Victoria Atkins attempt to police Zarah Sultana’s tone was straight up racist

Zarah Sultana MP

In a House of Commons debate on 14 July about the racist abuse of England footballers in the aftermath of Euro 2020, Coventry South MP Zarah Sultana accused prime minister Boris Johnson and home secretary Priti Patel of “stoking the fire of racism”. Sultana’s accusations included references to Johnson’s column describing Black people as “picaninnies”, and home secretary Priti Patel’s remark stating that footballers taking the knee was simply “gesture politics”. Sultana said that in response, safeguarding minister Victoria Atkins told her to ‘lower her tone’. People took to Twitter to highlight the racism, classism, and misogyny inherent in Atkins’ attempts to silence the young MP.

Sultana states the facts

Sultana’s speech came after England footballer Tyrone Mings called out the home secretary’s ‘pretend disgust’ at the racist treatment of Black players after ‘stoking the fire’ of racism. In her powerful speech, the MP accused the prime minister and home secretary of “stoking the fire of racism” and “giving the green light to racism” in the UK. She highlighted Johnson’s description of “Black people as ‘picaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’” and “Muslim women as ‘letterboxes’ and ‘bank-robbers’”. She also called attention to the prime minister’s refusal to condemn fans who booed England players who took the knee ahead of matches, and the home secretary’s ‘derision’ of their message as “gesture politics”.

Safeguarding minister Victoria Atkins refuted Sultana’s fact-based allegations, saying:

I don’t genuinely think the honourable lady is accusing either the prime minister of this country or indeed the home secretary of racism. That would be a truly extraordinary allegation to make.

After the debate, Sultana took to Twitter, saying that the minister telling her to ‘lower her tone’ was “shameless”. Further clarifying her stance after the debate, Sultana tweeted:

A classic case of tone policing

People soon took to Twitter to call out Atkins’ racist, classist, misogynistic tone policing of Sultana, a 27-year-old British Pakistani woman who attended what she describes as a “rough” school in Birmingham. Explaining that Atkins’ response is a typical of someone seeking to silence marginalised voices, psychologist Guilaine Kinouani said:

Underlining the ‘familiarity’ of Atkins’ response, The Canary‘s Maryam Jameela shared:

Alex Tiffin added:

Highlighting that Patel wasn’t present in the House to take part in the debate, Mark Conway said:

Urging MPs to support Sultana, Jo Grady shared:

Order in the House? 

Sharing a montage video comparing scenes of MPs and ministers shouting and jeering in parliament with Sultana’s clear, measured speech, Russ Khorma responded to Sultana with:

Agreeing with this sentiment, Sian Norris shared:

Recalling the moment when former health secretary Matt Hancock suggested Labour MP and A&E doctor Rosena Allin-Khan should consider her “tone” in the House of Commons, another Twitter user added:

Highlighting that respectability politics will not help us to disrupt and dismantle systems of racist oppression, Lauren Corelli shared:

Nothing new here

Atkins’ attempt to derail this urgent conversation is a classic deflection technique. But whether it acknowledges it or not, this government is racist. On 14 July, the Runnymede Trust accused the government of being in breach of numerous human rights obligations under the UN treaty on racial discrimination. In November 2020, an inquiry by the Joint Committee on Human Rights suggested that Black people’s human rights aren’t being respected in the UK.

The government’s own statistics lay bare the structural racism that exists in education, employment, housing, healthcare, policing, the justice system, and beyond. But it felt emboldened to publish a report that denies its existence. In response to the report, the UN accused the government of attempting to “normalise white supremacy”. Once again, the Tories have demonstrated that they have no intention of tackling the racism that is ingrained in our society. That’s why we need bright, bold MPs like Sultana to hold them to account. 

Featured image via @zarahsultana/Twitter

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