But if a white person had said it...

The furore over Diane Abbott's tweet yesterday was an attempt to recast power dynamics and obscure the real meaning of racism. By Nyder O'Leary.

They said 2011 was the year of change. This simply has to be true, as it’s impossible to imagine anyone who even vaguely qualifies as sane and ordinary trying to make the argument that Diane Abbott and Patrice Evra are, in fact, terrible and appalling racists.

I try not to write about what are often called “liberal issues” too often, because decrying things like racism and homophobia usually seem so brain numbingly obvious to me that it’s too dull to bother writing about. Dammit, at least sexism can be subtle. I considered writing something about the Suarez–Evra affair, but again, it’s not even complex enough to get a 1,000-word piece out of. This is an affair in which Suarez – and Liverpool Football Club, who let us not forget are a community organisation – have cried all sorts of foul, alluded to various conspiracy theories which are all clearly absurd and – having seen their stance thoroughly and fairly discredited – are now down to muttering that the comprehensive 115-page report about the affair has left important bits out. Not that they’ve said what those omitted bits are, of course. All this to bravely and courageously assert the right of Luis Suarez to call an opponent “negro” in an argument. Because, y’know, it’s actually quite friendly in Uruguay when used amongst friends.

(For the record: some black Uruguayans actually do object to the use of the term; Suarez and Evra were not friends; they were engaged in an angry argument; Evra was clearly incensed, but Suarez continued to use the term and never apologised for the “misunderstanding”; Suarez was not in Uruguay; Suarez has lived in Europe for 5 years, but somehow claims he never learned that black Europeans aren’t generally wild about the word “negro”; Suarez knew Evra’s name but referred to him by his skin colour, and all else is whataboutery.)

Similarly, the Diane Abbott affair is beyond stupid. But sometimes it’s worth walking through stupidity. I do this as a middle-class white male, who is therefore one of the vulnerable minority that Abbott slurred.

It’s easy to forget that racism is, like any other form of discrimination, fundamentally about power. This is why people who complain about “reverse racism” always look so silly. And this is why the furore over a Diane Abbott tweet - “White people love playing ‘divide & rule’ We should not play their game #tacticasoldascolonialism” – is so very stupid, and cynical, and desperately unhelpful.

The old standard – “imagine if a white person had said it” – requires a heroic ignorance of how power works. Racism is a very distinct and nasty way of reminding people that they are, in some way, inferior. It’s particularly vicious because it relates to qualities with which one is born, and of which one should be proud rather than ashamed. It is also a form of discrimination that has enslaved and killed hundreds of millions of people.

Without being backed by that sort of power balance, without implying an inferiority that has been affirmed in other ways by real and bloody discrimination, enslavement and dehumanisation, racism has little or no meaning. It is a form of thuggery that can only ever be visited by the powerful on the powerless. On occasion the standard dynamics can reverse, which is why – say – it’s broadly ok to have a robust pop at US foreign policy in a public forum, but not particularly noble to start slagging off a lone American backpacker in a bar.

Quite apart from the fact that Abbott’s tweet actually referred to colonialism, making the context of her statement abundantly clear, the careless wording could not possibly be said to seriously attack or offend anyone. If it had been a white person that had said it…yes, it would have been worse. Because when white people attack black people they do so in a context of centuries of slavery and dehumanisation, ongoing and very real discrimination, and a world which still sees murder being committed on racial grounds, and nasty bands like the BNP getting too much attention and support (not least by some very stupid Irish student debating societies I could mention). There are surveys to back up the oft-denied reality that black people are not well treated by western societies. Now, I can’t know what it’s like for somebody black to take racial abuse against that sort of background, because I’m not black. But I do know it’s a damn sight worse than someone slagging off my cultural heritage, because being shit at dancing isn’t exactly comparable.

And as for that role-reversal argument: it’s also worth remembering a mostly-forgotten 2011 tempest, when Brian True-May - producer and creator of Midsomer Murders - defended the lack of black (and other non-white) actors in the programme. At the time this was largely dismissed as a storm in a teacup, with politicians and commentators of all stripes queuing up to say it was all a bit silly, really, and we all knew why Midsomer Murders didn’t have black actors in it, and it wasn’t exactly realistic what with a small village playing host to a new murder every week. They dismissed it as “PC”, too, which we all know has gone too far.

Now, I’m sure Brian True-May is a lovely man and is nice to his mum and would never dream of being racist, etc etc. And yes, we do all know why Midsomer Murders doesn’t have black people in it; it’s a deliberately nostalgic programme that presents a weird hybridised world that’s halfway between 1930 and the present day, with huge chunks of it based on an Agatha Christie aesthetic. Just as Agatha Christie stories didn’t take place in a multicultural society, a multicultural aesthetic doesn’t suit Midsomer. There’s certainly a discussion to be had about what that says about its viewers, and what they expect from television - (full disclosure: I quite like it) - but all that misses the point. True-May didn’t say this. What he said was that Midsomer was a “last bastion of Englishness.” The implication of that statement, whether he meant it or not, is that non-white people are not properly English. It is not “PC” to point out this sort of sentence as being unpleasant. Nor is it a stretch to suggest that the same people who decried Abbott’s supposed racism would have shrugged off the Midsomer affair as oh, just one of those things, PC out of control, you have to think twice these days before speaking in case you offend someone.

(The last of those was a comment by an audience member on Question Time, right after the True-May teacup-squall. The Important People nodded sagely, instead of saying “Actually, yes, you do. It’s called having manners.”)

The other thing about power is that it’s a relative concept; the powerful tend to think of themselves as ordinary. They speak of being under attack, when in fact all that’s happening is the removal of privilege. We see it in the rhetoric of pro-church commentators in Ireland, desperate to look for an anti-church agenda, smarting at a series of “attacks” that actually just amounts to the church being treated the same as any other organisation. And we see it in the white establishment, so convinced that if you aren’t a racist you can say whatever you like; so used to making good-humoured jokes about minorities; so happy to be in the position of power. Their right to affirm that power, always with smiles on their faces, has been compromised. So they seize on any chance to show themselves as persecuted. The doctrine of “political correctness” - a term that has always been used as a meaningless slur on tolerance - was and is an important tool.

Abbott’s tweet was silly, for a politician speaking on an open forum. It was open to misinterpretation by stupid people, and her apology was sensible. But newspapers and far-right voices have seized on this, just days after convictions in the Stephen Lawrence case in an attempt to recast power dynamics and obscure the real meaning of racism. It’s cynical and nasty, and ultimately dangerous; it is the action of people who are unthinkingly desperate to portray themselves as the hunted, and in so doing hold on to what power they have left.