‘A Purposeful Life’ by trailblazing MP Dawn Butler talks about what has inspired and motivated her to persevere in the face of oppression.
“Lying is a big thing for me. And so I wasn’t going to be a part of the lie,” said Labour MP Dawn Butler talking about her now infamous decision to call Boris Johnson a liar in parliament. In her memoir ‘A Purposeful Life’ Dawn talks openly about just how much of a big thing lying really is to her. In the week of the book’s release, we caught up with her to learn more about her, topics within the book, political aspirations, and the importance of self-care.
The first time Dawn was called a liar is something she remembers vividly even though she was only eight years old. After a family trip to Jamaica, she was telling her class about what she’d done in the school holidays. She recalls telling them that she had seen a cockroach that could fly. Her teacher interrupted her and in front of the class told her that she was lying. The first chapter of her book titled ‘Cockroaches Don’t Fly’ recalls this moment as one of her most prominent memories, writing “She had never experienced it; therefore, I must have been making it up.”
Sadly, it would not be the last time Dawn was accused of making things up simply because the person hearing her stories had never had those experiences themselves. When it comes to the racism, she’s seen in her lifetime there is of course a rather large part of society that has never had these experiences, be it being stopped by police on the way to lunch with a friend or being confused for a cleaner in parliament because she was Black.
“It’s so frustrating, isn’t it, that we’re always having to explain, explain again, give an example, give a demonstration of racism,” she said. “That’s why I’ve written the book in a particular way where I hope I take people on a journey. From the feedback that I’ve got from people, from everybody, but especially white people who have read the book have said it’s made them consider and address their privilege and how they have maybe overlooked instances that are wrong or racist.”
It’s great to hear that ‘A Purposeful Life’ is sparking those discussions with readers, but not everyone has been so quick to accept people of colour’s accounts of their experiences of racism. “I can’t tell you why people deny acts of racism,” Dawn told us. “But what I have assessed is that if people have to accept that an incident is wrong or racist, then they should know they’ve got to do something about it. So, denying it means they can just ignore it,” she continued. “They don’t have to do anything about it because it’s not real. It’s our problem.”
“I was prepared that the likelihood was I was gonna get thrown out of the chamber …”
It is however not just our problem, it’s everyone’s problem and has a large effect on many aspects of people’s lives. “If you accept that Black people are treated more harshly in the criminal justice system, then you’re gonna have to do something about it,” Dawn elaborated. “If you accept that Black nurses are disciplined at a higher rate, than white nurses without the evidence, then you’re gonna have to accept that there’s something wrong there.”
Accepting that there’s something wrong is the first step towards correcting it. Sometimes someone has to make a stand and, on the 22 July 2021, Dawn Butler MP made a stand and called Boris Johnson a “liar” in Parliament. “Sometimes when you break the rules, you have to prepare yourself. So, I was prepared that the likelihood was I was gonna get thrown out of the chamber because I was breaking parliamentary protocol,” she explained.
Dawn continued: “But the point was the protocol is now out of date, it doesn’t fit our democracy. Boris Johnson highlighted everything that was wrong with our democracy. Our democracy is not strong enough to support a liar like Boris Johnson,” she exclaimed making a connection to the famous folktale ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. “It was almost like the emperor has no clothes on, and nobody was willing to tell the emperor that he had no clothes on, and I had to say it,” she concluded.
“… am I just going to plod along and pretend that everything’s ok? Or am I gonna speak out against it?”
“I wasn’t gonna be a part of the charade,” she told us. “I suppose I didn’t see myself as part of the system until if you like, I called Boris Johnson a liar and then I was like, I am part of this system. I am part of the establishment and am I just going to plod along and pretend that everything’s ok? Or am I gonna speak out against it?” The book speaks openly on breaking barriers and inspiring change.
Some parts of the book are hard to read because apart from anything else they are unfortunately relatable for so many. One story of institutional racism recalls her being threatened by a white man with a knife who lunged at her brother. When the police were called it was her brother who was arrested instead. “Working as I do as a politician made me address my own biases towards the police as justified as they were,” she said. “But also, it made me even more determined to call out all the wrong behaviour and to try to police better.”
When she’s not calling things out, Dawn is standing out. An excellent chapter in the book ‘The Lime-Green Suit’ talks about walking into a room full of grey suits in a lime-green one instead. Dawn explains that she considers herself a disruptor and fully owns this quality in herself. “I used to wear different outfits, different clothes, I mean, because my dad was very flamboyant in his dress,” she smiled. “When I started working in the city, for example, I tried to fit in because that’s what you do. But then it comes to a stage like when, as a politician where you realise you’re not gonna fit in. So why try? Just stand out, it’s OK. Stand out for you.”
Flamboyancy is not the only thing she got from her dad ‘A Purposeful Life’ explains the lessons learnt from him. The bakery he ran was a part of a community, people did more than just buy their jam doughnuts, they came for conversations. In the years that have passed since those days in Leytonstone some of that community spirit is lacking today. Dawn however is hopeful it can return. “I think there’s bits of it around. I think what we have to do is just understand that we’re all one human race and we can coexist quite happily,” she said.
“When the government pretends there’s a culture war and tries to get you to hate somebody it’s not really because they want you to hate them. It’s because they want to distract you from what they’re doing…”
In our society today it is easy to forget this, and one reason is that we are often pitted against each other. Dawn warns us: “When the government pretends there’s a culture war and tries to get you to hate somebody it’s not really because they want you to hate them. It’s because they want to distract you from what they’re doing and what they’re doing is not protecting citizens, which should be the first thing that they do.”
This book is bound to take readers on a journey, but writing the book was a journey for Dawn also and made her realise a thing or two. “It’s quite interesting because I’ve never really been that person who says, right, I want to become Prime Minister one day or I want to do this one day. I’ve always been living in that moment doing the best that I can to make the world a better place,” she said. “But I think now, and this book has helped me realise, that I’d love to do something politically like be Mayor of London. I think that would be an amazing honour!” she confessed.
What if she was never Mayor of London or had to step out of politics what would she do instead? “I would love to do documentaries,” she told us. “I love people. So I love talking to people. I love organising. I love making things work. But her ambitions do not stop there. “I’d love to have my own talk show, like an old school talk show, you know, where you’re having deep and meaningful conversations on the sofa.”
Dawn was the third Black woman ever to be elected as an MP, and the first elected African-Caribbean woman to become a government minister, she has spent her life representing groups and people in society that are often underrepresented. In her constant fight for others, she has had to find ways to care for herself too. Sometimes you just need time for yourself, this is something Dawn found in her beautiful sister locs hair journey.
“I wish I had videoed my journey, you know, because it was really quite interesting, it took 2.5, nearly three days to install,” she started to explain. “And at the end of it I thought I had commitment issues because I just thought, ‘oh my God, this is a hairstyle that I’m never gonna be able to change’, I was kind of panicking, did I do the right thing?” she continued.
After a while though Dawn began to get used to her new hair and even better, enjoy it. “I started to enjoy it and what it was all about, and my loctician told me this, it’s all about self-care. It’s all about taking time for yourself. So, you know, you have to plait your hair and then wash it. But it was making the most of the two hours. Make it your two hours and enjoy it. So, I started to just enjoy the time with my hair and just loving it!”
A Purposeful Life: What I’ve Learned About Breaking Barriers and Inspiring Change, published by Torva on 24 August 2023, is now available from all good bookshops. Buy it here.
This article was written by Catherine Wiltshire