Senior Conservatives have hit back after more than 30 Labour MPs from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds accused Priti Patel of trying to silence debate by “using” her own experience of racism.
The 32 MPs, including Diane Abbott and Clive Lewis, expressed their “dismay” after the home secretary said in a Commons debate that she would “not take lectures from the other side of the house” because she had been racially abused as a child.
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, accused them of “divisive identity politics”.
In the strongly-worded letter, the MPs told the home secretary they were disappointed “at the way you used your heritage and experiences of racism to gaslight the very real racism faced by black people and communities across the UK”.
They added: “We all have our personal stories of the racism that we have faced, whether it has been being defined by the colour of our skin or the faith we choose to believe in.
“Our shared experiences allow us to feel the pain that communities feel when they face racism, they allow us to show solidarity towards a common cause; they do not allow us to define, silence or impede on the feelings that other minority groups may face.”
Patel herself responded strongly to the letter on Twitter, saying: “I will not be silenced by @UKLabour MPs who continue to dismiss the contributions of those who don’t conform to their view of how ethnic minorities should behave.”
Asked about the letter at the daily Downing Street coronavirus briefing, Hancock said, “of course Priti Patel was not wrong to talk of her personal experiences of racism. I have seen this letter, and I abhor this divisive identity politics that’s being levelled at Priti Patel. I’m incredibly proud to be part of the most diverse government in history.”
Former chancellor Sajid Javid called the letter, “utterly misguided and irresponsible.”
“Imagine listening to an ethnic-minority woman’s history of suffering racist abuse – and then deciding that you’d rather condemn the victim than her abusers,” he tweeted.
The letter was coordinated by the shadow community cohesion minister, Naz Shah, and was also signed by other senior Labour MPs including Tulip Siddiq, Kate Osamor, Chi Onwurah, Seema Malhotra, Dawn Butler and Rosena Allin-Khan.
In a Commons debate on Monday, the Labour MP Florence Eshalomi suggested the government did not understand the anger felt by people and the desire to tackle structural racism.
Patel told the Commons she was “really, really saddened” by Eshalomi’s criticism and added: “It must have been a very different home secretary who as a child was frequently called a Paki in the playground, a very different home secretary who was racially abused in the streets or even advised to drop her surname and use her husband’s in order to advance her career.
“A different home secretary recently characterised … in the Guardian newspaper as a fat cow with a ring through its nose, something that was not only racist but offensive, both culturally and religiously. [Patel was referring to a Steve Bell cartoon.] So when it comes to racism, sexism, tolerance or social justice, I will not take lectures from the other side of the house.”
In the letter, the Labour MPs tell Patel that “being a person of colour does not automatically make you an authority on all forms of racism” and that experiences should not be used to “silence” others.
They write: “In conclusion, we ask you to reflect on your words and to consider the impact it had towards black communities in the UK trying to highlight their voices against racism.
“Rest assured that Asian and ethnic minority colleagues on this side of the house will not use their experiences to silence our black colleagues, but will use our shared experiences to stand behind them and support their voices to lead us on standing up against the distinct form of racism black communities in the UK and across the globe face.”
Patel said on Monday that “thugs and criminals” would be brought to justice for pockets of violence at the largely peaceful anti-racism demonstrations in London at the weekend.