What Abbottgate tells us about race in Britain
Diane Abbott has, sort of, apologised. The furious tweets of thousands offended by her generalisations about ‘white people’ made no difference – perhaps because she set about blocking those of us who tweeted her – but Ed Miliband ringing her live on Sky News was enough to wrap her tongue around the word ‘sorry’. Good. I don’t think she should be sacked. I don’t believe she should be hounded further. I believe – instead – that she should be left to the obscurity of her Public Health brief. But the tweet, and the furor surrounding it, tells us something about race in modern Britain, and points the way to a healthier debate about what racism is in our society.
The problem of suggesting that ‘white people love to divide and rule’ is a distraction from Abbott’s real crime. She shouldn’t have said it; it was offensive. But it was what preceded the remark that really shocks. Slapping down a young black journalist for daring to suggest that many so-called ‘community leaders’ didn’t speak for her, Abbott argued that the ‘black community’ shouldn’t wash its dirty linen in public. That’s what’s wrong with Abbott’s attitude because, crucially, washing their dirty linen in public is absolutely what the black community should be doing. It’s what we should all be doing.
Ethnic minority Britons shouldn’t be expected to decide their aspirations, desires, needs and wants behind closed doors. They shouldn’t be asked to enter the public and political realm as a block, subsuming individual, class and family beliefs to some greater good built solely from their ethnicity. Britain benefits from confident and proud individuals of mixed heritage and diverse backgrounds but we all suffer from the politics of group-interest; leaders like Diane Abbott seek to trade-unionise ethnicities, to treat them as homogenous blocks. If we are to break the hold that self-anointed representatives of BME groups have on political debate, if we are to allow black people, Muslims, Jews and Asians to speak for themselves, then we must allow members of those communities to speak out, to argue with one another and to debate. And those of us who are white must be able to comment too – without fear of being labelled ‘racist’ or neo-colonial.
Darcus Howe tellingly informed Newsnight, in their debate on Abbott’s conduct, that the black MP was important because she can ‘understand black people’. Here’s the thing, until it is accepted that white people can understand black people just as well as a Cambridge-educated member of their ethnic group, racism in Britain will never be truly dead.