The Dialectics of Diane Abbott

Diane Abbott is the politician who best exemplifies the very different conversations about race that go on in the country even among people who profess similar values and beliefs. Consider the two statements below:

Diane Abbott has had a bad election. She’s conducted a couple of car-crash interviews that may or may not have been influenced by the illness that has caused her to step away from the role of shadow Home Secretary. Any politician who had performed so badly should  expect mockery, especially in the run up to an election.

Diane Abbott has been the recipient of a campaign of misogyny and racism that long predates the election but was ramped up in the run up to polling day. Racist and misogynistic attitudes (misogynoir) have absolutely affected the way she has been treated.

How can we square one these two attitudes?

It is telling that we even feel we need to. I have spent the day having conversations with a number of people with whom I share differing degrees of political territory. None of whom are radically right wing and none of whom have ever given me any indication they hold any genuine racist or misogynistic attitudes. To be clear, on the off chance any of them read this, I still believe that today.

Nonetheless I still believe they are wrong when they express only a version of the first statement and dismiss some version of the second. Several times someone has pointed out to me that Diane Abbott has simply been picked on because she is the weak link in the cabinet. That’s why Boris kept trying to crowbar her into his interview on the Today Program.

Thats why she features so prominently in Tory literature despite their being a number of other MPs that also make good RW character-assassination fodder.

But mockery of John McDonnell doesn’t cut through the same way.

Well that maybe, but that is not simply because she has made some gaffs. It’s because those gaffs feed into a well established narrative that has portrayed Abbott as stupid, lazy, uncouth and unreliable. Amber Rudd, Boris Johnson, Damien Green and even the notoriously camera shy Theresa May have all had shocking interviews this election. None have been picked up and amplified in anything like the way that Diane Abbott’s have.

In between Abbott’s now notorious interviews Jeremy Corbyn had a car-crash interview in which he flubbed the details of his own childcare policy. The story got nothing like the coverage that Abbott’s did.

In the day she stepped aside, an hour after the announcement George Osborne proudly tweeted an Evening Standard cartoon mocking Abbott for cancelling engagements  due to  ill-health.

In February David Davis tried to kiss Diane Abbott in the Commons bar. Much of the press the next day was full of stories about Abbott telling him to fuck-off. Not about Davis being an entitled, boorish, creep.

I’m not saying no other politicians get mocked, or get caricatured, or get unfair reporting, but Abbott gets all of it. And it is notable that while I haven’t had to debate this with all my white, male friends, all the friends I’ve had to debate this with have been white and male.

In 2012 Diane Abbott tweeted “White people love playing divide and rule, we should not let them. #tacticasoldascolonialism”. The result was an outcry. Whether or not she should’ve said is not the key issue here. (FWIW given the limits of twitter I don’t think it was a good idea). What was stark to me was how completely separate the conversations it sparked where, and how ethnically divided.

I frequently found myself encountering the same questions when discussing it:

Why was she tarring all white people with that brush? Wasn’t that racism? Why bring up the empire it was so long ago? Surely they couldn’t be held responsible for what happened before they were born? Why divide white people from ethnic minorities? Wasn’t that needlessly divisive?

Abbott’s comments were in keeping with many I’ve heard from BME people of hers and my  dad’s generation. “White people”is a fairly common stand-in for the empire when time or space make brevity an advantage, and colonialism is a common touch stone in discussion of race and politics. White people is also a description of people at the  top of an ethnically stratified power dynamic, and doesn’t refer to absolutely all people of that ethnicity, colonialism is the basis and driving force behind that dynamic. It’s really not that long ago.

Again, not every conversation with a white interlocutor involved explaining this background, but all conversations that required it, where with a white interlocutor.

Similarly, in conversations about Abbott’s treatment over the election, BME friends and colleagues automatically place it in a wider context. This context treats it as axiomatic that politicians who are Black, and politicians who are women will get punished for being in the public eye, in a way that politicians who are male or white will not. It’s not that no white people I’ve discussed it with have seen this context, but the clear majority of BME people I’ve spoken to have. There is a feeling that you can’t play the sort of role that Diane Abbott has played, as a Black woman and not get treated this way.

I would reiterate I think it’s perfectly possible to be critical of Diane Abbott’s performance without being racist or misogynistic, and I don’t think any of the people I’ve been debating with today are either of those things.

There have been, already a slew of articles debating this point so perhaps this one is extraneous. But it strikes me as telling that even people who seem to agree on race, often dont seem to be speaking the same language.