Why do people assume my white office manager is my boss?

Cardiff’s first black lord mayor, Dan De’Ath, says he is routinely mistaken for a security guard. This kind of racial bias is common for those of us in public service, says Labour MP Dawn Butle

Iwas not surprised to hear that Cardiff’s first black lord mayor, Dan De’Ath, is often mistaken at official events for a security guard or a wine waiter. I experience this all the time, both in the House of Commons and outside. My white, male office manager is sometimes mistaken for the MP Dawn Butler. He goes really red and has to say: “I’m here with Dawn, and Dawn is the MP.” It takes a while to register in people’s minds that the MP is a black woman.

The other day, I ran out of the Commons for a photograph with Thomas Cook employees, accidentally leaving my pass in the chambers. I had to get back in before a debate started. As I was going through security, one of the guards said: “She’s an MP, she’s fine,” but the other guard didn’t want to believe it. The slowness to accept can be exhausting – I have been mistaken for a cleaner by other members of parliament.

How do I deal with it? It depends on the day and how much time and energy I have. The way I dealt with the situation in parliament the other day was to throw my hands up and say: “This is crazy!” when the female security guard was trying to convince the male security guard that I was an MP. The way I coped with the person who thought that my office manager was Dawn Butler MP was to say: “Don’t worry. I’m leaving now.” – because I wanted them to understand the consequences of their bias.

Dan De’Ath, the lord mayor of Cardiff

Sometimes I will say: “I’m not going to expose you, but this is a real learning moment and I hope you will consider your actions in future.” It is about challenging racism and unconscious bias, and making society a better place for everyone.

My black colleagues and I have a WhatsApp group. We survive by discussing our experiences – and we gain strength from knowing that we have a supportive base. But it can be exhausting.

Recently, I was going to an event with a white colleague. I was carrying the bulk of the luggage because she has arthritis. The person designated to help us approached and asked my colleague if she could take her luggage. She said: “I think Dawn needs help.” She was shocked. I just had to laugh, because sometimes you don’t want to burst someone’s bubble. You have to pick your moments when talking about racial association and bias.

Black women are used to having to justify their very existence in a space. Sometimes, at an event, I will stand at the entrance and give the room time to take me in. I am black. I am the MP. There is no one else coming. I am the person. It is as though you are working the whole room in that one moment. If someone wants to doubt me, I have already owned that space. You have to own the situation – otherwise it will destroy you, and who you are.  

Dawn Butler is the MP for Brent Central

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