Sometime yesterday evening, Diane Abbott, in a twitter conversation with her constituent Bin Adewunmi, expressed a rather insensitive view:
Once the tweet was spotted, there was no halting the row. Diane Abbott in thoughtless hyperbole shocker. As if she had never said something insensitive before! I think it was right that she was made to apologise: what she said was an unacceptable generalisation, and public figures say things like this at their peril.
However, the fact that Diane Abbott was wrong doesn’t make some of her critics any more right. I was amazed to see so many crocodile tears shed over Diane Abbott’s apparent racism against white people. Was her tweet racist? Technically it probably was.
But let’s not kid ourselves that we can so easily draw parallels: false equivalents are such an easy distraction, and this one looks intellectually dishonest at best and malicious at worst. Yes, a white MP uttering a simiular generalisation about black people would probably have got into more trouble. But this ’reversed’ example isn’t exactly equivalent, because there is a well-established context which makes a difference.
As a white person, I have never been at the receiving end of racism – none I can remember anyway, and certainly not the serious stuff that scars you for life. The fact that I can hardly imagine what it must be like was brought home to me pretty vividly just a few days ago, when I came across this article, asking a number of non-white Brits: “What’s the most racist thaing that ever happened to you?”.
Context and people’s experiences matter, which is why it seems a bit rich for so many white people to complain so loudly about Diane Abbott’s racism. ‘She has a chip on her shoulder’, some commented: that phrase always suggests that the grievances aren’t justified, or that people who don’t manage to look beyond past injustices somehow aren’t behaving properly – ‘not done in polite society’, so to speak, especially not if somebody is perceived as having overcome the obstacles that were put in their way. Should we really dismiss collective grievances about very real racism so easily?
This is not an excuse for what Diane Abbott said – but we mustn’t forget the legacy of racism, either. When non-white people complain about a racist remark, all those memories are part of their complaint. A complaint about Diane Abbott’s crude generalisation about white people just doesn’t have the same context. It’s a complaint easily made, but it doesn’t have the same weight behind it, and we shouldn’t pretend that it does.
We mustn’t let one stupid insensitive remark devalue the memory of what happened, and still happens, to non-white people in this country. Least of all we should do so in the week two people were finally jailed for the murder of Stephen Lawrence, while, after almost two decades, at least three of his murderers are still free.
That trial yet again reminded us all of what damage racism can do in this country; and it seems as if, after all this the tension and painful collective self-reflection many were almost grateful for a release – a chance to throw some of the guilt back at those who like to act as a voice of concsience, particularly when the person in question likes to be rather sanctimonious at times.
I was shocked about the sense of glee in many comments about Diane Abbott’s ‘racism’. As if all the campaigning against racism were no longer quite so valid because one high profile black person is ‘caught out’ saying something that expresses racial prejudice. In the UK, we are usually proud of the fact that racism has become socially unacceptable in many contexts. But it’s disconcerting how much unease and dissatisfaction seem to lurk just under the surface, as so many seem to enjoy ‘turning the tables’, so to speak, if an opportunity arises.
What Diane Abbott tweeted was stupid, hypocritical and prejudiced. But let’s not get worked up about the ‘problem’ of racism against white people. It’s just a distraction – and we shouldn’t let ourselves be distracted from a problem that’s still far too serious to play political games with.