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No, black people don’t all look the same: Gavin Williamson’s Rashford blunder shows casual racism is alive and well

No, black people don’t all look the same: Gavin Williamson’s Rashford blunder shows casual racism is alive and well
A British government minister confusing a black English rugby player for a black English footballer shouldn’t be written off as a simple faux pas. It typifies many white people’s sheer ignorance of any culture but their own.

It’s the sort of mistake that anyone can make… If they’re a complete and utter tool. UK Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, a man not known for his intellectual fortitude, has become the latest senior Tory politician to make an ass of himself after mistaking Saracens and England rugby player, Maro Itoje, for Manchester United and England forward, Marcus Rashford – despite having had a conversation with the former during a Zoom call.

The Evening Standard quoted Williamson as saying he had enjoyed his chat with Rashford, but an aide later pointed out that the minister had, in fact, been speaking to Itoje, who has been campaigning to improve access to laptops and the internet for children obliged to take lessons online during the Covid pandemic.

“We met over Zoom, and he seemed incredibly engaged, compassionate, and charming, but then he had to shoot off,” the Education Secretary said, adding, “I didn’t want to be the one that was holding him back from his training.”

Taking a swipe at Williamson, Rashford, who grew up in resolutely working-class parts of Manchester, said the difference between his accent and that of Harrow-educated Londoner Itoje might have been a “giveaway”.

Meanwhile, Itoje joined the ruck with a suitably barbed tweet: “Due to recent speculation, I thought it was necessary to confirm that I am not Marcus Rashford… And whilst we are here, my name is not Mario either!! Just a simple Maro Itoje will do… Much love, Marcu… I mean Maro Itoje.”

Inevitably, the Twitterati formed a disorderly queue, with many charging Williamson with ‘racism’ while right-wing apologists ran with the usual ‘we all make mistakes’ defence. So, what’s the case against a minister who’s long been seen as a liability?

Last time I looked at my kids’ timetables, sport was still on the curriculum. One would assume that Williamson would thus have at least a basic grasp of Britain’s sporting landscape and appreciate that Rashford and Itoje are not only leaders in their respective fields, but also regular fixtures in their national teams and heroes to millions of children.

Hailing from Scarborough, North Yorkshire, but working in the plummy, public-schoolboy ranks of the Tory front bench, Williamson ought to have an acute awareness of accents. The UK has some 40 distinct dialects, and more than 300 languages are spoken in British schools. Less than 40 miles lie between Rashford’s Manchester and bitter rival Liverpool, yet the difference between a Mancunian accent and a Scouse one sounds inter-continental. That Williamson couldn’t discern Itoje’s dulcet North London tones from Rashford’s commonly heard twang (remember, this is the man who forced Williamson’s boss, Boris Johnson into a humiliating U-turn over free school meals) simply beggars belief. But while all racists are idiots, not all idiots are racists. Levelling the ‘R-word’ at Williamson just won’t do, not least because his lack of ‘racial awareness’ is something from which many Brits suffer.

Williamson’s ‘gaffe’, as we like to call such faux pas in Britain, is one of several ‘casual racism’ tropes that black Britons have come to know and loathe over the years. Many of them are fairly benign, which, in the great British spirit of being able to ‘take a joke’, means that black people often laugh off stereotypes such as that we have ‘natural rhythm’ (and are thus ‘good dancers’); can run fast; eat fried chicken for breakfast, lunch and dinner; and – a personal favourite – are ‘well-endowed’. And yes, many of us can’t swim, suffer from male pattern baldness, are ‘big black blokes’ and still don’t like the cold, despite living in the frozen tundra of the British Isles from cradle to grave.

Granted, we do all look 20 years younger than our real age, but that’s not just because ‘black don’t crack’. (Pro tip: the secret to having good skin is partly in the genes, but also in the moisturiser you use.) But there’s a point at which the tropes and the stereotypes and the clichés start to wear thin, and Gavin Williamson veered perilously close to that point.

You see, black people have a bit of a ‘thing’ about white people thinking we ‘all look the same’ as this is yet another way of ‘othering’ us, so we become one big, amorphous group lacking individuality, character or personal identity. If I had a penny for every time a white person assumed I was of a Jamaican background, I’d go out and buy a new BMW (yes, I do own a BMW, which, for readers of a certain age, once stood for ‘Black Man’s Wheels’, such was the brothers’ fondness for the German marque).

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My family is actually from Guyana. Yes, that’s Guyana, not Ghana. And people from Guyana are Guyanese, not Guyanan. I have white friends I went to primary school with who still can’t get any of this right. In fact, I’ve had babies with women who still can’t get any of this right.

Aside from the fact that Rashford and Itoje are high-profile public figures from different fields who sound completely different, look completely different – Itoje’s family background is Nigerian, while Rashford’s antecedents hail from St Kitts in the Caribbean – Gavin, you SPOKE TO THE MAN. How the f**k can you have confused him with someone else?

Mistaken identity is something that blights the lives of too many young black men, from industrial-scale stop-and-search to wrongful convictions. I know this from personal experience of police harassment as a youth. While the odd gaffe may seem harmless, Williamson’s ignorance is a window into a world of fools who are blissfully unaware of their own environment, culture, society. Having such a halfwit in charge of what should be one of the government’s most important portfolios just shows the contempt that Eton-educated Boris Johnson has for state education.

But this is just the latest black mark against a minister whose report card is littered with D-minuses. Last month, Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green urged Johnson to sack Williamson, accusing him of “letting down students time and time again” in a year of “chaos and disruption” that saw exams cancelled in January, and schools, pupils and parents left waiting three months for clarification on how grades would be awarded.

Let’s just hope in his imminent cabinet reshuffle the prime minister does the sporting thing, makes no mistakes identifying Gavin Williamson and kicks him into touch… where he belongs.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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