Head of government race commission questions whether ‘N word’ is the same as calling someone ‘fat’
PUBLISHED: 15:10 25 June 2020 | UPDATED: 12:42 29 June 2020
A video has emerged in which the woman leading the government’s commission on racial inequality challenges a Black youth on whether the use of the “N word” is different from calling someone “fat”, and questions whether he is playing the victim.
Munira Mirza, director of Number 10’s policy unit, also says that a university professor who claimed Black people have lower IQs than White people should not have been sacked, in a discussion in which she argues against any restrictions on hate speech.
Former BNP leader Nick Griffin should never have been put on trial for inciting racial hatred, according to Ms Mirza.
There have already been calls that Ms Mirza should not lead the commission on race and ethnic disparities, announced after the global wave of Black Lives Matter protests, because of her scepticism about systemic racism.
But a video, filmed in 2011 at the headquarters of Hackney charity WorldWrite, lays bare the extent of her views.
Ms Mirza, who was Boris Johnson’s cultural advisor at City Hall at the time, said she “doesn’t think any group is so vulnerable that it can’t be resilient enough to withstand some kind of attack against them”.
“When you talk about hate speech you say that some words are so offensive and some people are so vulnerable they can’t hear it, which is really quite offensive, isn’t it really,” she says during a 50-minute discussion.
She adds: “People can respond or deal with hatred, and they should learn to”.
She argues that it was “a good tactic” to have invented the term ‘hate speech’ - although does not state whose tactic she believed it to have been.
She repudiates racism and prejudice, but goes on to say: “We don’t want a culture where people can’t say what they think. Rather I would have a culture where people disagree strongly, and are willing to change their minds.”
The intimate discussion with eight young people, who are sitting on sofas with Mirza around a coffee table, was part of a series called ‘Don’t Shout at the Telly’, recorded with WorldWrite.
One boy said he would “be taken aback” if he was called the “N word” and said if a regulatory body existed, he would feel “as if someone was looking out for me”.
She asks the boy: “But why is your offence graver and more serious than somebody who is very overweight, and are you not saying: ‘Well I’m being victimised here?’”
Although he had expressed discomfort with being called the N-word, the youth laughs, before saying: “It’s very double standards I know. I know totally what you mean.”
Ms Mirza concedes: “Well it is different using certain words, because politically they have more of a charge. It is true that in the past the ‘N-word’ would have had a much stronger political character to it, and it would have been about reflecting the inequalities between blacks and whites in society.”
During the discussion she also compares banning the “N word” to Nazi Germany where the Jews were denied free speech - but she goes on to say that was a different situation “more hostile for a minority group”.
The Charity Commission said it would look into WorldWrite, which operates out of the council-owned former decontamination station lodge in Millfields Road, Lower Clapton, after a Gazette report last year.
Videos emerged then showing young people being instructed to vote in “the best tactical way” in the 2017 general election “to ensure Brexit goes ahead”. Its director Ceri Dingle had also been filmed at a rally outside Parliament saying the charity had “been campaigning for years to get out of the EU”.
British charities can only engage in campaigning and political activity “in furtherance of their charitable purposes”.
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This week the Charity Commission could not say whether any further action has since been taken.
The story highlighted WorldWrite’s links with Spiked - an online magazine whose writers have defended the freedom of speech of groups and individuals, including some many consider to be from the far right - for which Ms Mirza has also written.
During her discussion with young people at WorldWrite, Ms Mirza argues that universities are a good example of a place where there should be no restriction on what is said, and where students should hear views they “might not agree with” from “lots of different professors”.
She cites the example of Dr Frank Ellis, a Russian tutor at the University of Leeds, where she used to work, who claimed in a 2006 interview that data stretching back 100 years points to a “persistent deviation” in the average IQ of Black and White people.
Ms Mirza said: “I disagree with him and I don’t think there is evidence to show that, but he expressed an opinion in an interview and then there were calls for him to be sacked. I think in a university context where students hear all sorts of different viewpoints, he shouldn’t have been sacked. He should have been disagreed with.”
Her prime argument against banning hate speech was that it could create a “chill factor” that would make people “feel uncomfortable or fearful about saying something”.
One Black youth asked her views on Boris Johnson, following his comments calling Black children “picaninnies with watermelon smiles” in an article he wrote for the Spectator in 2002.
Mirza said: “I work for him, so I can say he’s not a racist. The things he wrote weren’t racist if you read them in the context of the article. Actually in some ways they were criticising the attitudes of other people who are racist.
“There is a very good example when people take a word and they interpret it must be racist and it becomes almost like it stops the debate.
“Before the [mayoral] election people thought: ‘I wont vote for him because he must be a racist.’
“In our society being a racist - it’s not something that people can defend of themselves. As soon as they are accused of racism that’s it. You aren’t allowed to hear from them any more. You can’t defend yourself, which I think is wrong.”
She also argued that Nick Griffin should not have been put on trial. Mr Griffin, head of the BNP, was convicted of distributing material likely to incite racial hatred in 1998, when he received a nine-month suspended prison sentence and £2,300 fine. He was acquitted of separate charges of inciting racial hatred in 2006.
“He said quite offensive things like that Muslims wanted to take over Britain and this was seen as a sign of incitement to hatred, an incitement to violence and an incitement for people to go out and do bad things,” said Mirza.
“It was a really interesting case, because even though I disagreed with him and didn’t want him to say those things, I still don’t think he should have been put on trial.
“A lot of people argued that by making that speech is he encouraged and created a lot more racism in northern England where there is already quite a bit of racial tension, up in those parts of the country. If you encourage a group of young White men who are already a bit racist, they might go out and commit violence, or victimise families and people living in their area.
“It’s a hard thing to defend, but even in that difficult situation I think it’s better for people to say what they think and then be challenged by everyone else.
“If a person hears Nick Griffin inciting violence against Black people or Asians they can always make a decision themselves not to be violent.”
Number 10, Munira Mirza and WorldWrite were approached but declined to comment.
This story was edited on June 29. It originally stated that writers for the magazine Spiked “express neoliberal, far-right views”. This was amended to clarify that the magazine’s writers argue for freedom of speech, including for groups that many would consider far right.
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