Racism is not what you think it is

It would have been hard to avoid the furore over the comments made about “white people” by Labour MP Diane Abbott, unless one were to clamp one’s hands alternately over ears and eyes while lustily bellowing all 50 million verses to Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again (a valid and intelligent life choice in this day and age). Still harder though, would be processing the wash of bile from conservative commentators to mine a nugget of truth about the situation, a tasty morsel that may surprise some of you.

It’s worth laying out here the circumstances that led to the public shaming and recantation of one of Britain’s paltry handful of black political representatives. In a conversation with freelance journalist Bim Adewunmi (@bimadew) on Twitter, Abbott (@hackneyabbott) objected to the sentiment that there was in no practical sense a “black community”, at least in the way the mainstream media use the term.

Abbott replied:

“I understand the cultural point you are making. But you are playing into a ‘divide and rule’ agenda.”

Followed by:

“White people love playing ‘divide & rule’. We should not play their game.”

Predictable as ever, the right wing press machine swung into play. Toby Young, the commentator who roused much fury in defending racist historian David Starkey, was pretty representative of the mainstream reaction:

“But in playing the race card, was Diane Abbott herself being racist? According to the OED, racism is defined as “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races”. By that definition, Abbott was being racist. She was attributing a characteristic – loving to play divide and rule – to a race – white people – and it’s plainly an unattractive quality, i.e. intended to distinguish the race in question as morally inferior to the people they’re guilty of oppressing.”

Imagine the outrage if a white person had said similar things about black people, the papers mouthed in shock. It’s a clear case of racial hypocrisy, allowing one group to get away with making sweeping statements that would me (the white journalist) in trouble!

Unfortunately, that’s all bullshit. In fact, Mr. Young, the OED, and most probably you reading this blog right now are using an incorrect definition of racism — a definition that serves to cover up the real structures of power and oppression at work in our society in favour of some kind of verbal contrivance.

Racism is more than just the ascribance of characteristics to a group of people (not least because any group that you could come up with is only an imagined construct of your own). Instead, it is an ideological collaborator that grew up to justify the economic imperative of slavery, to buy off the consent of the majority of the white population who were not benefiting from the barbaric institution. Racism as it exists today is a complex codification of real social relations — in essence, it provides rulers with a way to divide their potential antagonists, and gives a plausible “common sense” explanation of a divided and unfair world to subordinate classes.

Which is why this isn’t simply a language game. Real people, living real lives and generating social relations cannot escape the hollow log of history, the echoes of the past constantly interfere with their attempts to build a coherent system of responses to stimuli. Acting as if the reaction of a black person to a question about black identity doesn’t carry the weight of hundreds of years of history along with it is a patent absurdity, as pointless as berating a wall for the picture you hung on it yesterday.

The fact is that there is no such thing as “anti-white racism”. Without the history of brutal domination and imperialism to generate the ideology, there is simply no social weight behind the ideas. It is possible for a black person to be objectionable or aggressive, just as much as for anyone else, but bleating about a political substance that is quite absent does nothing but betray your own agenda — to, as Richard Seymour put it, “search for a way to restore white victimhood”.

As I final thought, I’d like to challenge you to find something out-and-out factually wrong in Abbott’s assertion. White people have demonstrably privileged members of subordinate racial groupings, such as Tamil civil servants in Sri Lanka or the Indian princes under the Raj, in order to stifle dissent among the victims of imperialism. You could express it better as “white ruling class people”, but does anyone really think the lack of clarification is really why the right wing press is up in arms?

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