A Racism Row We Didn’t Need

Sometime yesterday evening, Diane Abbott, in a twitter conversation with her constituent Bin Adewunmi, expressed a rather insensitive view:

Diane Abbot's insensitive tweet (screencap)

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.

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4 Responses to A Racism Row We Didn’t Need

  1. Richard says:

    To be honest I don’t think there was anything racist about what Abbott, in context, surely meant. In my view, her intention could have been paraphrased like this: “Black people have often been oppressed by white people employing divide and rule tactics; for this reason, black people should aim for solidarity”.

    Whether or not she is right, this is not a racist sentiment.

    As such, I don’t really agree that “there is no excuse for what Abbott said”. Abbott may have expressed herself a bit loosely (it happens when people try to have political discussions with 140 character limits), but that’s about it. The rest is all about a few people delightedly grabbing the opportunity to slap down an intelligent and vocal black woman in the public eye – you can call that racist, if you like… – and others responding to a quotation which had been presented without any context.

  2. Thanks for writing this. I saw a great deal of ugliness emerging in response to this on Twitter yesterday, with one (largely right-wing) camp apparently unaware that ‘reverse racism’ is a meaningless concept and the other (largely left-wing) camp apparently unaware that criticising Diane Abbott for a prejudiced and hypocritical comment (as you say) doesn’t necessarily mean automatic and total allegiance with the right-wing camp. It has all been a gross distortion of meaningful debate, and extremely depressing to witness.

  3. Melaszka says:

    I think the hysteria that has greeted this comment demonstrates exactly what I’m guessing Abbott was getting at (however clumsily) in the comment itself: an unquestioning assumption of their right to white privilege amongst most white people (even those who don’t consider themselves racist), who will clutch at any straw to maintain that privilege.

    I think it also brings into focus, not for the first time, the fact that we haven’t yet worked out how to classify discourse on social networking sites. It feels like a private conversation with mates, so we don’t tend to think through or edit as we would if we were issuing an official statement or putting something in writing offline, and yet it is, at the same time, very public and very permanent. And I know that politicians should know better, but – as someone who has probably opened myself up to libel suits on more than one occasion by thoughtlessly passing on a celebrity rumour on Facebook or Twitter – I don’t hold with punishing MPs for unPC Twitter pronouncements, unless they are clearly intended to intimidate or demean.

  4. Maria Pretzler says:

    Penny – I got so angry about it that there needed to be a blog post. I have seen this reverse racism used a lot more often in US politics, and it’s amazing how far the false equivalents will go. It’s not a discourse I’d like to see get out of hand here.

    Melaszka – I think that an MP ought to be more careful, and I am less tolerant than you are of this kind of thing. But the reaction was still completely overblown. I bet there are plenty of backbenchers who say stupid things on twitter every day. But I think an Aidan Burley probably really has to get himself caught on camera toasting the Nazis before he causes a similar storm.

    Richard – I think the only thing that was unexcusable is that an MP should avoid stereotyping any group of people that makes up a large percentage of his/her constituents. But I agree, it wasn’t racism.

    I am particularly worried about the way the discourse is conducted. People are somehow particularly annoyed about certain people, and Diane Abbott is one of them. So many seem to be happy to get at her, and it’s not even divided along party lines. I sense that there is some sort of instinctive reaction to an ‘uppity woman’ just underneath the surface. Race presumably plays a role but it reminds me of the treatment Nadine Dorries regularly gets, too (and in her case, class prejudice also plays a role). I find both these MPs, Nadine Dorries and Diane Abbott, equally hard to bear and frequently stupid, but I am fed up with those insinuations that people like them somehow have to be put in ‘their place’. I find people like Jacob Rees-Mogg with his 18th-century Stick equally annoying, but the criticism he faces is somehow very different in flavour. If you are a woman, an member of an ethnic minority or working class in parliament you have already succeeded against the odds, so it’s not acceptable to treat MPs from these groups as some kind of second class people who deserve an obscure life on the backbenches at best. How dare they look as if they actually enjoy the media limelight?

    I think many people have a deeply rooted but rarely acknowledged sense of what position, what level of publicity, what level of influence somebody ought, by some ancient right, to be allowed. Race, class, gender all play a role, and while the reaction is probably often instinctive rather than well reflected, it’s these underlying assumptions which keep the disadvantages for these groups going. And while there are clearly white people who face similar reactions for different reasons, I think we can all be sure that being white is not likely to be one of these disadvantages: I think I can say that as a white immigrant who simply never experiences any of the problems non-white native Brits (let alone immigrants!) face every day.

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