The media storm Hackney MP Diane Abbott caused last week as a result of her ‘divide and rule’ comment on Twitter is indicative of the ways in which Britain’s political elite is still able to turn issues of race and racism to its advantage and brush the lived reality of so many black Britons under the carpet.
When Diane Abbott tweeted: “White people love playing ‘divide & rule’ We should not play their game #tacticasoldascolonialism”, she was not referring to 19th century colonialism, which is what she later said to defend her comment. Firstly, if that were the case she would have put the sentence in the past tense. Secondly, the tweet came as part of a conversation about present day politics with Hackney based freelance journalist Bim Adewunmi, who had expressed concern to Abbott about what she perceived to be the red herring ‘black community’.
Conservative blogger Harry Cole, who at times also refers to himself as a journalist, eloquently summed up the deep pain and outrage felt by white people as a result of Abbott’s tweet in his debate with race and human rights activist Lee Jasper on Sky News. He told viewers that Abbott’s comments were derogatory to an entire ethnic group, based on the colour of their skin. Indeed, Cole pointed out, racism works both ways and should not have been used as a political tool by the opportunistic Hackney MP.
Whilst Lee Jasper did a good job of defending Diane Abbott’s record as anti-racist campaigner, he did not attack Cole’s positioning as a victim of a racist jibe, or the notion that white people can also be the victims of racism. He simply laughed, shook his head and said: “Dear, oh dear, oh dear”, which perhaps, in that setting, was the appropriate reaction to Cole’s phony outrage.
But the point needs to be made. In a society where whiteness is the norm and racial otherness – being black, Asian, or Muslim – is still seen as irreconcilable with mainstream Britishness, the notion of anti-white racism rings hollow.
Because its wording is so much more lucid than I could ever put it, I will quote a definition of racism as it appeared in an article in the Guardian last week.
“Racism is the systemic discrimination of whole groups of people cast as outsiders, deemed incapable of full incorporation into society, and treated with suspicion on this basis. It has a deep and lasting effect on individuals’ life chances and consequent wellbeing, and is damaging to the social fabric as a whole.”
The crucial bit follows:
“For all the equivalences drawn between clumsy and prejudicial references to skin colour, racism is inherently political; it requires the power to contribute to racial oppression.”
Do people of colour in Britain have the power to exercise racial oppression over whites? No. Can a black person generalise about white people? Obviously. Is the hurt caused by such a generalisation felt by a white person equivalent to that felt by a black person? Most definitely not.
Diane Abbott’s tweet must be read not as a generalisation about white people, but as coming from a place of honesty and anger over the present state of race politics in Britain. The choice of the term ‘white people’ was far from smart for an MP whose constituency is 61 per cent white, but surely the general idea behind the tweet was historically accurate?
It is unfortunate that those defending Abbott in the media did not make this point. And it is a shame that Abbott, in the media storm that ensued, was forced to backtrack and apologise. Because rather than using this opportunity to talk about racism, its history and its current manifestations, the political establishment posited themselves as victims of a crude generalisation without regard to the context and sentiment of Abbott’s comment. The underlying context of racism Abbott was referring to in her tweet was neatly brushed under the carpet.
The Abbott affair shows that people of colour are in a no-win situation when it comes to getting racism discussed as a lived reality in Britain today. In the case of Stephen Lawrence, there was an acknowledgement of racial injustice, but it was is partial and served after 18 years, largely because of the determination of a single woman, Doreen Lawrence. It is unknown to most Britons that there are countless black mothers like Doreen out there, like those seeking justice for the deaths of sons and daughters at the hands of police officers – singer Smiley Culture and Tottenham’s Mark Duggan being prominent examples of the last year.
The media hype dubbed ‘Abbottgate’ revealed that when a black MP, in her position as community leader, speaks from a place of anger and honesty to one of her constituents, she is hung out to dry and accused of exactly the thing she has been campaigning against all her life.
Diane Abbott merely pointed to the fact that Britain today is still a racist place. The question is – what would it mean to have an actual multiculturalism where the grievances of people of colour around racism are acknowledged and discussed in the same way as issues around education, housing and healthcare? It would certainly upset existing racial hierarchies in society. We are a long way off that scenario, but a good look into divide and rule strategies in British society today may be a good place to continue that process.