On Diane Abbott's 'Racism'

Labour MP Diane Abbott is in hot water, after some remarks on twitter that some have characterised as racist:

White people love their divide and rule. We should not play their game. #tacticasoldascolonialism

This has prompted a predictable backlash, with Tory and Lib Dem MPs demanding she resign from Labour’s front bench, and Ed Miliband ensuring she make a swift apology.
I find myself having mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it can be read as straight prejudice. Swap ‘white’ for ‘black’ or ‘Muslim’ and the tweet would certainly appear classically racist.
However, I think there is an element of context that is missing here. When I read that later Abbott posted a clarification, claiming she was referring to colonialism, I was not surprised (her original tweet had a hashtag about colonialism, a fact not reported in the mainstream media). When she said ‘white people’ in the original tweet, I read it in precisely those terms. In the context of race relations and Black History I can see how ‘white people’ could (and should) be read as meaning The Established Elite. As such, when I read the tweet, I did not consider it directed at or referring to an avowed white person such as myself. Thinking about it now, Abbott could actually have written ‘men’ instead of ‘white people’ and I would have been similarly ambivalent, despite my also being a confirmed man, too.
In my head, I know that Abbott is being racist, because sweeping over-generalisations are the definition of racism. But in my heart, I am simply not offended. This might be purely because I am a particularly self-centred and over-confident individual, but I don’t think so. Instead, I think the answer lies somewhere in the fact that white people (or men, or tall people, or heterosexuals, or English people, or middle-class people, or Southerners, or any of the other politically favourable groups to which I am lucky enough to belong) are simply not used to being discriminated against in this manner.
The confidence that comes from being politically ‘privileged’ in this way, the confidence that comes from having pretty much every part of your identity affirmed and protected by the culture and the system, affords a certain immunity, on two fronts.
First, an immunity to actually being offended. A mental block prevents the tall white middle-class heterosexual English man from considering the possibility that someone might be disparaging about him. “Surely there must be some mistake?” not “There they go again.”
Second – and this is the crux of the matter – there is a confidence that such sweeping generalisations will not actually harm me in any way. Being in part of the, shall we say, “preferred group” (which is not always a demographic majority), I know that the culture and the political system will ensure such ad hominems do not adversely affect my life, short term or long term.
This is therefore a difference between black-on-white racism and the more traditional white-on-black racism, or modern equivalents like, say, tabloid-on-Muslim racism. In the former case, the prejudicial statements simply aren’t as harmful. In the latter cases, they do much more damage because the society and the culture is not orientated to defend the subject of the abuse. Likewise with sexism, where the culture reinforces the narrative of male superiority. In this context, the ‘chav’ prejudice, so wonderfully described by Owen Jones, is extremely interesting. The targets of the racism are white, but it does have long term negative effects on the targets. Likewise with disparaging remarks about the Irish in decades past.
But I cannot ascribe a comparable vulnerability to the targets of Abbott’s ire, who are quite obviously elite. This is why I cannot bring myself, as a white person, to be offended. I cannot look into the souls of other men, but I suspect that many of the critics of Diane Abbott are actually less offended than they appear. The outrage feels distinctly faux to me, an opportunity for political point-scoring rather than a genuine defence of a vulnerable group. Do we really think that people will read Abbott’s tweet, and start treating white people badly? I would like to see a rebuttal to this from a disadvantaged white person who feels Abbott is harming them. So far, most of the outrage seems to be from distinctly elite MPs…

12 Replies to “On Diane Abbott's 'Racism'”

  1. Excellent Rob, expressing my views perfectly (and I’m not a man). Also fits well with the very interesting piece in today’s G2 by Bim Adewunmi whose Twitter exchange with Diane Abbott started the ‘storm’.

  2. What Fay said, sort of. But I think your points only hold for people who see themselves in yours and Fay’s position. I saw the tweet in real time, and it made me feel very uncomfortable, and yes, offended. In context, it did not read as Abbott later claimed it was intended, as a reference to ’19th C colonialism’. Rather, the tweet, and its hashtag appeared quite clearly to imply that “white people” (ie all of us) love (in the present tense) using #tacticsasoldascolonialism. It made me feel unfairly disparaged, and left me really hoping that it wasn’t what she meant.
    For anyone white who has experienced understandable race-based aggression (as I have), or who has perceived a race-based government bias against them (I’m thinking poor people in certain areas), I can see that it would feel quite frightening to have an establishment figure speaking like this, effectively endorsing indiscriminate anger against white people. It is the people on the street who stand to suffer from the effects of this endorsement, and it is incorrect, I feel, to call their protest ‘faux’. The fear is very real. And if we accept that one of the sources of racism (white on black) is fear, and one of the consequences is the Stephen Lawrence case, then Ms Abbott’s divisive tweet is really not the way to improve matters.
    It seems to me it’s akin to the fear (and resultant aggression) that feminism routinely arouses in men. The one group knows there is a legitimate grievance, even if the individual is not (or is not knowingly) a culprit, and fears being punished for the behaviour of other members of a group to which they cannot help belonging. Just as it is incorrect, unfair and unhelpful to say (for instance) that all men are sexist, it is equally so to say (as Dianne Abbott demonstrably did) that all white people are domineering or aggressive towards black people.
    That newspapers or political opponents sought disingenuously to exploit the situation does not detract from the fact that many people prior to media coverage were genuinely concerned or offended by what was said. To dismiss those people because they don’t feel as safe as you do would be wrong, I feel.

  3. Oh, and also, I think you are wrong on one point – ‘the society and the culture is not orientated to defend the subject of the abuse’ – surely this applies to black-on-white racism, not white-on-black. I think your article itself is proof of this!

  4. Here we are, drowning in an economic tsunami, and the hoary old bashing of colonialism is still around. Somebody should set up a think-tank to defend colonialism and even point out what good things it achieved. Imagine the uproar!

  5. “What have the Romans ever done for us?” is the artistic precedent.
    I think calling colonalism-bashing ‘hoary’. I think you under-estimate the deep scars on cultural/racial memory caused by the forced oppression of local people by an outside power. No current geo-political issue can be understood without reference to colonialism and neo-colonialism. For example, look how hard it is for the world to do anything meaningful on the uprisings in Syria. Why, because of the deep, generational suspicion that the Arab world has for the colonial powers. Waving your hand and pointing to the “good things” colonialism achieved does not change the fact that the bad things had deep social consequences.
    Also, although the comment does not imply this, I would also point out that liberal democracy, Rule of Law, etcetera, does not need to be left as a legacy of colonialism, nor imposed through neo-colonialism. It can evolve in other ways.

  6. No, Rob, I said white-on-black. Not what you said, in fact the opposite. The society and culture are not orientated to defend white people from black racists. Given the history, why would it be? But I think this is an important point you miss.

    1. Surely “White-on-Black” means white people being racist to black people?
      But I sort of half take your point. The society and culture may not have much experience in defending White people against black racism (as you say, why would it) but the society does have a healthy track record affirming White people (or men) as normal, healthy, and right. So the racism, when it does strike, is simply less powerful.

  7. Leaving aside the casual exclusion of half the population (including me) from your argument, I still think you are wrong. Racism where the culture is strongly orientated to defend against it is the one that’s going to be less powerful than racism where the culture is not only not orientated for it, but actively orientated in the opposite direction. Of course, this is mitigated by one group being in a minority (and this being reflected in the makeup of our institutions), but you only need to look at the backlash against the criticism of Diane Abbott to see that it’s much harder to challenge black-on-white racism than vice versa – precisely because of the history of white-on-black racism.

  8. And actually, not being bothered by Diane Abbott’s racism kind of equates to a tacit assertion that she’s not significant or powerful enough to constitute a threat. Which could potentially be seen as rather racist and dismissive in itself. Whether it’s because she is black, or because she’s female, or because she’s politically inconsequential, I think your post is basically saying ‘bothered’. Have I got that right?

  9. To be clear: When I say “or men” I don’t mean to causually exclude women from the argument about White racism. I am making a non-casual anaology between sexist prejudice and racist prejudice. The analogy would be with women being sexist towards men.
    I think we’re talking about two different types of ‘culture’ here. And therefore we disagree over whether the ‘culture’ is better placed to defend against white-on-black racism or black-or-white racism. If we take ‘culture’ to mean the overt politcial conversation in the twenty-first century, then I think you’re right: We discuss white-on-black racism much more, and the language has been developed to identify and condemn such racism. Black-on-white racism in this context is unexpected and not properly understood.
    However, in my post, I took ‘culture and society’ to be something broader and longitudinal. In that sense, it is undeniably orientated towards the affirmation and (for want of a better phrase) ‘bigging up’ of white people and men, at the expense of black people and women.
    Your point about my post basically boiling down to “meh” or “bothered” is well made. One reason for such a comment might well be that the listener considers the speaker to be so inconsequential that the racism has no effect. If so, then you’re right to percieve a dismissive attitude (although that does send us down a rabbit hole of offence and identity politics). However, an equally plausible reasons for such an attitude might be that the content of the racist statement is inconsequential. Diane Abbott gets dismissed because she said something obviously stupid, not because of her gender or skin colour.
    (The word ‘obviously’ in the sentence above is an interesting addition here. I think it is that word that betrays the supreme confidence in one’s place in society, that is the hallmark of the language of those belonging to privileged groups).
    I don’t deny that there are complex relationships at play here, between the racial identities of the interlocutors, and the content of the words spoken, so I might have missed something. But if I had, it only serves to reinforce the thought I was trying to pin down in the OP, which is that there is a contextual difference between white-on-black racism, and the reverse. A difference that Abbott’s most vocal critics seemed to be willfully neglecting, leading to the unexpected spectacle of a black woman being acused of racism during the public discussion of the Stephen Lawrence convictions.
    A final thought, which perhaps goes to show again how the two types of racism are different, and how the ‘culture and society’ protects the white man’s back: Just look at the actual content of the racist messages. When black people are the victims of prejudice, they are accused of being stupid and sub-human. At worst: Slaves. At best: Less capable. Contrast this with the ‘racism’ against white people: Dianne Abbott accuses us of being Colonialists and Oppressors. This does ascribe bad attributes to white people, but still places them in a position of power and superiority. As such, it is an easier slur to shrug off, and if the insult were internalised, it would not have the same effect as someone coming to believe they were worth less, as ‘traditional’ white-on-black racism achieves.
    I am reading Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetary at the moment, so to finish, I will note is that Jewish people manage (uniquely) to be the victims of both kinds of racism. They are/were frequently depicted as sub-human, yet are also accused of oppression and colonialism (Protocols of The Elders of Zion, &ct.)

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