Dawn Butler, the third Black female to become a Member of Parliament, has earned a reputation as a formidable force for change, using her position as Labour MP for Brent Central for the good of her constituents and the wider country. But she is done celebrating ‘how far we’ve come’.
‘This is the argument I had with [former Met Police Commissioner] Cressida Dick all the time. You’re not getting a pat on the back for “how far you’ve come” because the Met Police is still an institutionally racist, homophobic and misogynistic organisation. Let’s just cut the crap and get to the endpoint – now,’ Butler tells ELLE UK.
Ahead of her appearance at the Black British Book Festival (which takes place October 27-28 at the Southbank Centre, London), where she’ll be talking about her new book A Purposeful Life: What I’ve Learned About Breaking Barriers and Inspiring Change, we spoke to Butler about tackling discrimination, picking her battles and why change is everyone’s responsibility.
Have you always felt confident using your voice?
Writing this book and journeying back through my life, I realised that was always me. My dad encouraged me to stand up for myself and others. I had four brothers, so I had to be loud if I was going to be heard around the dinner table, and they would laugh at me if I talked foolishness, so I had to make sure that my arguments were solid.
Someone reviewed my book and said it wouldn’t make me a lot of friends in my own party. I’m good with that because I want to make sure we’re the best party possible. I’m an agitator of change.
As Black women, we’re not taught to be vulnerable. Now I say don’t just be tough, be vulnerable. White women’s tears are very powerful, so when that white woman who’s been racially abusing you starts crying, you cry too. Let’s see where that gets us.
There’s a debate around calling someone out versus calling them in – what’s the most effective way to raise a concern?
It really depends on the situation. The best thing is to have an arsenal full of techniques that you can use. Sometimes it’s about being really direct. With David Heathcoat-Amory [who remarked, ‘They’re letting anyone in [to Parliament] these days’ during a dispute over Dawn accessing the MPs’ Thameside Terrace at Westminster – a remark he denied was racially motivated], I asked right there and then, ‘Why do you think you can address me in that manner?’
Or, you let them go away and think about it and come back to it another time. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘It’s never too late to do the right thing.’
There have been times when I’ve been too tired to tackle discrimination but when I was stopped by the police [while driving to lunch with a friend in 2020], I decided I was going to pursue it. Everyone was calling me a liar but I was digging for the truth because this is important and shows how much the police protect each other.
While they’re doing that, they’re protecting the likes of Wayne Couzens, who kidnapped, raped and murdered a young white woman. That’s why I say racism and prejudice is bad for everyone, not just Black and brown people.
One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given is to pick your battles. When you’re younger, you have more energy. The older and more worn down you get, you have to preserve your fight.
Speaking of picking battles… is it worth arguing with someone whose mind will never be changed?
It depends. Every now and again, I’ll respond to someone on social media who disagrees with me. Instead of fighting back, I’ll put them on the spot to justify themselves. Often they’re unable to.
If somebody is an out-and-out racist, unless you’re in the mood [to challenge them] I wouldn’t. Why put yourself through that for people who genuinely don’t understand the benefits their privilege has given them?
How did you keep that inner strength when people tried to dim your light?
It’s not always easy. You can only take on a challenge when you’re mentally strong enough and have somewhere you can download and decompress with people who understand you.
My journey to now has been hard, disappointing and emotional, but change needs to happen so I’m going to have to keep trying. My politics comes from my lived experience – it’s always about the betterment of others.
The theme of allyship comes through strongly in A Purposeful Life. What do you think stops people from being an ally to a group they don’t necessarily sit within?
People get comfortable with their own privilege. They don’t want to see the system change because it’s worked fine for them. We’ve got to change people’s mindsets and make them understand that change is good for everybody.
I’ve got the privilege of hearing, so I’ll use that to highlight the cause of deaf people. It doesn’t take much effort but it will make society so much better.
A good ally is someone who isn’t afraid to challenge their own self-belief and say, ‘I’m going to step aside and let this person through. Your need is greater than mine.’ It’s someone who’s willing to take a risk in a room full of friends and family or work colleagues by saying ‘You’re being homophobic or racist and that makes me uncomfortable.’
What words of encouragement do you have for people who are fighting for good?
I’d say live your legacy and live it now. Be constant. It can be tiring, but the more you advocate for others, the easier it gets. It makes us better people and every injustice that you challenge is a step towards making society a better place.
See Dawn Butler speak at the Black British Book Festival, 27-28 October at Southbank Centre London. Get your tickets and see the full line-up here
Isabella is a Digital Associate Editor, covering fashion, beauty, lifestyle, entertainment and more, all with a dash of diversity. She loves leopard print, sequins and gin, and can spot a Birmingham accent within seconds.