Diane Abbott racism non-story

// 5 January 2012

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photo of black and white chess pieces on a chess board with a red background

MP Diane Abbott has been forced to apologise for a tweet she sent yesterday during a discussion with journalist Bim Adewunmi about the use of the terms “the black community” and “black community leaders” in the media. The offending tweet read:

White people love playing ‘divide & rule’. We should not play their game #tacticasoldascolonialism

Cue outrage about this apparent racism…

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said Ms Abbott’s comments on twitter were a “stupid and crass generalisation” and that she should apologise and explain her remarks.

Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi told BBC Radio 5 live: “This is racism. If this was a white Member of Parliament saying that all black people want to do bad things to us he would have resigned within the hour or be sacked. For a shadow minister to hold these sort of views is intolerable, it is wrong, she needs to go.”

…followed by me spluttering obscenities at the World at One over my cheese on toast. This seems to me a classic example of mistaking a description of oppression and discrimination for oppression and discrimination itself. It is a fact that white people have historically played “divide and rule” in order to further and retain their position of power and privilege. And it is a fact that this tactic continues to this day in the UK, albeit in less grandiose ways than the enslavement of entire nations. The disproportionate use of stop and search powers against black youths is just one example of this.

These facts do not mean that every single white person jumps out of bed in the morning and marches out the door determined to do battle with any non-white faces they come across. But in order to tackle racism, activists like Diane Abbott need to be able to name and describe it, and that means making statements about white people’s behaviour and attitudes towards black people. It’s no different from feminists making statements about “male violence against women” – it’s a gendered issue, so we name the problem (men’s violence) in order that we can address it. This doesn’t mean that every single man commits violence against women.

These kind of descriptions of oppressive behaviour do not in themselves further any kind of oppression. How exactly are white people being harmed by Diane Abbott’s comment? If white people had historically been oppressed in the UK, and one of the ways in which this oppression was maintained was through the propagation of the stereotype of whites as malicious, nasty people who love to cause rifts and lord it over other people, and this stereotype was used to justify laws preventing them from standing as members of parliament or sharing public transport with non-white people, THEN Abbott’s comment would be racist and discriminatory. THEN Nadhim Zahawi’s comparison with a white MP saying that all black people want to do bad things to white people would make sense.

However, this is not the case. It is black people who have suffered and continue to suffer racist discrimination, not white people, and his comment ranks among the most ill-thought-out and opportunist I’ve heard for quite some time. That Abbott was apparently forced into deleting her comment by a white, male party leader who “made it very clear in no uncertain terms that the contents of the tweet were unacceptable” just makes my skin crawl.

Photo by wolf 359, shared under a Creative Commons Licence.

Comments From You

Suzie // Posted 5 January 2012 at 4:34 pm

I’m so glad I wasn’t alone in not seeing any racism in her comments, it is reminiscent of feminists being accused of sexism. I think it would have been better had she said “There are white people who…” to avoid generalisation, but even as it is I found nothing racist about the tweet.

Black people have been enslaved and oppressed by white people in the past, and racism against black people still goes on today. It seems rediculous that a woman who is disatisfied with the way she is treated because of her colour should have to pussyfoot around a majority, who experience certain privilidges based on their colour.

Caron Lindsay // Posted 5 January 2012 at 4:50 pm

Frankly I’m much more concerned with the Labour Party’s reaction than with what Diane said in the first place. We all know that she isn’t a racist. Ed Miliband’s had a bad week, so he clearly felt that he had to be strong – so he sent Chuka Umunna out to tell her off publicly. For all sorts of reasons, that makes me furious.

Giles // Posted 5 January 2012 at 6:21 pm

I think there is definitely a lot of discrimination out there and it tends to flow from men to women and white people to black people however to say it is just that is an over simplification. Moreover there are plenty of white people who are not racist or sexist so making statements about white people as a whole or men as a whole is very counter productive and also divisive.

Maybe it’s a linguistic issue. If I say ‘men are rapists’ do I mean some, all or most?

If I said ‘Black people are lazy drug dealers’ it would definitely come across as racist although of course some are but then again so are some white people. Being lazy and dealing drugs is not a trait specific to black people.

Dianne could easily have clarified her statement by saying she meant ‘some’ she could have done that afterwards without climbing down or even apologising. I’m confused as to why she didn’t. For her to claim she was talking about 19thC colonialism is disingenuous IMO she was quite clearly referring to it in the context of the 21stC.

Alasdair // Posted 5 January 2012 at 6:32 pm

There’s also a good commentary on this one here: http://33revolutionsperminute.wordpress.com/2012/01/05/racism-vs-racism-why-diane-abbott-was-right/

Tesiro Inspired // Posted 5 January 2012 at 6:56 pm

What on earth is the point of forcing someone to delete a tweet that thousands or more can quote of head by the end of the day!??

Laura // Posted 5 January 2012 at 9:23 pm

@ Giles: I think making statements about white people as a whole (or men as a whole, able-bodied people as a whole, straight people as a whole etc.) is necessary in order to show how one class of people can oppress another or enjoy privilege over another based on their race, class, sex etc. Generalisations enable us to identify oppression, point the finger at the oppressor and work towards eradicating that oppression. And while not every member of that group may be guilty of directly furthering that oppression, their position in society will be affected by it. As a white person, I benefit from certain privileges that are a result of other white people’s historic and ongoing discrimination against black people and therefore, like it or not, I am part of a group that has a higher social status because of my skin colour.

When I read Diane Abbott’s comment about white people oppressing black people, I can choose to get all angry and outraged and accuse her of being a racist, or I can recognise that while her statement may not apply directly to me, it describes a general truth, a truth that is uncomfortable for me as a white person, and I can choose to act upon it by challenging racism and white privilege in both myself and those around me. If white people don’t like what she’s saying, the answer is to step up and change society so that her statement is no longer applicable, not to complain that our poor little white person feelings have been hurt because she didn’t phrase her sentence in just the right way to exclude those of us who don’t go around being overtly racist. Like it or not, all white people benefit from racism, and we therefore all have a responsibility to tackle it. Calling a black woman who highlights a historical and ongoing form of racial discrimination a racist is not going to help anyone.

The phrase “Black people are lazy drug dealers” is offensive and discriminatory in a way that “white people love playing divide and rule” is not. It accuses black people of being a particular stereotype that is repeatedly used to justify discriminatory treatment(such as the stop and searches I mentioned in my post), reinforcing a racist trope that in turn reinforces the racist structure of our society. Pointing out that white people, as a social group, have taken pleasure in dividing and ruling black people, is merely highlighting a factual social trend. It doesn’t harm white people because it isn’t an idea that is used to discriminate against us. One black woman speaking out about the behaviour of white people isn’t going to hurt us – the fact that the white men who run the country have rallied round to shut her up is evidence of that.

nilsinela boray // Posted 5 January 2012 at 11:07 pm

I like Diane Abbott and I know and appreciate where she was coming from with her now deleted tweet – I follow her, and it popped up in my timeline – admittedly I didn’t catch it until I saw it RT’d a little later.

But what she meant, and what she said aren’t the same thing. She’s a Shadow Cabinet member, and really needs to be more careful.

You ask the rhetorical question “If white people had historically been oppressed in the UK …” – well I can answer that – white people have historically been oppressed – what about Irish people ? What about travellers ? What about Jews ? What about Catholics ? What about working people ? what about the poor ?

And lest we forget – What about white women ?

If you look at attainment figures for school children in Inner City schools the most signifcantly under performing grouping are White British boys, on free school meals. Now how do you help those people ? By telling them that they should have collective guilt over their colonial ancestors’ Divide & Rule tactics against black people ?

Although it’s difficult to see how many white people could be truly offended by Diane’s statement, by the definition in the MacPherson Report : “any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.” it’s very clear that this could, with some degree of reasonableness, be construed as a racist incident.

Diane Abbott of all people, after all she has done to challenge racism, should be aware of this.

What made me angry by what she said, was that she has played right into the hands of the racists, and indeed those white people (and black people) in positions of power who seek to divide and rule to maintain their own power base – there are plenty of them, but I’m certainly not one of them.

As a result, a day which should have been one when the headlines were dominated by the sentencing of Stephen Lawrence’s killers, ended up being dominated by Diane Abbott’s ill considered comments.

She was caught bang to rights, and to try to defend her as this site has done, is to risk further the ridicule and spite of the real racists out there, and to legitimate their snide accusations.

She made a serious error – she will have to live with it, and so will we.

sortedinnit // Posted 6 January 2012 at 6:28 am


” I can choose to get all angry and outraged and accuse her of being a racist, or I can recognise that while her statement may not apply directly to me, it describes a general truth”..


One could do a bit of both (or neither). I think it’s entirely permissible to point out that making a sweeping generalisation about the behaviour of a group of people based on their skin colour IS RACIST. It just is. However, that’s not to say that Diane doesn’t have a point too. I think it’s ok to support the gist of what she is saying but also to pull her up on the stuff she says that is a bit racist. That’s what having grown-up conversations is about. It isn’t all or nothing.

It is also worth remembering that Diane is an MP. She’s paid to do that job and it includes representing her constituents, of all races and creeds. I don’t think it’s unreasonable under the circumstances to expect her to show a bit of sensitivity and thoughfulness. Or even just a bit of political savvy to be honest.

Laura // Posted 6 January 2012 at 8:47 am

@ nilsinela boray: I meant if white people had historically been oppressed in the UK because they are white. Being oppressed because you are Jewish, Catholic, female or working class are different issues. And suffering oppression based on your religion, sex or class does not mean you don’t have white privilege.

White British boys aren’t under performing due to racism – there are different issues at play there. It’s perfectly possible to help them by addressing these issues while also encouraging them to acknowledge white privilege and fight against the racism that causes it.

Shadow // Posted 6 January 2012 at 10:25 am

Storm in a teacup because Diane Abbott dared to speak the truth and white men saw this as an opportunity to deflect attention away from the real issues. Ed Milliband enacted his white male power by telling Diane Abbott to apologise. Malestream media too saw this non story as good ‘news’ thereby ensuring once again the real issues are rendered invisible.

One only has to see how white malestream media covered the Steven Lawrence convictions to see it was once again a case of ‘divide and rule.’ Meaning white men sought to portray themselves as the ‘good guys’ and conveniently ignored the years and years of police racism and refusal to thoroughly investigate this case when it first occurred.

Giles // Posted 6 January 2012 at 10:37 am

@ Laura I think the problem with your position is you seem to be justifying making discriminatory statements about on the basis of your view of historical and current imbalances between various groups (men women, black white &c). Although I probably agree at least to an extent with what you feel these imbalances are that isn’t the point. Racists have a different view of these imbalances so for them by your argument their discriminatory statements are justified. To make matters worse in some cases, in particular circumstances they might have a a point. Just because historically whites have oppressed blacks on one particular housing estate or street they might have grounds for feeling it is the other way round. Surely it’s wrong to make blanket statements about entire groups of people per se unless they are true.

I cannot see how people can argue against racism/sexism etc while justifying remarks about groups of people on the grounds of their skin colour and gender.

To say whites (as a group) oppress blacks (as a group) is very different from making a blanket statement about white people.

Havibng said all that I am not offended in any way (maybe because I am a white male oppressor :) ) I just think it’s an interesting issue (possibly because of my privileged educated background)

Ms. Sunlight // Posted 7 January 2012 at 1:03 pm

I wasn’t offended by Diane Abbott’s comments; although I feel it was clumsily expressed (and completely ignored the class element of colonial oppression) I knew what she was trying to say. It’s absolutely right to point the finger, because white privilege is real, colonialism is real, economic exploitation is real and all of these things still exist today.

The problem is, Ms. Abbott does have an unfortunate history of saying things that sound racist. You know, like the thing about West Indian mums, or the thing about Swedish nurses. For someone who’s been in the politics game as long as she has, it’s disappointing that she’s still shoving her foot in her mouth when she knows that elements in politics and the media will jump all over it and use it as an excuse to push their own agenda.

In short, she may not have been wrong, but it’s still not bloody helpful.

nilsinela boray // Posted 7 January 2012 at 7:32 pm

@Laura Woodhouse I know what you meant. Just as I knew what Diane meant – but just like her, what you meant isn’t what you said. In the context of a blog such as this that’s not really a problem, but in the context of a Shadow minister saying it in public, it’s really slack. By defending her mistake we end up making ourselves look ridiculous better to admit it was wrong and move forward.

@Shadow you answer one blanket generalisation with another. Why was it white MEN that “saw this as an opportunity …” ? Louise Mensch was one of the quickest out of the blocks on this – she’s not a man. Ed Miliband wasn’t exacting his white male power either – he was doing his job as democratically elected leader of the party. Elected in an election that Diane Abbott was a defeated candidate.

I don’t doubt for a second that many people are making mileage out of this storm in a teacup unfairly (sorry if I’m mixing too many metaphors). I don’t doubt either that many of them are white and male,possibly the majority, and that those who aren’t are wittingly or unwittingly propping up a status quo that is inherently sexist & racist.

But I’m a white man, and I don’t do those things wittingly, and I examine my own actions to prevent myself from doing so unwittingly. I joined the Labour Party, partly in order to start to dismantle the status quo which I mentioned.

Your sweeping comments on “white men” and “malestream” are hurtful, and unhelpful.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 8 January 2012 at 1:15 pm

I think there is an assumption here that a statement that generalises on grounds of race is in and of itself racist. And, I am not sure that is true. I would suggest that racism can only exist where there is a pre-existing power relationship and racism flows from the dominant group to the oppressed and not in reverse. This is not to say that oppressed groups cannot hate people of other races, stereotype them, or say insulting things about them, but is it racism? I would say no. The power relationship is essential to racism having any meaning.

gadgetgal // Posted 8 January 2012 at 1:17 pm

Something that you didn’t go into in the post but that I think is relevant is the actual reporting itself and the importance that the media has placed on it – on the BBC website for two whole days it was the number one news story. This is usually (in the case of a political faux pas) reserved for someone in a position of some kind of power, not the shadow cabinet health minister. I can think of so many cases of racism that have happened (including the recent appearance of a Conservative MP at a Nazi-themed stag do, which is decidedly more offensive and damaging) that never made the top story spot that it just seems a little suspect to me that this has made such huge headlines. Wonder why that could be?

Jaime // Posted 8 January 2012 at 4:13 pm

I didn’t find it racist and ignored it as people pretending to be offended for the sake of causing drama. However Bim Adewunmi’s article in the Guardian gave the context of the tweet which seems problematic as I took it as Abbott accusing Adewunmi of being no better than racist white people for daring to question her authority/opinion which in effect is an attempt to silence Adewunmi.

gadgetgal // Posted 8 January 2012 at 8:27 pm

@Jaime – I didn’t get that same feeling, more that Diane Abbott was saying she felt that Bim Adewunmi was playing into the white majority’s hands by talking about how the black community isn’t a giant monolith. She wasn’t disagreeing with her, as clearly what Adewunmi was saying was correct, she was just pointing out that by tweeting it in that instance it might do more harm than good. There are valid points to either side of that argument, and although public it’s really for them to discuss, not me to add my two pennies to. I thought Bim Adewunmi’s article for the Guardian was really good as it ended pointing out that in all the rage over some random tweets everyone seemed to forget what the conversation was about, namely Stephen Lawrence and the fact that society is STILL not equal. Worth taking a look: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/jan/05/diane-abbott-twitter-row-racism

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