There are all sorts of things to be said about Diane Abbot’s comments, and the political blogosphere – back from the Christmas break and looking for things to be loudly and unilluminatingly opinionated about – has said most of them. But this whole storm-in-a-twitter-feed is proceeding on the assumption that Ms Abbott made a racist generalisation about white people, and no-one seems to have stopped and analysed what she actually said – not the implications, not the nuances, not the endlessly-debated ‘context’, but the actual words she used. So, here’s the actual tweet:
All white people love playing ‘divide & rule’
Likewise, you’ll note she didn’t write
Some white people love playing ‘divide & rule’
That first option would be an unambiguously racist generalisation, and the second would unambiguously refute the racist generalisation, but she didn’t write either of those things. What she actually wrote –
White people love playing ‘divide & rule’
– is neither unambiguously racist nor unambiguously non-racist. It’s possible she is using ‘white people’ to mean all white people, and it’s possible she’s using ‘white people’ to mean some white people (or ‘most white people’, or ‘a few white people’, or a very large range of other possibilities). The statement as written is ambiguous – and typical of the kind of telegramese that the 140-character limit on Twitter promotes.
Certainly, this wording raises the distinct possibility of a racist generalisation, and for that reason Ms Abbott would have been wise to avoid it, and people reading it are entitled to conclude that the statement is potentially racist, and to ask her to clarify whether or not she intended to make a general statement about white people. But jumping to the conclusion that the statement definitely is racist is unwarranted. And pretending that the failure to explicitly refute the racist generalisation indicates racism was intended is disingenuous, since it ignores the abbreviated, terse style everyone knows is typical of statements made via Twitter.
Speaking as a white person (albeit one who is a good old mix of different nationalities, including that of a grandparent who arrived in this country as a refugee), I have to say I was not offended by the potential racism in Ms Abbott’s comment. I agree it was potentially racist, and I take note of that, but I didn’t and don’t feel any offence – in part because I know as a white person I’m extremely unlikely to suffer any negative consequences as a result of anti-white racism. It’s not that I excuse or condone any form of racism – I don’t – but I do think it’s ludicrous to pretend that, as things stand, black-on-white racism is an equivalent problem to white-on-black racism.
In so far as the comment bothers me at all, I’m irritated by the apparent misunderstanding of the colonial doctrine of ‘divide and rule’. The aim was not, as Ms Abbott seems to think, that colonised peoples within the British empire would fight amongst themselves, and hence their struggle against colonialism would be blunted; the aim was that, encouraged to fight amongst themselves, colonised peoples would come to believe they were unable to resolve their own differences, and were thus dependent on the colonial power to act as a ‘neutral’ arbiter and guarantor of peace and stability. (The difference is worth insisting on, because while you won’t find many people arguing for the kind of underhand political techniques that the first version of ‘divide and rule’ would represent, you’ll find rather more people arguing that the British empire was a force for good because it contained and limited conflict in colonised parts of the world – without considering the possibility that the conflicts were caused or exacerbated by colonialism in the first place.)
And I guess, rather less relevantly, I’m also vicariously annoyed on behalf of Bim Adewunmi, the person Diane Abbott was having a discussion with when she made her controversial remarks. So far as this outsider can tell, it seems unlikely that there’s any such thing as a single, homogenous ‘black community’ (certainly as a white gay man I know there’s no such thing as a single, homogenous ‘gay community’ or a single, homogenous ‘white community’ – for just one example, some white people are intensely homophobic, while others amongst us aren’t). Groups of individuals may have certain things in common, and may benefit from pooling their political efforts, but that doesn’t mean they have the same experiences and opinions, or that the same few ‘community leaders’ can speak on their behalf. Even if Ms Abbott disagrees, suggesting that, by making this point, Ms Adewunmi has fallen victim to ‘#tacticsasoldascolonialism’ seems to me to be a little heavy-handed.
But I wasn’t the intended recipient of the remarks, so what do I know? Please don’t attach any significance to my ‘vicarious annoyance’, or mistake it for the real thing. God knows I don’t.