Brendan O’Neill

Boris Johnson and the ‘piccaninny’ smear

Boris Johnson and the 'piccaninny' smear
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Boris Johnson likes to call black people 'piccaninnies’. Everyone’s saying it. Even Stormzy said it this week in his endorsement of Jeremy Corbyn. It is ‘criminally dangerous’ to give the keys of Downing Street back to a man who refers to ‘black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”’, the grime superstar said.

Whether Stormzy also thinks it is criminally dangerous to elect as PM a man who counts as 'friends' an organisation that literally wants to destroy the Jewish homeland is not clear. But hey, Jews don’t matter very much. We’ve all learned that over the past few years.

But does Boris really call black people 'piccaninnies'? Has he ever? The distinct impression we’ve been given by Corbynistas and Boris-bashers over the past few months is that ‘piccaninnies’ is Boris’s go-to name for black people. Owen Jones even thinks broadcasters should ask Boris: ‘Does he still believe that black people should be called piccaninnies with watermelon smiles?’

Notice how Jones moves the ‘piccaninny’ accusation a step further — he wants people to believe Boris thinks black people should be called piccaninnies. Maybe Boris wants the whole country to use the p-word?

It's time we shot down this propaganda. This particular accusation against Boris is staggeringly dishonest. It is either being made by people who haven’t read the 17-year-old Daily Telegraph column in which Boris used that word, whose ignorance might be forgivable, or by people who did read it, whose cynical misrepresentation of Boris’s words absolutely must not be forgiven.

For here’s the thing: the article in which Boris used the word piccaninny wasn’t a racist article. On the contrary, it was an anti-imperialist article. Almost the precise opposite of what we have been led to believe. The target of Boris’s flowery ire in that column wasn’t black people — it was the globe-trotting and imperious Tony Blair and even (sorry ma’am) the Queen.

Let me explain. The column was published on 10 January 2002, at the height of the Cult of Tony Blair. This was pre-Iraq — but post-Afghanistan and post-Kosovo — so Blair was still being effusively praised by silly, soppy liberals for his rehabilitation of the ‘civilising’ mission of British interventionism and for his jetting around the world to fix other nations’ problems.

Into this mix came Boris, flying the flag for those of us who thought Blair’s globe-trotting White Saviour act was a bit, err, racist. The column is headlined, ‘If Blair’s so good at running the Congo, let him stay there’. It is a stinging criticism of Blair for marching around the world while domestic problems in the UK were growing.

Boris depicted Blair, in his taxpayer-funded jet, ‘descending to bring his particular brand of humbug to the trouble spots of the world’. He mocked Blair and his wife Cherie for shining ‘the light of their countenances upon the people of Afghanistan’. And then he mentioned piccaninnies.

He landed a blow on the Queen. He said one of the reasons she loves the Commonwealth is because ‘it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies’. And he said Blair, so troubled at home, is no doubt ‘similarly seduced’ by such crowds overseas, which is why he meddles so much in apparently lesser states’ affairs.

The ‘watermelon smiles’ bit is even more striking. As part of his argument that Blair is seduced by the idea of fixing foreign people’s problems, Boris said the then PM was no doubt hoping for big ‘watermelon smiles’ when he touched down in the Congo. ‘Watermelon smiles’ for ‘the big white chief’ in his ‘big white [airplane]’.

It is as plain as day: the target of Boris’s words was not African people — it was Blair, and the Blairite brand of moralistic interventionism and Blair’s view of himself as a big white chief saving the tragic peoples of the Third World from themselves.

You don’t have to have a degree in critical analysis to see that Boris’s use of the words piccaninny and watermelon smiles was an attack on Blair and his imperial delusions, not on people in the Congo or anywhere else.

He was satirising the elitist British expectation of being greeted by grateful people whenever they ‘descend’ to ‘shine the light of their countenances’ in their sad, tragic world. He used the p-word not as a racist insult against black people, but as part of a progressive critique of Blair’s ugly and archaic act as ‘big white chief’ come to save…well, ‘piccaninnies’.

In short, what Boris actually said and what we are told he said could not be more different. The use of the ‘piccaninny column’ to attack Boris — constantly — is one of the most dishonest distortions of this election campaign. Everyone who is doing it should be ashamed of themselves.

While we’re at it, Boris’s ‘letterbox column’, in which he made fun of the niqab, was not racist either. On the contrary, it was a classical liberal defence of women’s right to wear whatever they want — including the niqab — even if others find their garb offensive. It was a defence of Muslim women’s rights.

What we have here is simple smearing; the relentless digging-up and distortion of things a public figure has said in order to shame and demonise him. It is such a low form of politics. And it is built, in some instances, on outright myth.

So, Stormzy, Owen Jones and the rest — will you keep saying that Boris refers to black people as piccaninnies now that you know it isn’t true? Now that you know he was actually criticising Blairite imperialism? Will you continue to spread the piccaninny lie?

Written byBrendan O’Neill

Brendan O’Neill is the editor of Spiked and a columnist for The Australian and The Big Issue.

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