Posted by Tania Kindersley.
Apologies for length. Also: possible overuse of the words 'reductive', and 'signifier'.
Ah, excellent. A new Twitter controversy blows up out of a calm blue sea. I am sitting at my desk, doing my work, when I have to look something up on the internet. (The life story of Mary Pickford, for various obscure reasons.) The fatal thing about having the internet on all the time is that it sings the siren song of displacement activity. I’ll just have a quick look at Twitter, I think.
Diane Abbott is trending. The trending thing is always rather alarming; one tends to think that someone has suffered a fatal accident. This time, it turns out that Abbott has written: ‘White people love playing divide and rule. We should not play their game.’
Wow, I think. That’s a little bit crazy tunes. What can she mean?
It seems she was having some kind of argument with a journalist about the nature of the black community. Now, people are hurling toys out of prams, and stamping outraged feet, and leaping onto high horses and galloping off in all directions. They are demanding that she resign. They are calling her a racist and a fool and worse.
I like Diane Abbott. This is because of my excessive fondness for This Week, in which she used to sit on the sofa and flirt with Michael Portillo, as they dished the dirt on the political news. They were one of the best punditry double acts in the business, informative and sharp and funny. There was a keen pleasure in watching the old leftie and the old rightie sparring and teasing.
I even like the fact that she is a flawed politician. She is not a cookie cutter, on-message automaton. She was brilliantly defiant about sending her son to a private school, at the very moment that Tony Blair was on his messianic drive for education, education, education. It was a high class of hypocrisy, and she did not mutter or shuffle or try and change the subject. She pretty much just said: yes? So what? She took the punches.
What interests me about this scandale du jour is not so much her, though. It is the wider ramifications of black and white. Only yesterday, I was puzzling over what Rick Santorum meant when he made a statement about not giving ‘black people’ other people’s money. (I still don’t quite understand what he was talking about, but the more I think about it, the more I think he must have meant the ‘other people’ were white people.) I’m slightly obsessed by Santorum now, he is so very odd, and since I wrote of him, I’ve been doing a bit more checking.
It turns out, he has form. He talks about ‘black people’ quite a lot, it’s a recurring trope with him. He once told a television interviewer that he was astonished that President Obama did not take a pro-life position; he said he thought that was extraordinary from ‘a black man’. Again, I was left shaking my head. One report on it drily remarked that abortion was quite high in the African-American population, as if that should explain what he meant. I still think he may be doing some kind of Edward Lear nonsense joke, possibly for a bet.
Now, Diane Abbott, a prominent black Briton, is talking about ‘white people’. Where they both lose me is in this use of white and black, not as simple observable fact, but as a signifier for something else.
I admit, I have never fully seen the importance of pigmentation. I am not being Pollyanna-ish or disingenuous; it is one of the strands of human thought with which I struggle. Viscerally, I don’t understand why it marks and divides; I am with Martin Amis, who once wondered why anyone thought white was best. It’s so random, so ephemeral, so literally skin-deep. In evolutionary terms, it is only a blink of an eye ago that we were all black. Humans originated in Africa. In most societies, ancient pedigree is something to be boasted of. If oldest is best, then black should be the gold standard.
Pushing aside the bigotries and prejudices, if that is possible, what really bothers me about this black and white signifier idea is that it is not useful. It is so intellectually lazy. It tells one nothing. It does not illuminate or elucidate.
When Santorum says ‘black people’, what can that even mean? Black, in the United States, covers a rainbow of possibility. There are black people who have been in America since the dawn of slavery, descended from stolen Africans. There are black people of West Indian origin, and of South and Central American pedigree. These four groups alone have keen cultural differences.
There are newer immigrants, all shades of black and brown, coming from everywhere from Liberia to London, from New Delhi to New Guinea. To put them all in a box because they are not snowy white bleaches them of all meaning.
Interestingly, President Obama exemplifies this very thing; he is the walking embodiment of the reductiveness of the word black, when applied as an indicator of character or attitude, or a predictor of behaviour. His mother was white, and he was brought up by white grandparents. He was schooled in Hawaii; he spent some of his childhood in Indonesia, with an Indonesian stepfather. He went to Columbia and Harvard Law; he settled in Chicago. His father was a black Kenyan; his grandfather worked for white colonialists. Contemplate that fascinating and various background and early life, and then consider how all of it is denied and reduced when he is described as a ‘black man’.
It seems to me that the importance of his skin is an external, observed thing. It does not define him, or tell us anything much about him as a human, or a thinker, or a politician. What it did do, on that bright, frigid day in January when he was sworn in, was allow millions of non-white people to see someone who looked a little like them rise to the highest office in the land. In a country still scarred from segregation, where the back of the bus still burns in living memory, that was important. But to use black as a suggestion of how someone might think or act is reductive idiocy of the crassest order.
So too with Abbott. ‘White people’ means nothing. To which ‘white people’ is she referring? Do the ice white Norwegians adore divide and rule? Or is that the white Australians? Or the pale Danes?
Even if she were only talking of white Britons, massive cultural and ancestral differences still obtain. In terms of genetics, Britons are descended from Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Normans, Huguenots, Celts, Romans, and Jews of all varieties. In terms of geography, there are dividing lines all over the shop. The proud Scots and Welsh would not like to be lumped in with the inhabitants of Hampshire and Surrey. The Cornish are, as everyone knows, a law entirely to themselves. The Ulster Irish see the world a little differently from the East Anglians.
Forget the worn north-south divide, here in Scotland there is a passionate difference between the culture and dialect and outlook of those who live on the east coast and the west coast. When I go to the west, I am always struck by the amazing contrast to my part of the east. It’s there in the accent, the slang, the attitudes, the underlying assumptions, the jokes.
I hope I am not living up to Abbott’s idea of divide and rule. I see contrasts, but I also believe that humans are more alike than different. The fundamentals of human yearning, the desire to love and be loved, to live useful lives, to bring up happy children, are found pretty much everywhere. But the overlay of distinct cultural identities is something that has always fascinated me, and I find it illuminating that there is so much of that still in these tiny islands.
It is particularly interesting in this age, when one might think that the global village, restless internet, breaking down of national barriers could lead to a sort of homogeneity. Not a bit of it. Only a couple of weeks ago, I listened to an antic discussion on the wireless between people from Birmingham and people from Manchester. Those are two British cities only eighty miles apart; to hear the proud Brummies and Mancunians talk, you would think they came from two distant stars.
I could bash on about this for hours. It is one of my favourite subjects. I dream of going to Shetland, where people tell me that the accent and culture is more Nordic than Scottish. But the point of it all is that even on this small set of rocks in the North Sea, there is vivid proof that ‘white’ means absolutely nothing.
You could argue that what Abbott says was racist, and people who have never liked her are hurling that word about. What bothers me most about what she said is that it is both wrong and meaningless. It is a crashing instance of an intelligent person saying a stupid thing. When someone herds humans into groups on such a superficial criterion as skin colour, it is not just bigoted; it deprives any statement of interest, complexity, nuance, meaning, and thought. It takes all the glorious variety, paradox and subtlety which flesh is heir to, and boils it down to one vapid, hollow archetype, signifying nothing.
And now for the pictures of the day:
The Pigeon is in black and white today, for symbolic reasons. (No, no, only joking. It's just because it makes her look pretty.):
And, two hills for the price of one:
Oh, and I meant to say: thank you so much for the kind comments of the last few days. Have hopelessly not been replying due to post-Christmas malaise, lingering vestiges of head cold, scrabbling attempts to get back to some useful work, and general hopelessness. You know I read and love them all.