Pity poor Diane Abbott (no, go on, try), learning the hard way that those who live by the racism sword will surely die by it too. The outspoken MP’s public pillorying last week follows a tweet in which she claimed that “white people love playing divide and rule” and a text to the effect that she was “dubious of black people claiming they’ve never experienced racism. Ever tried hiring a taxi, I always wonder”.
Apart from the inevitable schadenfreude that so hair-triggered a champion of racial rectitude should be seen to say such things, there are some lessons here for us all, Ms Abbott in particular, which apply just as much in the workplace as in public life:-
First and most obvious is that if you are going to say something even arguably racist, try to avoid doing so in a permanent and reproducible medium.
Second, be prepared to admit immediately that you got it wrong. Initially Ms Abbott refused to apologise, claiming that her comments had been taken “out of context” and interpreted “maliciously”. Employers everywhere know (as Ms Abbott must surely do also) that lack of intention forms no defence to a claim of race discrimination. It is hard to think given her record on these matters that Ms Abbott would have worn such an excuse by a white MP had the position been reversed.
Next, when you do finally apologise (Ms Abbott only did so after a carpeting by Labour Leader Ed Milliband), do try to sound as if you mean it. Her statement from Labour HQ said in tones of seeming surprise “I understand people have interpreted my comments as making generalisations about white people” and (despite her tweet clearly being exactly that), “I do not believe in doing that”. To her credit, her avowed reluctance to generalise may well be right – in a much more focussed comment during the Labour leadership contest in 2010 Ms Abbott describes Nick Clegg and David Cameron as “two posh white boys from Surrey”. Can you imagine the fuss if the races were reversed? She has yet to issue any mea culpa at all for the clear slight to London’s taxi drivers, so may be using public transport for a while yet.
But last, on the positive side, Ms Abbott has perhaps done us all the favour of making it clear that no one is above thinking in terms of stereotypes and generalisations to some extent. It is part of our development as sentient adults to learn from experiences and other external stimuli. Anyone who can genuinely say that they do not deep down harbour faintly uncharitable thoughts about some other section of the community from time to time has perhaps not participated in the human race quite enough. Matters of colour and prejudice clearly weigh very heavily upon Ms Abbott’s mind and the obvious trouble with such sentiments is that occasionally they can bubble to the surface quite accidentally and, as she now sees, without any malicious intent. Ms Abbott is in a different position from the norm only in that she has (a) made her public name partly by picking up perceived discrimination by others without apparent heed to that possibility; and (b) totally failed to learn Lesson One. Perhaps next time…?