Was Diane Abbott's Tweet an Example of Racism, Or Are We Too Politically Correct?

British MP and Shadow Health Minister Diane Abbott caused a furor on Twitter last week by making comments that many have branded as deeply offensive and overtly racist. Abbott, the first black female MP, tweeted, "White people love playing ‘divide & rule.’ We must not play their game."

Some critics have argued this backlash of anger is an overreaction from a society obsessed with political correctness. However, without strict guidelines over political correctness, the boundaries in which language are used can become blurred and the danger is that racist, sexist, or generally offensive terminology might become an acceptable part of our national narrative.

Abbot’s comment came as a response to the British media’s repetitive use of the terms “black community” and “black community leaders,” which some have deemed as an offensive generalization of black people living in Britain today. These terms were increasingly being featured in the press as a result of the trial of those accused and recently found guilty of killing Stephen Lawrence — a young black student murdered in a vicious racial attack in London almost 20 years ago.

British Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi responded to Abbott's tweet in an interview with the BBC,"This is racism. If this was a white Member of Parliament saying that all black people want to do bad things to us he would have resigned within the hour or be sacked. For a shadow minister to hold these sort of views is intolerable, it is wrong, she needs to go.” 

Abbott received little support from her own Labor party, who issued an official statment saying: "We disagree with Diane's tweet … It is wrong to make sweeping generalizations about any race, creed, or culture.”

It took Abbott over 12 hours to apologize for her comments, saying: "I apologize for any offence caused … I understand people have interpreted my comments as making generalizations about white people. I do not believe in doing that.” She later said that her comment had been “taken out of context.”

Despite the wave of criticism that Abbott was subjected to, there were some who expressed their support for her. For example, Lee Jasper of the Race and Criminal Justice Consortium said:  “to describe what she is saying as racist and then to put her in that category … is too far. It is only those on the virtual lunatic fringe of the Tory party who are saying that.”

Over the last few years, Abbott has developed a reputation for being an MP who struggles to bite her tongue and bow to rules of political correctness — repeatedly bringing her personal views onto the public stage.

In a recent article on race and political correctness in Britain, Miranda Sawyer of the Observer Magazine explained that language surrounding race that would normally be deemed as deeply offensive in the political sphere, has become commonplace for youth in Britain. One only needs to sit on a public bus for 10 minutes to hear racial terms being casually thrown about. So, when politicians use racially offensive terms, are they simply transporting private and localized rhetoric surrounding race onto the public stage?

Political commentator Marc Wadsworth added: “There is a criticism of politicians; that they don’t say what they think, that they only speak in sound bites and they attempt to be politically correct. Diane is known for her outspoken views and these are often the views that she is mirroring from the black communities that she speaks on behalf of.”

“I don’t think that she should have apologized or withdrawn, she is probably just trying to keep hold of her job … in saying what the vast majority of white people in this country would like to hear her say. But that is not then representing a black community that is a minority community and deserves to be heard,” said Wadsworth.  

Another issue raised by Sawyer was the intent of words. If the language-surrounding race is said in a way that is intended to cause offense, then it is wrong. But if the words are said in jest, in a friendly way, then maybe that is acceptable. “Perhaps we should all adopt the kids-on the-bus attitude: accept that everyone is different, make jokes about it, but don’t take offense unless it’s meant,” said Sawyer.  

A recent poll in The Voice newspaper, Britain’s only black newspaper, said that 83% of people don’t think race relations in this country have improved in the last 20 years. This would suggest that the increasing influence of political correctness in our society has not aided race relations in anyway.

However, without political correctness, we are in danger of falling into a slippery slope and risk allowing racially-fuelled rhetoric to become an acceptable part of our national dialogue. It may not be the most honest reflection of our society, but it does not have to limit public expression. It just means expression must be done in a way that is detached from offensive terminology.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Jessica Sarhan

Jessica Sarhan is a Deputy News Editor for Al Jazeera English, and is based in Doha, Qatar. Before joining Al Jazeera, she worked as a Deputy Foreign Editor for Sky News in London and reported for various publications across the Middle East. Having lived in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the U.A.E., Thailand, Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. – she has certainly got the travel bug and has developed a real passion for women's rights and international women's development along the way.

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