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…