Perhaps we only really understand our parents once we're grown up, standing in their old, discarded shoes. Photo: Getty
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As Mum and Dad’s tales of the Blitz taught me, being a parent is all about playing it down

The role of parent, which seems so demanding while you’re playing it, requires mostly that you underact.

Our youngest had his 13th birthday the other day and I got a wonderful text from my dad saying, “All I remember about turning 13 is being allowed to smoke in the bomb shelter.” It made me laugh out loud but then I suddenly stopped and, for the first time, I pictured my dad as a 13-year-old little man, huddled in some underground bunker in Finsbury Park, sucking on a fag, while planes flew overhead trying to kill him. My heart turned over a bit with empathy and guilt, as I imagined anyone trying to do that to my 13-year-old little man, and recognised how blasé I’d always been about the things that had happened to both my dad and my mum.

I’d grown up hearing their war stories without ever finding them very frightening, or shocking, or real. They simply were. The war was long over and, far from growing up in its dark shadow, I lived with a cosy version of it, played out through Dad’s Army, my brother’s Airfix models of Spitfires and the boys in the playground shouting, “You be the Nazis!” as an alternative to: “You be the Indians!”

And my parents were of that generation brought up to make light of things, put on a brave face and keep their pecker up, so they made little effort to convey to us the terror hidden in their anecdotes. Wary of frightening us, they made their adventures sound funny and exciting. Mum told us, “I was a bit of a bolshie teenager and one night I was just too stroppy to go down into the shelter, so I stayed in my bed and, as I lay there, a bomb fell and I watched as my bedroom wall split open in front of my eyes, so I could see the street outside.” While Dad said: “My brother and I had to share a bed and this bomb dropped so close that Tony was blown clean out of bed and across the room. HA HA HA.” It was all about as real to me as an Ealing comedy.

Bizarre, though, isn’t it, how lacking in empathy the young can be? Your parents don’t exist for you in any setting beyond the dinner table or the kitchen. Their childhood is simply made up, their life outside the home an irrelevance. Ben and I are often asked whether our children are impressed by our careers, our various successes both in the past and now, and my reply is to ask the questioner whether or not they have ever actually met a child. Of course they’re not impressed. Or particularly interested. What children want from their parents is pocket money, tea on the table, the Xbox password – and for said parents to be as inconspicuous as possible on those occasions when they appear in public.

Currently we are failing this test and our kids are having to deal with the fact that both of us have written books, which are visible and in the shops and in their faces. One of our daughters returned grim-faced from the local Waterstones with a tale of how we had ruthlessly humiliated her by having a picture in the window (Dad) and then stacks of books by the till (both Mum and Dad). “I had to lean across a pile of you to pay for my book,” she groaned. “It was excruciating.”

Ironically, the book by Ben that caused her so much mortification was his poignant memoir of his parents, Romany and Tom, a book in which he comes to the realisation that we never really know our parents as we are growing up, only getting to understand them once we ourselves are standing in their old, discarded shoes.

Perhaps it can’t be any other way. You hear people talk about “the family drama”; if there is such a thing, then it often feels like the characters in it are sketchily drawn and two-dimensional. And the role of parent, which seems so demanding while you’re playing it, requires mostly that you underact: that you don’t commandeer too much of the spotlight, or step out of character, or ad-lib, or ask what your motivation is.

So if we want tips on how it’s done, maybe we should ignore all parenting manuals and instead look to that great quote about acting: “Know your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.” That’ll do for me.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

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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.