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What the viral "Jerry from Lowestoft" LBC clip says about race in Britain today

What the viral 'Jerry from Lowestoft' LBC clip says about race in Britain today
6 min read

It’s the moment a video clip from my LBC radio programme was used by TV host Trevor Noah to open The Daily Show, thereby beaming it into the homes of millions of Americans, that I realised my conversation with the now infamous “Jerry from Lowestoft” had morphed into a socio-political phenomenon.

The speed and scale of the distribution of that live, unplanned, unpredictable broadcast in which I drew out why Jerry and “80% of Conservative Party members” he knows believe a brown man should never be allowed to be Prime Minister is breath-taking. 

As I write, that six-and-a-half-minute clip continues to spread like wildfire across social media platforms, WhatsApp groups and traditional media amassing millions of comments, likes and shares. 

The question is…why? The answer is: it’s complicated. To be honest I’m still figuring it out, but here are a few first impressions.

Jerry called me 48 hours before Rishi Sunak was appointed Britain’s first South Asian Prime Minister. As they say, timing is everything.

That includes my arrival at LBC. I joined the station as a presenter in the summer, having spent 20 years as a Senior Correspondent at BBC News and a Presenter at BBC Radio 4.  My journalism at both reflects my interests in law, policing, politics, health and social affairs. 

Yet, it’s the conversations I have with LBC listeners about race and racism in modern British society that receive most the attention.  

When I invite my listeners to discuss in public what they feel in private (across a wide range of subjects) I’m clear about the rules of engagement; be honest, be willing to learn from one another but, above all, be respectful. They speak to me directly; the UK just happens to be listening. 

I am transparent about my background and perspectives. I am a product of the state: educated at a racially diverse comprehensive school in Brent, afforded an education by virtue of a Government grant, and have spent the vast majority of my career in public service.  The listeners know that. I am not apart from — but a part of — my listenership.  

If race comes up in conversation, what helps is that I’m comfortable in my own skin — literally and figuratively. Without wishing to sound like a politician on an election campaign, I am the child of East African Indian immigrants who came with three suitcases and as many young children. 

On the day Jerry from Lowestoft called, ex-prime minister Boris Johnson’s flight from the Caribbean had just touched down in London. I went on air, asking my listeners how they would feel if his next stop was back through the doors of Number 10. About an hour and a half into the show, Jerry from Lowestoft rang-in. He was adamant: “Conservative members want Boris back!”.

I had never before judged a listener but — if it sounds like racism, looks like racism and feels like racism: it is racism. And, I said so.

It was not, he told me, that Mr Johnson was best qualified for the job. Nor that he’d got the big calls right or that his jocular style made him relatable.  It was, Jerry said, from his perspective as a Conservative Party member whose family is closely involved in constituency politics, that Rishi Sunak was not British. Mr Sunak did not, Jerry continued, love England as much as Boris does, nor could he.  Jerry told me with confidence that his feelings are shared by 80 per cent of the membership.

It was a conversation I wanted to explore further with Jerry live on-air. It’s a conversation I know is happening in Britain via the live stream of texts and tweets I see on my computer screen in the studio, and the messages sent to me on social media and via email. 

Jerry opined; I countered with fact.  Jerry grew frustrated; I remained calm.  Jerry drew a comparison between Rishi Sunak and Al-Qaeda terrorists. I checked if I had heard him correctly.

I had never before judged a listener but — if it sounds like racism, looks like racism and feels like racism: it is racism. And, I said so.

The interview was clipped-up and posted to Twitter.  It went viral. It’s been sent back to me from friends and strangers in Canada, Barbados, India, Australia and the United States. That conversion on LBC has kicked off a conversation worldwide about the moment the racist underbelly of a society collides with body politic so openly that the world can hear and feel the hate.

Racism exists in every society where there is a racially minoritized group. Britain is no exception. It has its own complex historical relationship with ethnic minorities by virtue of Empire and the subjugation of three quarters of the globe — most of whom were people of colour.  We are now over here because colonial Britain was over there.  

Jerry may not speak for all Conservative Party members, but he speaks for the members that he knows. To have a person of colour elected to the highest Office of State is an historic and hugely culturally significant moment, but not for Jerry and his friends. To suggest racism and bigotry does not exist within political parties is to suggest it does not exist in societies at all. That’s fairy tale sociology. 

There is no room for exceptionalism, as the Dame Louise Casey report on the Metropolitan Police shows. If deep rooted misogyny and racism can exist within a force that is there to protect us it is inevitable it will exist in the political parties that govern us. To think otherwise is at best naive and at worst dangerous. 

To state that race is never an issue is to avoid a stark reality. A good example is the summer Tory Leadership Contest.  During the hustings, Rishi Sunak told us about his ethnic background and put it front and centre. He even joked about Conservative Party Members complimenting his “tan.”  At the hustings they laughed. Yet, to many people of colour it felt as though Mr Sunak was simultaneously signalling that he was a “hardworking immigrant” while also giving permission to make demeaning jokes about someone’s skin – as long as you do it politely. 

Here’s where this daughter of East African Indian immigrants differs from the son of another set of East African Indian Immigrants (who now occupies No 10). On my LBC show I encourage listeners to lean into their complex, difficult feelings and not hide away behind flippant remarks. Then, in a safe, honest and open space we explore them together in a nuanced and balanced way. It is, I think, one reason why Jerry triggered a huge reaction when he called into the show. He didn’t stick to the rules.  He didn’t respect the listeners, our future Prime Minister, me or himself.  And we all know how the British public feels about rule breakers….

Sangita Myska is a journalist, broadcaster and LBC presenter

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