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Turning the tables on racism – the case of Diane Abbott

Diane Abbott, the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, happens to be black.  She also happens to be standing in the Labour leadership contest, which is why she found herself on the other side of a grilling from Andrew Neil on the nightly news show This Week.  Along with questions about her expenses as an MP she faced questions about her alleged racism.

The basis for these questions stem from what many have called her hypocrisy for having sent her son to a private school after having roundly denounced other MPs and Ministers for doing the same.  This was, admittedly, some years ago but she has never satisfactorily put the matter to bed so it was inevitable that the subject would be revisited in light of her campaign for the Labour leadership.  

Abbot in response to more recent questions answered: “West Indian mums go to the wall for their kids”.  A handful of words that has caused her no end of pain if her squirming on the red sofa next to Michael Portillo is anything to go by.  She may well have cause for regret but not necessarily for the reasons that Andrew Neil and other journalists might have hoped for.

Commentators were quick to throw at Abbott what for them must have seemed like an obvious riposte.  It was put to her that if she was saying that West Indian mums would go to the wall for their children, surely she was saying that white mums would not, in which case, was she not being racist?  Well, inferences can be easily drawn but Abbot was quite specific in what she said and she did not say black mums, she said West Indian mums, for which there is a world of difference.  What Abbot failed to do was to give any context to the statement, doing a disservice not only to herself but also to the West Indian mums she was referring to.  But what was more surprising was the apparent glee of commentators who delighted in taking on the role of accuser. Take Douglas Murray’s blog in the Daily Telegraph for example.  He writes:

‘For years people like Abbott, who have built their careers on the simple chance of their skin pigmentation, have flung around accusations of “racism” while making the most outrageously racist comments themselves.’

You can read the full post here.

Abbott’s comments were hardly outrageous but surely Murray’s are.  ‘People like Abbott!’  He means, of course, black people whom he accuses of profiteering in someway from their incidental hue while remaining immune from the charge of racism, a charge they cynically level at others.

It reminds me of a friend of mine who was dating a black woman whom he professed to be thoroughly and deeply in love with but for whom he had one single, constant complaint: “It wasn’t fair,” he would say, “that she’s able to accuse me of racism when I can’t do the same to her.  It’s something that will always be hanging over us”.  Needless to say the relationship didn’t last.

There was unmistakeable delight too from Neil when he asked why, if West Indian mums are as wonderful as Abbott says, there are so many dysfunctional West Indian families in the country?  He presented no evidence for this, leaving only the broad-brush of a statement that serves only to suggest that to be West Indian is to be socially impaired in some way.

The irony of course, is that in their apparent attempt to turn the tables on Abbott, they themselves succumb to the very thing they accuse her of: racism.

For the sake of the Murray’s of this world, no one or group in society is immune from the charge of racism.  To be black or Asian, or Chinese or to be from any other ethnic minority or cultural group means only to be more likely to have experienced racism.  And it is hardly an experience to delight in.

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  • Catherine Butler

    Thanks for this insightful view on race and racism and how it is being thrust into Abbott’s face, on account of her being the only black candidate for Labour leader. I would add that the other thing that sets her apart is of course her gender. Which of the male leaders has been quizzed on their position on fatherhood and raising children? It would be refreshing if interview questions focused on her politics rather than her race and gender – I don’t hold much hope for her winning when people can’t see beyond the end of their noses.

    • Writehandmedia

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. You’re spot on of course. In many ways, it’s become acceptable for women in politics to be questioned about things that their male counterparts will never be called upon to answer. Expectations for them are different. There’s a long way to go before we get equality in politics.

  • Marion Schumann

    What an excellent article Sonya and i must say it is brave of Diane Abbot to throw herself into the ring for Leader of the Labour Party. What guts,what spirit! Having being in politics myself in the past, i soon learned that there are many people out there ready to stab you in the back, look at your past,any activities, or comments made to throw back at you. People in politics deliberatley make what could a respected profession into something nasty, why? After 4 yrs of being a Lambeth Councillor, i decided to leave full time poilitcs, after we lost Lambeth to the Lib Dems in 1994. During my time i met some nice people, cross party political lines, but there was always a group of power hungry, politcos, unaware of the world around, inexperienced of normal day to day living and even ignorant of the diverse people they were supposed to be serving, more interested in their political careers and their overflated egos, i decided to escape. SHAME! As i love politics, live and breathe it, and will do until my last breath. But to throw myself out there again, NO WAY. I know Diane will not win, the Labour Party is not taking on RACE, presently, bearing in mind all the good things done by the party on Race issues over the last 40yrs, yes i know there are gaps, but one has to start somewhere! Look at Labour’s record on Race compared to the Tories or the Lib Dems, strides have been made by the Party, but not all Party Members have been keen to take appropriate action. I also admire Oona King wanting to take on Ken Livingsone, i do not think she will win either, but wish her the very best. Are Diane and Oona spurred on by Barack Obama’s success on becoming the first Black (or Mixed Race) President of the USA? Now if you think we will get a Black British Prime-Minister in the next 20yrs, don’t hold your breath!!!
    Marion Schumann

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