I can’t figure out why this hasn’t been a bigger story.
A few days ago it emerged that in 1999, Boris Johnson — current Prime Minister of the UK — wrote in a newspaper column that, “All the young people I know — ie those under 30 — are just as avaricious as we flinty Thatcherite yuppies of the 1980s in fact, they have an almost Nigerian interest in money and gadgets of all kinds.”
Obviously, Johnson has got himself in trouble with his use of language before — and we’ll get to that — but somehow this feels different, somehow more purely toxic.
What does, “an almost Nigerian interest in money and gadgets of all kinds” even mean? I’ve turned it over in my mind, honestly trying to figure out what Johnson was trying to get at here. Could he be clumsily referring to so-called ‘419’ internet scams? But, this was written in 1999, before those really got going. And in any case, would that sort of collective blame in any way change the line’s inherent racism? No.
Does Boris Johnson really think that Nigerian people are more interested in money than, say, Americans or Brits, or more into gadgets than, say, Japanese or Germans? Probably not.
The only answer seems to be is that for Boris Johnson, seeing Nigerian people possessing money or using electronic gadgets felt incongruous, wrong — it was worthy of special comment, a laugh. He couldn’t get his head around an African with a Walkman.
Boris Johnson was born in 1964. Nigeria had only gained its independence from the UK in 1960. Perhaps that stodgy, patrician, Spectator-y tone of Johnson’s line was just part of Britain’s late-20th Century imperial hangover? Either way, if Boris Johnson wins this election, he will presumably have to meet with the Nigerian government — representing a major regional power of about 190-million people. This is not a great look.
But, why is this particular piece of BoJo offensiveness worse than all the others? Perhaps it hits me harder because I’m Jewish, and bullshit stereotypes around certain ethnic groups’ relationships to money and power have played a significant role in this election? But I think it’s more than that.
When, in 2002, Boris Johnson described Africans as having “watermelon smiles”, and claimed that the Queen, “has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies”, there was at least an argument that could be made that this was a satirical piece, skewering Tony Blair’s brand of jet-set, white saviour philanthro-diplomacy. It’s a horrifically weak argument to defend a choice of words that black Britons have said is “similar to the golliwogs” and “reek of Empire”, but if someone wanted to, that weak argument could at least be made.
Likewise, Johnson’s defenders often make a disingenuous case that when he said Muslim women look like “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”, it was in a piece that actually defended Muslim women’s rights to wear what they wanted. This defence is nonsense, and I’ll tell you why.
At my old boxing club, after training, somehow the subject of circumcision came up. One of the guys, knowing I was the only Jewish boxer at the club, jerked his thumb at me and went, “well, if you want to cut a bit of your knob off, that’s down to you. But it’s a bit fucking weird, isn’t it?”
In certain circumstances that joke might actually have worked. It’s a question of tone and timing. But in this case, the way he said it, and the round of sniggers that went around the rest of group, sent one message, “you are different, you’re not one of us – watch your back”. It was simple anti-Semitic bullying — and I made him pay for it at sparring a few days later.
It is similar with Johnson’s “bank robbers” line. If you can’t simply support the rights of a marginalised group without a side-order of dog whistle mockery, it says much about you as a person — for instance, maybe you’re better suited to the mediocre end of broadsheet punditry than being the actual Prime Minister of an actual country.
But, Johnson’s line about an “almost Nigerian interest in money and gadgets” doesn’t even have that intellectually dishonest patina of a defence. It is just straight-up racist stereotyping. Would we tolerate someone writing about an “almost Jewish interest in money”? No. Would a person who wrote that be considered suitable for political office? No.
To give him an undeserved benefit of the doubt, perhaps Boris Johnson isn’t a malicious, Ku Klux Klan-style racist, who keeps himself awake at night with neurotic fixations around Jewish conspiracies and “white replacement” theories. But, he has proven time and again that he is willing to play racism for lols — a playground bully-style of racism that singles out the vulnerable simply because they are vulnerable. This is a racism that will sell any group down the river for political convenience, or just a round of applause from the gallery.
The Labour Party have obviously been embroiled in their own stewing crises around racial stereotypes over the past few years. But, in writing that line — “an almost Nigerian interest in money” — Boris Johnson has more starkly than ever proven that a vote for his version of the Conservative Party can never be a vote against racial division.