The royal baby is part of a fairytale of privilege and patriarchy. Photograph: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny on the babies we don't care about today

Of all future subjects of our new infant overlord, none are more scapegoated than teenage single mums. Let's not forget about them and their children today.

The consensus that it is feckless and irresponsible for couples who rely on state benefits to reproduce clearly does not extend to the monarchy. For weeks before the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s first child, news teams from across the globe camped outside the luxury hospital where the sprog was set to make its entrance. As the due date soared by, hacks of every stripe filed and refiled speculative copy that managed to combine sycophantry with prying in that uniquely British manner; amongst the realms of opportunistic merchandise produced for the occasion were “Royal Morning Sickness” bags in pink and blue, printed up with the legend “shake rattle and rule!”. The punnery was presumably designed to ensure that the sick bags will be used for their intended purpose, if only by common wenches like me who are incubating a sense of impending national collapse into crypto-fascist kitschery where our blue-blooded fetuses should be.

It is sourly ironic that in a week when the whole nation is mandated to celebrate the birth at lavish state expense of Baby Cambridge, the hard right of the conservative party is set to launch a new attack on “teenage single mothers”. Of all future subjects of our new infant overlord, none are more scapegoated than teenage single mums. They have always been targeted by the more purse-lipped guardians of the nation’s purse strings, in part because they lack the resources to fight back, and in part because we live in a sexist, post-feudal society where contempt for sexually independent women and for poor people is expertly stage-managed.

Not only have teenage single mums broken the moral codes laid down on their behalf, they dare to ask for our help in order that they and their children might not have to go hungry. Because that’s what we’re really talking about when we talk about taking away benefits from single mums, as the Tories are right now: making women pay for sexual transgression by forcing them into poverty. As policy proposals go, it’s as retro as royal-baby bunting. The fact that the line of monarchial succession now passes to whatever comes out of the royal vagina, be it boy, girl or timorous beastie, is supposed to be the ultimate victory for modern feminism, but the spectre of a future queen ruling over a society where single mothers have to choose between sexual bargaining and starvation is no such thing.

Let’s step back for a second and talk about numbers. Teenage pregnancy has, in fact, been steadily decreasing since 2008, and public perceptions of the phenomenon tend to be wildly overestimated - this month, an Ipsos MORI poll showed that on average, British people think teenage pregnancy is 25 times higher than it is, with just 0.6 per cent of girls under 16 falling pregnant each year. This is still hundreds every year, but the figures are small enough to disprove the longstanding notion that waves of school-age strumpets are slutting it up to get on the public housing lists. We do have a housing crisis in this country, but it’s more to do with soaring property prices and lack of council building. By contrast, 100 per cent of royal mothers are housed at public expense, and the Daily Mail has so far failed to rifle through their bins for anything except mementoes.

Some might argue that this is the wrong moment to raise the stubborn issue of children born in poverty to single and teenage parents. Let the people have their bread and circuses, just for a week or two; let them live the vicarious fairytale. There will be time enough, after the tornado of media hyperventilation about nappy rash, couture booties and lines of succession has died down, to talk about the 700 other babies who will have been born into poverty in Britain on the day the notice of a new heir of Windsor was nailed to a slab in front of the palace. There will be time, surely, to talk about those other babies, perhaps on a day when mentioning them won’t sour the celebration punch.

Except that, somehow, that time never seems to come. We never do seem to talk about those babies and their mothers, or allow them to tell their stories, and this is precisely the week when we should. Because single mums and pregnant teenagers are the other side of the story we’re being told, endlessly, about the royal family and their perfect lives, the divorces, disputes and deaths of the 1990s seemingly entirely forgotten. It gives the lie to the aspirational fairytale of Kate, William and their as-yet-unnamed offspring, by showing that for some women, the handsome prince just doesn’t show up. Some women have children in poverty and raise them alone, and this government is doing everything in its power to make life more difficult for those women. Pass the royal sick-bag.

Baby Cambridge does, in fact, have a few things in common with the children being born to teenage single mothers this week, apart from its star sign (Leo on the cusp of Cancer: a sign that loves to be the centre of attention, which is probably a mercy). They will both be born to mothers whose bodies are treated as public property, scrutinised, shamed and judge even more than other pregnant women who fall somewhere in the middle of the social spectrum. They are both being discussed as symbols, rather than as real children who will grow up to become real people. The royal baby may not be a subject, but it’s still an object: an emblem of everything ordinary little girls and boys are meant to aspire to be, rich and cosseted, born to a loving, stable heterosexual couple whose story is a fairytale of privilege and patriarchy pushed at us in every paper, wrapped up in the sort of twee, creepy retro-Britannalia that has overwhelmed public discourse in past three years of royal pageantry, all cupcakes and co-opted war propaganda, like a nationalist hymn sung in the voice of a child.

The children of teenage single mothers are symbols, too, of everything that women aren’t supposed to do: have sex, live independently from men, and dare to rely on state assistance without already being the heir to the Duchy of Lancaster. The royal baby, being a baby, is not an appropriate target for contempt - but nor are the children of the poor, and I would like to live in a world where every child’s arrival is an occasion for happiness and hope, where every mother is respected, whatever her life choices. Give me a chance at that future, and even I might crack out the bunting.
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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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.