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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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