Let's not pretend that Diane Abbott's comments were genuine racism

The MP was stupid to refer to "white people", but her tweet has been taken out of context.

Another day, another Twitterstorm - this time a "race row" involving Diane Abbott.

The Hackney MP tweeted "white people love playing "divide and rule". We should not play their game #tacticasoldascolonialism".

Conservative blogs have called for her resignation. Over at ConservativeHome, Paul Goodman writes:

Imagine how the Guardian or the BBC would react if a Conservative MP said that "black people love playing 'divide and rule' ".

They would be right to do so. Such an MP would be maligning their fellow citizens on a racist basis. This is exactly what Abbott has done.

I'm sorry, but this is disingenuous for a number of reasons.

Firstly, let's take the facts. As is standard practice in any good Twitterstorm, the comment in question has been completely divorced of its context. Abbott did not make a cup of tea, sit down at her computer, and think: "Do you know what? I think I'll malign white people now."

As the hashtag referencing colonialism shows, the comment was made in the context of a political discussion: namely, criticism of black community leaders. The use of the term "white people" here is distinguishing from "black people". She was responding to this tweet: "I find it frustrating that half the time, these leaders are out of touch with black people they purport to represent." Black people/white people.

Abbott's choice of words was clumsy , and as an MP she should be more careful. But in this discussion, she is clearly referring to "white people" as a political force in the context of colonialism, not making generalisations about the behaviour of individual white people. Her comments aren't equivalent to, for example, Lauryn Hill supposedly saying that she didn't want "white people" to buy her records.

There is no question that she shouldn't have used such a generalised term, which is highly open to misinterpretation. However, the ConHome blog goes so far as to say she has "deliberately provoked hatred of a racial group, and is therefore in breach of the 1986 Public Order Act."

Quite apart from the fact that the comment is clearly not inciting racial hatred, the hypothetical white Conservative MP referring to "black people" cannot be a direct comparison. When one racial group is so dominant, both numerically (in Britain) and politically (worldwide), pejorative language simply does not have the same power or resonance. Hence words like "honky" or "goora" (a Hindi word for "white") do not have the same brutal power as words like "nigger" or "Paki". Most of those tweeting outrage are white and will not have experienced the pain that such words and the assumptions that go with them can inflict.

Abbott's choice of wording was stupid. It has offended people, and she should apologise, particularly given her role as an elected representative. Indeed, ethnic minorities have a duty to make sure they don't fall into the same trap as the racism they are working against by making lazy generalisations about "white people". But that legislation exists not just because of the words -- "black people", "Asians", "Jews" -- but because of the centuries of oppression and huge tide of contemporary racism that those words, and the way they are used, represent. This outrage has a hint of tit-for-tat -- "we're not allowed to say these things, so why should you be allowed to?" Let's not pretend, though, that what Abbott actually said is as serious as most instances of racism we see in public life.


UPDATE: Abbott has apologised:

"I understand people have interpreted my comments as making generalisations about white people. I do not believe in doing that. I apologise for any offence caused."

She's also tweeted: "Tweet taken out of context. Refers to nature of 19th century European colonialism. Bit much to get into 140 characters."

Let's hope that is the end of that.

UPDATE 5.35pm: I debated this subject on BBC News 24 with Harry Cole earlier this afternoon. Here's the clip:

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Calls to use dental X-rays to determine the age of refugee children are fuelled by hatred

The Home Office has followed the lead of the British Dental Association in making clear these tests don’t provide a reliable assessment. 

Children who have fled from conflict zones and brutal regimes are finally being reunited with family in the UK. This should be a cause for celebration. Many have been living in squalor at risk from traffickers and abusers for months, not to mention the harms to which they will have been exposed on dangerous journeys to and within Europe. But instead, it has been drowned out by irresponsible and ill-informed headlines and the comments of a tiny handful of politicians and commentators. Why is this?

It is surely not because of any real compassion or care for children, still less for protecting the rights of refugees and this country’s frequently trumpeted tradition of providing hospitality and asylum.

As emphasised by the encouraging counter-reaction of many people posting images of family members looking well beyond their childhood ages, children grow and develop at very different rates. Some children – including quite young boys and girls – just look much older, and often this is a product of their life experiences.

But those who’ve responded with such outrage to the government finally acting on its moral and legal duties to reunite children with family in the UK spuriously claim to have the capacity to spot a child from a photo. Some have claimed to be able to do this by a facial recognition app which others have tested with results so wildly inaccurate as to be laughable, and some are championing dental x-rays to assess age.

The Home Office has followed the lead of the British Dental Association – itself supported by a range of medical and statistical experts – in making clear these don’t provide a reliable assessment. X-rays can only indicate an age range, and are incapable of distinguishing between a teenager and young adult. This is welcome.

For those truly motivated to protect children, responding to any uncertainty about a young person’s age by subjecting her or him to even the modest radiation of an x-ray for no useful purpose is obviously inappropriate and unethical.

Indeed, real concern for children’s safety would have motivated far greater concern at the woeful length of time that has passed while the Home Office resisted and delayed taking action. Children in Calais and elsewhere in Europe – including those known to have family in this country – have been abandoned and at risk from people ready to exploit their urge to reach the safety and support of family. And children have died.

The unpalatable truth is that the motivations behind the loudest calls for the use of unreliable technologies stem from the same xenophobia, racism and hatred that has been so especially visible over recent months.

The urgency with which many now press for distinguishing between a teenager and a young adult, is the same urgency expressed previously for other distinctions — between refugees and other migrants. Between people who have fled Syria and those who have escaped other conflicts and brutal regimes (particularly in Africa). And between those notionally waiting patiently in refugee camps far away for the miniscule chance of resettlement to come their way and those driven to take their futures into their own hands by attempting a dangerous journey to safety.

Of course, not all these distinctions are without relevance. But those who press for them are not genuinely interested in the differences. They are interested either in playing to the gallery or in finding excuses for shirking rather than sharing the responsibility for providing a place of safety for those driven from their home by conflict and persecution.

Ask yourself: if you really cared about the safety of children in harm’s way, would you be more worried about possibly providing safety to a young adult at similar risk than leaving many more children in squalor and vulnerable to traffickers and abusers? Indeed, if you cared about your country helping people in need of safety, would you call for that hospitality to be closed to adults – including women and men with family here in the UK? 

Steve Symonds, Director of Amnesty International UK’s Refugee and Migrant programme.