The class system is the reason why Boris Johnson will get away with his niqab ‘gaffe’

Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Michael Gove all recently met with Steve Bannon. The same Steve Bannon who believes it “a badge of honour” to be called a xenophobe. Yet there seemed to be a distinct lack of outrage over this get-together. Boris later wrote a piece saying that women who wear niqabs look like “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”. Again, the outrage was absent. Why was that? The answer is to do with class.

In Britain, when we think of racists, we automatically think of the working class. We think of the EDL, Tommy Robinson and football hooliganism. We automatically revert to stereotypes that stigmatise and patronise.

Stereotypically, of course, the working class has been seen as less intelligent. We know that this is statistically not the case. We know that the reason why the middle and upper classes dominate positions of power is because they have had the access to money, privilege and opportunity that others don’t. Once there, they do very little to try and dismantle inequality or allow others to have similar access.

However, as a result of these pervading stereotypes, high-profile individuals are able to parrot unacceptable and quite frankly racist views and get away with it by using their class as a shield. They are able to pass off racism as intellectual thought or opinion and are not challenged. As a result, the far right in Britain is once again gathering legitimacy and becoming more mainstream.

Boris Johnson is a prime example of someone who does this. His time in government has been littered with incidents written off as “gaffes”, and despite these so-called gaffes, he continues to be thought of as intelligent. From his remark that Libya needs to just “clear away” the dead bodies to referring to “picaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” and calling Barack Obama “part-Kenyan”, it is clear that he holds a host of holds problematic, disrespectful and prejudiced views.

How many more times will this man’s behaviour be written off as a joke and not taken seriously? His status as a wealthy, upper class, white man has shielded him from the worst of criticism. People see him as informed, in a position of authority, and they listen to what he has to say. By his very nature, he gives those problematic statements legitimacy.

Not only do the middle and upper classes face less of a challenge in regards to their racism but they also use the idea of working class racism to their advantage. Nigel Farage is a very obvious example of this. Farage uses a working class persona to be seen as a “man of the people”. He presents himself as a caricature of a working class man who smokes, drinks beer in his local and is “ordinary”. However, Farage is actually the privately educated son of a London stockbroker. His determination to be seen and accepted as a “working class bloke” reinforces the idea of racism as a working class issue and allows others to continue unnoticed.

I am not saying that there isn’t racism within the working class and that also needs to be addressed. White privilege exists and all white people have benefited from it. Unfortunately society is still unequal and we don’t have a level playing field.

Racism is institutional and we need to get better at unpicking systems that support inequality. The white middle and upper classes are a big reason why we still have such a huge problem. They hold the power in a lot of these institutions and stop progress. They are allowed to continue with problematic attitudes without fearing any consequences.

We can’t allow class to act as a shield anymore. We need to tackle racism in all places, rather than just the places we’ve been led to believe have a problem.


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