“Anyone who tells Diane Abbott to fuck off has my vote “, “I don’t like Diane Abbott”, “she’s not credible”. Scroll through Twitter and these are just a handful of the attacks directed at Britain’s first and most prominent black female MP.
Virtual sentiments translate into the real world, where if you have an Asian or African name you’ll find it harder to get a job interview and if you’re a minority ethnic student you’re less likely to win a university place than your white counterpart. While they pledge allegiance to diversity, many are quick to voice their negative judgements of the few black women in the public eye. Particular components of dislike are vague but unconscious bias is stitched into the fabric of explanation.
Abbott is a prime example. Overlooked are her huge achievements. Over her twenty-eight year long career as an MP, she has stuck by her principles, campaigning on gender, race and LGBT issues when it was far from popular and voting against governments when it mattered. In the past two elections she’s hugely increased her majority, through committed and impressive constituency work.
But dislike of Abbott reared its head again in recent weeks. Soon after she was appointed Shadow International Development secretary, rumours arose that she had an altercation with Jess Phillips, recently elected Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley. By Phillips’ own account she told Abbott to “fuck off” after the latter had taken her to task on comments she made about gender balance in Corbyn’s cabinet.
None of us will ever know exactly what happened between the two but the reaction to this supposed incident on social media was that many people congratulated Phillips. They were pleased that women in the same party were alleged to have had this scrap; they were even happier that a black woman who speaks her mind had been “put in her place”.
Gleeful news outlets dug out photos of Abbott looking angry for headline pictures, placing them near ones of a calmer looking Phillips. Even when Phillips realised her error and apologised, pictures of Abbott looking aggressive remained centre stage. These images told us that whatever the complex truth, this was Abbott’s fault: she’s the Angry Black Woman, after all.
This came after a long summer of silence, in which the media, politicians and Labour supporters roundly ignored her London Mayoral campaign. As anti-austerity leadership candidate Corbyn enjoyed a groundswell of support and won 59.5% of the vote, his equivalent in the mayoral race was systematically overlooked and came third with 20.7%. Instead, the mayoral candidate who occupied the territory of the so-called “soft left”, Sadiq Khan, somehow benefitted from the rise of the left in the Labour party.
This makes little sense considering the facts. Abbott’s voting record is almost identical to Corbyn’s. Both MPs voted against the Iraq war, against the Labour government’s anti-terrorism laws, against a stricter asylum system and most recently defied the party line to vote against the Government’s Welfare Bill. Although Khan joined them on this last vote, no one would argue he and Corbyn are ideological bedfellows. Abbott was unarguably the anti-austerity candidate but she didn’t get the anti-austerity vote. Race and gender played a part here.
Ultimately the treatment of Diane Abbott – of which this is a mere snapshot – tells us what we need to know about race, gender and radical politics in the UK. A black woman who challenges the status quo and won’t apologise for doing so will always be judged unfairly. Because too many subconsciously feel it’s not up to people “like her” to be the voice of opposition.
*Misogynoir is a term referring to misogyny directed towards Black women, where race and gender both play roles in bias
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Maya Goodfellow is a journalist and political commentator. She primarily writes about British politics and has worked as a researcher for a think tank. She also writes about international affairs, with a particular focus on conflict studies. Find her on Twitter: @Mayagoodfellow
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