We Asked Black People About Boris Johnson's 'Piccaninnies' and 'Watermelon Smiles' Comments

Nadine White

It’s looking increasingly likely that Boris Johnson will be prime minster by the end of July, as the Tory leadership frontrunner continues to pull ahead in the race. 

Far from there being a lack of coverage of his past comments about black people and Muslim women, the press has been full of them. Numerous opinion pieces have been written about his lack of suitability for high office, and the chair of the Conservative Muslim Forum has said he will quit the Conservative party after 36 years of membership if Boris Johnson becomes prime minister.

So what did Johnson actually say? Writing in his column for the Daily Telegraph, when he was criticising then-prime minister Tony Blair and his trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2002, the future foreign secretary referred to “watermelon smiles” and “piccaninnies”.

The full passage, which is rarely quoted, reads like this:

“They say he is shortly off to the Congo. No doubt the AK47s will fall silent, and the pangas will stop their hacking of human flesh, and the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird.”

 

“What a relief it must be for Blair to get out of England. It is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies; and one can imagine that Blair, twice victor abroad but enmired at home, is similarly seduced by foreign politeness.”

‘Piccaninny’ is a historical North American racial slur which refers to a child of African descent.

During slavery, black people people grew and ate watermelons. Post emancipation, freed former slaves would sell the fruit and it soon became a symbol of their liberation.

Southern whites who were dissatisfied with the slaves’ freedom responded by making the fruit a symbol of black people’s perceived uncleanliness, laziness, childishness, and unwanted public presence.

We wanted to ask black people how it feels to be described in that way by the man who may soon be their prime minister. 

Kwame Anthony is 45 years-old and lives in South Croydon. He says he doesn’t follow politics but he has heard of Boris Johnson. “I didn’t know that he referred to black people in that way,” he said. “The first thing that comes to my mind when you said the word ‘piccaninnies’ is slavery. Immediately. It’s a nasty word and any white person who uses it obviously thinks that black people are less than them. Otherwise, why would they use it?”

Tyrone Stewart, 68, said the phrases “reek of empire”, and that Johnson’s use of them “speaks volumes about his position on black people.”

“In Jamaica, we use the term ‘pickney’ to refer to our children and it’s derived from ‘piccaninny’ which, of course, has racist connotations. So, coming from Boris Johnson, and the context that he used it in, is offensive. 

“Johnson’s reference [to watermelons] is similar to the golliwogs that we used to see on the Robertson’s jam jars, back in the day. It’s the same sort of thing.”

On another occasion Boris Johnson described Barack Obama as a “part-Kenyan president”.

Tyrone Stewart

Johnson was writing ahead of Obama’s visit to the UK ahead of the Brexit vote. Johnson claimed Obama removing a bust of Winston Churchill from the White House in 2008 showed he was uninterested in the UK-US relationship.

“Some said it was a snub to Britain. Some said it was a symbol of the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British empire – of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender,” his column in he Sun read.

Stewart, who owns a shop on a South London high street, said that Boris referring to Obama as Kenyan isn’t, in and of itself, racist, “although we know what he meant.”

If Boris Johnson can refer to black people in such a dehumanising way, openly and without challenge, yet be headed for Downing Street...what does that tell you about where we are?

 

“The man is very clever that way where he says things but making it look as if he means something well; he plays the bumbling fool role quite well.”

Angela Watson, who was sitting in a Costa having a coffee, told us that the term piccaninny evoked feelings of disappointment and sadness, more than anything else.

“Coming from a man who will more than likely become the next prime minister of this country, it really is hurtful. If someone walked up to me in the street and called me that word, I would ask them who they are talking to. It’s unacceptable.”

Alwin, who was sat opposite Angela, sipped on his latte while she spoke. “Yes, but this is a sign of the time we live in now,” he said.

“If Boris Johnson can refer to black people in such a dehumanising way, openly and without challenge, yet be headed for Downing Street...what does that tell you about where we are? Politicians should be held to account but they’re not. 

“Watermelon smiles? It tells me that, as a black man, I am inferior. But I am not. This just proves that we have a long way to go in achieving equality in this country.”

 

I would be extremely disappointed if he’s made prime minister considering the past remarks he’s made about black people.

 

Samantha Frederick, from Croydon, said: “Those remarks are extremely hurtful and have deep ties to racism and demonstrate racist attitudes towards black people. I feel like having someone like that representing Britain at this time would be a step backwards, rather than forward and in the right direction.

“I would be extremely disappointed if he’s made prime minister considering the past remarks he’s made about black people. I don’t think he’s fit for the role.” 

George Brown, 58, told us he thinks Boris Johnson is a “self-centred charlatan.”

“I don’t think Johnson is a fit leader,” he said. “His views on immigrants have always been poor; he’s changed his mind several times about whether or not he likes immigration - let alone the immigrants themselves. With Johnson at the helm, we’re in for a world of pain. If we think the last three years were bad...watch what’s coming.

“We thought we’d hit the bottom - no we haven’t: Boris Johnson is the bottom. He is our Donald Trump along with Nigel Farage, who he will bring along. We are in a Trumpian world, now. God, we have to do something about that!”

 

With Johnson at the helm, we’re in for a world of pain. If we think the last three years were bad...watch what’s coming. Given Johnson’s past comments and track record, we should be expecting more blatant racism with him in power.

“Given Johnson’s past comments and track record, we should be expecting more blatant racism with him in power. Brexit saw a rise in racist attacks and, lately, some politicians – and people, even – believe it is now okay to hold and voice those views openly.” 

Anna Alexander, 25, told HuffPost UK: “As a black woman, I am not looking forward to the prospect of having him as prime minister and, in that event, would focus on the next general election [where the public could have a say].” 

“I watched a clip of him yesterday answering questions from journalists and he came across well. But if he came to power, I’d feel how black Americans feel about Donald Trump, to be honest. When Theresa May announced her resignation, I knew the likelihood of Boris succeeding her was high and that it would be a messy situation.”

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