Like B*Witched and the SDP, I am far greater than the sum of my parts

Playing Top Trumps inside your own head.

Susan Calman: she's much greater than the sum of her parts. Photograph: Getty Images

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I love Twitter. I really do. Little fills my heart with joy more than disseminating pictures of cats dressed in funny costumes. I think it’s what the inventor of the internet would’ve wanted. It’s also easy to get used to the concept of “less is more” with Twitter. A mere 140 characters to discuss important political issues? No problem. It’s simple to vacuum-pack your life philosophy into one tweet. What could possibly go wrong? The obsession with reducing complex issues to a bite-sized morsel hasn’t been all fun. Disappointingly, some seem to believe that social media have led to a reduction in the capacity of the public to understand more than one idea at a time. Suddenly simplicity is the key to explanation.

I have personal experience of this particular trend. I’m often asked in interviews what it’s like to be a Scottish, female, comedian, ex-lawyer lesbian. I always answer that I’d find it more difficult to be an English, male, comedian, ex-lawyer lesbian and then I wait for the laugh from the journalist asking the question. Sadly, like summer in Scotland, it never comes. Of course, I’m being flippant, after being asked what is, in essence, a stupid question.

What I’m really being asked to do is play a game of top trumps with my own head, to simplify myself into one banner headline. Sort of what you’d have to do at the world’s least exciting speed-dating evening. But how do you start defining what you are? Is my being Scottish more important than the fact that I’m a feminist? Is being gay more influential within my own psyche than being a comedian? Does the fact that I’m an ex-lawyer with a degree in constitutional law mean that I have more sympathy with politicians? Usually I give a long and involved answer to the journalist who’s dissecting my political make-up with the sharpness of a scalpel made from marshmallow, only to read the final article, where my analysis is summarised with the sentence: “Calman likes cats.”

Whenever it seems that I’m required to create a Venn diagram of my mind, I remember the greats. The Nolans, the Jackson Five, B*Witched, the SDP. All examples of people who, when they worked together, were greater than the sum of their parts. And that’s what I am. A girl band comprising one short woman who can neither dance nor sing. I should enter Eurovision.

But back to the problem. Can I really say I’m more Scottish than gay? Is that even possible? I can’t discuss my queer politics without remembering I grew up in Glasgow in the 1980s where being gay was as easy as being a vegan in an abattoir.

What about being a woman in comedy? I’m often described as a “female” comedian, as if that adjective is required in order to prepare the audience for what might occur. It’s not really required in other jobs. Oh look there’s a “lady teacher” or a “woman accountant”. It’s a subtle way of introducing to an audience the notion that I don’t deserve the full title. Like giving someone beans on toast and then, when presenting them, whispering, “Sorry, they’re own-brand.” My gender obviously influences what I say. I can’t, for example, bemoan how difficult it is to be a white, straight, middle-class man in today’s society. (Apparently it’s really tough – at least, that’s what I keep hearing.)

If I say I’m Scottish first and foremost then I’m accused of being parochial. If I’m gay first (or a premier gay, as I like to call it) then I’m angry and man-hating. If I say that my legal background is most important then I’m dull. And if I say that the comedy is the most important thing, then why would anyone listen to a foul-mouthed clown?

It’s not possible to dissect myself, like an attention-seeking Mr Potato Head, into the sum of my own parts. The obsession with the 140-character Twitter summary of one’s identity just leads to descriptions sounding like a personal ad. “Late 30s gay scots lady, interest in law, GSOH”. The complexity of the human mind can’t be reduced to a one-word description. If we allowed ourselves to breathe, then perhaps we wouldn’t be so disappointed about other people we meet or vote for. We don’t live in the world of Mr Men, where I can wear a badge that says “Little Ms Scottish” or “Little Ms Lady Gay Comic”. I wish I could. But it’d have to be a really big badge.

Susan Calman is a comedian, and more

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.