TRAILBLAZER: Sarah Owen on racism on the doorstep and being a role model
Sarah Owen is the first MP of south-east Asian descent
Sarah Owen reveals why she’s determined to overturn negative attitudes and encourage the next generation of east and south-east Asian politicos into Parliament.
Sarah Owen is often described as the first female MP of Chinese descent. But she’s quick to correct the misnomer.
"I’m the first MP of south-east Asian descent. The Chinese part of my family came from my great-grandparents, and my mother is Malaysian."
It’s a distinction that is lost on people, she argues, due to the lack of east and south-east Asian representation in Parliament, and a failure of the mainstream media to demonstrate the diversity among the community.
Being the "first" from her community to enter Parliament is an experience, she says, that "doesn’t always feel real", and brings with it a set of expectations that clearly weigh on her.
"I just don’t want to mess it up for people, but I also don’t want to be the only one," she says. "That is why we are working so hard to get the next group involved in politics."
For Owen, taking that initial leap into politics, first in the trade union movement and then working for the Labour Party, was not an obvious one because of what she sees as a reluctance in the community to "put your head above the parapet".
"One of the more explosive arguments I had with my mum was when I said I wanted my life to be about campaigning and politics. She wasn’t thrilled," Owen jokes. "She asked why I was throwing my life away, because I was the first one in the family to go to university. She really wanted me to do law, because there was a clear career progression."
Another barrier came with the frequent racism she has encountered, from the doorstep to the Commons. One voter who was considering switching his vote to Ukip because he was against immigration, told Owen he "didn’t mind" the Chinese because they were "hardworking and obedient". When she suggested she wasn’t obedient, the man, rather than being embarrassed, stared at her before drawing a circle around his eyes.
"Oh yeah, they aren’t completely round, are they?" he said.
Other incidents were depressingly common. One councillor said she had "come off all right" from her mixed heritage because she didn’t have the "funny eyes or lips", while a woman at a hustings event was overheard describing Owen as the "g**k girl".
When she lost her first election in 2015, the abuse continued and had a major impact on her mother who questioned whether her campaign failed because of her ethnicity.
"That was heartbreaking because my mum kind of put it on herself. I had to say that if they didn’t like my identity then they weren’t going to like my other views."
Within months of winning her Luton North seat in 2019, Owen faced a wave of racism as the Covid pandemic hit. She received videos of people eating live animals and was on the Commons benches when then-Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg jokingly referred to the Liberal Democrats as the "yellow peril", a derogatory term for Chinese people. While he apologised, Owen says it shows the two sides of the abuse: either portraying people as "dirty" or part of a massive conspiracy.
"People in the ESEA [east and south-east Asian] culture get completely mixed into one group,” she says. “We’re not seen as individuals and that is, I think, something that is more prevalent in the UK because of the lack of understanding."
But Owen is positive about the future. Having taken over as chair of what used to be known as Chinese for Labour, she credits the work of their “brilliant” volunteers for helping overhaul the group, which has rebranded to East and South East Asians for Labour.
"We’ve worked really hard to get the next generation of people into politics. We’ve got people standing for councils. We’ve got two people working in Labour. They are smart and they’re so young. It’s amazing. It’s exactly what I think our socialist society should look like."
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