21:45 GMT22 October 2020
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    During his fruitful career in journalism, Boris Johnson wrote about Africa’s “flag-waving pickaninnies” and “watermelon smiles”, and made a couple of remarks that were widely seen as Islamophobic or homophobic. Johnson refuses to apologise for his own words, citing his right to free speech.

    As if there haven’t been enough race-related controversies in Britain in recent days, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is now being accused of applying racial stereotypes to Nigerians.

    Writing in the Independent in October 1999, then-editor of the Spectator penned a column criticising Tony Blair’s Labourite government.

    He wrote: “Blair had found a way making people feel good about getting rich. All the young people I know – ie those under 30 – are just as avaricious as we flinty Thatcherite yuppies of the 1980s; in fact, they have an almost Nigerian interest in money and gadgets of all kinds.”


    A screenshot of the article Boris Johnson wrote for the Independent in 1999
    © Photo : screenshot
    A screenshot of the article Boris Johnson wrote for the Independent in 1999


    The quote was first discovered by freelance journalist Joe Goodman via Nexis, an electronic database of newspaper stories, and then reported by The Guardian.

    “I’ve been a journalism student for just over two months now,” he said. “It took me about an hour on Nexis ... to find this quote. I can assure you there are plenty more out there.”

    He then called on the media to start scanning the nearly 200 pages of columns Johnson had published as editor and writer, saying that some other racist or homophobic statements might see the light of day.

    Boris Johnson has a record of polarising statements regarding race and culture: in a scathing 2002 column on Tony Blair’s overseas visits, he branded Commonwealth citizens “flag-waving pickaninnies” (a derogative North American term referring to black children of African descent).

    In the same piece, he wrote, “…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.”

    In the past, he has also referred to Muslim women who wear veil as “letter boxes” and to gay people as “tank-topped bum boys”.

    Weyman Bennett, the co-convenor of the pressure group Stand Up to Racism, described Johnson’s Nigeria comments were “deeply racist and offensive”.

    “This can be added to the ‘piccaninnies’ and ‘watermelon smiles’, the abject refusal to properly apologise and change his behaviour around racism,” he told The Guardian, arguing that Johnson is “unfit” to be a prime minister.

    Britain’s two major parties have been mired in racially-charged controversies this week. Boris Johnson on Wednesday apologised for Islamophobia within his party after the Muslim Council of Britain accused the Tories of approaching the issue of “Islamophobia with denial, dismissal and deceit.”

    However, Johnson refused to apologise personally when he was asked about his notorious comments on BBC Question Time last week. He denied that they were offensive and said he stood by his “right to speak out.”

    Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been likewise criticised for refusing to apologise for his party’s approach to handling anti-Semitism within its ranks. Accusations of anti-Semitism surfaced again this week after Britain’s chief rabbi openly slammed Corbyn for allowing the “poison” of intolerance to “take root” in the party.

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