Councillor suspended for ‘coconut’ slur

Standards committee holds Councillor Brown’s behaviour brought disrepute to the council

3rd July 2009: Nearly five months after local councillor Shirley Brown called an Indian-origin rival "coconut", she has been suspended for a month for her "deeply offensive language".

Brown, a councillor belonging to the Liberal Democrat party in the city of Bristol, had directed the "racial slur" at her Tory rival Jay Jethwa during a debate in February. Brown and Jethwa are the only two women ethnic minority members of Bristol council.

It is believed ‘coconut’, brown on the outside and white on the inside, means someone who is Asian or Black but is considered to be ‘sold out’.

After nearly two hours’ consideration, the standards committee, comprising two independent members and Labour Councillor Colin Smith, held Councillor Brown’s behaviour had brought the council into disrepute and suspended her. This was despite an officer’s report recommending no further action was required to be taken.

Councillor Brown has 21 days to appeal the decision.
Claiming that the decision "seemed harsh", Brown, who had apologised for the remark, said she was "shocked".

She said the standards committee acknowledged the comments she made were not racist and she apologised promptly once she had been informed Councillor Jethwa was offended. This decision was apparently harsh.

It all started when angered by Tory party proposals to cut funding for an ethnic minority organisation in Bristol, Brown told Jethwa at the meeting: "In our culture we have a word for you, a word which many in the city would understand, and that’s coconut. At the end of the day I look at you as that," she said.

Jethwa told a committee set up to investigate the incident: "It is extremely insulting for Councillor Brown to suggest I am not aware of my culture.

"I urge the strongest sanction possible is taken to send the message that racism from any quarter will not be tolerated in this city."

Brown apologised saying: "I am sincerely sorry. It was never my intention to hurt, harm or bring any disrepute to the council. We all use different terminology in our culture, unfortunately I used the wrong terminology. It was never my intention to offend. I should not have said it."

Councillor Brown expressed unhappiness that the only two women ethnic minority members on the council were seen to have become involved in such a row. She told the committee the coconut comment was not on race; she had been upset as Councillor Jethwa wanted to cease funding for organisations that supported Bristol’s minorities.

Councillor Brown said she received racist letters and emails since the row broke out, and she was concerned it may prevent ethnic minorities from being involved in politics.

Committee chair Anne Foot said: "This committee condemns without reservation the deeply offensive language…We would hope that councillor Brown has learnt a very painful lesson and would not use offensive language again."

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