, an editor and analyst of financial websites, said: “This is the man who when he edited The Spectator ran stories about the lack of intelligence of Black people.
“It is all apiece with his sexism and his remarks describing Muslim women as looking like letterboxes. He has not apologised for a lot of the more blatant remarks and any apologies he has made have been halfhearted.”
Gary says comments such as these made an existing problem worse.
“The lack of trust in the government by many in the Black community relates back to things like the Windrush scandal,” he said. “Everything that has happened during coronavirus has compounded the lack of trust that already exists and makes people very mistrustful of their policies.
“I think [his record of remarks] poisons the coronavirus messaging so even when it is good public health messaging, it does not get through to some communities because of that lack of trust in government and Boris Johnson in particular.”
Gary believes there has been progress in society and says many people do “see through” comments such as Johnson’s.
But he added: “He was able to prey on people’s fears and destitution and paint people as bogey people such as ‘Muslim terrorists’ and ‘Black criminals’. Whipping up these fears and scapegoating fed into creating that Tory victory.
“It makes you feel society has not advanced and that despite all the things my parents and others did to change things in the 1950s and 1960s, we have come back full circle with Boris Johnson in Downing Street.
“Things have changed for the better. I am just angry that people like Boris Johnson have tried to roll back those positives.”