Abbott, White People and Twitter

5th January, 2012 10:27 am

By now most of you will have seen the above tweet that Diane Abbott put out yesterday. It’s causing something of a media furore this morning – unsurprisingly.

Yet most of the comment I’ve seen so far has been from white, middle class people, most of whom are men.

Again, unsurprising.

So as someone who hits all three of those demographics I too am wary of wading into such a debate. But Diane was my MP for three years, and I know she doesn’t have a racist bone in her body, so here goes…

Abbott’s tweet was stupid, and yes, it was offensive. It was a mistake to send it, regardless of the context of the conversation. The context, if you read it, doesn’t actually help Diane that much.

Yet it’s equally stupid to suggest that Diane Abbott thinks that all white people play “divide and rule”. If she did think that then she’d be racist, but I’ve never been given the slightest suggestion that she feels that way. Thirty years of anti-racism campaigning and her vast majority in her predominantly white constituency confirms that I’m not the only one who feels that way.

She clearly should have used the word “some” – especially as she had the space. Then she’d have been making a true statement rather than a false one. She should explain that today, apologise, and move on. (I mean it’s not like she hired a Nazi costume or anything.)

Diane is no stranger to controversy, and occasionally people can often be shocked by the way she approaches such issues. Abbott was elected and came to prominence in the tough political environment of 80s inner London, and despite her “This Week” media profile she still speaks in the robust and combative language of that time. That’s not to excuse Diane’s robustness (which isn’t always to my taste), but merely to explain. She’s brought that combative style to social media. It’s authentic. It sounds like her. And on that level Abbott “gets” social media.

Yet crucially she’s neglected the most important rule of Twitter. Whatever you say, and whoever you say it to, the whole world is watching. Saying something on Twitter – especially something controversial – is like standing on Oxford Street and bellowing it through a megaphone while a large picture of your face is passed to strangers along with your job title and any previous out-loud thoughts you might have had.

Diane isn’t a racist – the notion is ridiculous – but she has been foolish, and given a very bad impression of herself and her views. For that, she should apologise. Then we can get back to considering considerably more important issues relating to race like the Lawrence case, and the countless other ways in which Black people still find themselves at a disadvantage in our society. That seems like a more worthwhile subject for a media furore, no?

Update: Abbott has now apologised, and that should be the end of it.

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