Thursday, 5 January 2012

In which a small rant blows up out of the west

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:

5 Dec 1 05-01-2012 11-12-13

5 Dec 2 05-01-2012 11-12-54

5 Dec 3 05-01-2012 11-13-04

5 Dec 5 05-01-2012 11-13-47

5 Dec 6 05-01-2012 11-14-31

5 Dec 6 05-01-2012 11-15-23

5 Dec 7 05-01-2012 11-15-31

The Pigeon is in black and white today, for symbolic reasons. (No, no, only joking. It's just because it makes her look pretty.):

5 Dec 10 04-01-2012 14-32-32

5 Dec 11 04-01-2012 14-32-27

And, two hills for the price of one:

5 Dec 15 05-01-2012 11-29-16

5 Dec 16 05-01-2012 11-29-25

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.


  1. Happy New Year Tania, excellent post.

  2. Dash - thank you so much. Happy new year to you too. :)

  3. You've put your finger exactly on what was bothering me about what she said but couldn't articulate due to cold brain.

  4. "Black" in the United States, when used as Santorum uses it, has a very specific set of connotations which will be well understood by the people to whom he is speaking. I am not sure when this came to be accepted in public discourse as short-hand (and to be fair, it is not accepted by most thinking Americans, but then they're not likely to vote for Santorum either), but it means this: welfare checks, loud conversations and thumping music, gang violence, urban culture ("urban" is a whole different set of connotations-- how long do you have today?), and a whole set of things surviving from slavery days: unbridled sexual energy, these days taking the form of babies born out of wedlock; charismatic religion (I have been reading old Episcopal journals from South Carolina in the Civil War era and they are very upset about what the slaves do for religion if you leave them alone with it); low levels of education, resulting in... I'm not sure what, but it's bad. Rick Santorum's "black" people have no roots, no provenance, no corporeal form necessarily-- they exist as a sort of dark opposition to that which Santorum and his ilk hold dear. And I'm not sure in turn what THAT is, but I have an unpleasant feeling that we're all going to find out very soon.

    I could go on about this for hours. Santorum is fascinating because he is the last of the nut-jobs who hasn't been discredited yet-- give him another week and we'll see.

    How interesting about Diana Abbott. I will have to look into that today, in between my South Carolinian journals!

  5. Wise, wise words. Wonderful pictures. Despite persistent and painful tonsilitis, I feel uplifted. Now, off I go to gargle with TCP.

  6. Anna - how kind you are. Hope cold gets better.

    Ellie - you always enlighten me. I think I might have had a batsqueak suspicion that Santorum was doing something like this, but reading your list still does make me quite shocked. I always think, or hope, that such mad prejudices and suspicions cannot still exist in public thought, but I'm afraid I think you are quite right. You are also right that Santorum cannot last, but that he even exists as a candidate, and has been a Senator, still does make me feel quite strange. Thank you, as always, for your bulletins from across the pond.

    Helen - you are so kind. Do hope that TCP works.

  7. Christine Knight-Maunder5 January 2012 at 14:51

    Tania, thoroughly enjoyed this post, thoughtful and well reasoned, looking in from outside the hype. I have been a fan of your writing for years ( since first reading Goodbye Johnny Thunders) and am delighted you are now blogging regularly! From Christine in Singapore

  8. The best thing about this January is stumbling on this blog! Thank you, thank you. And oh how many older posts still to read...

  9. Christine - how absolutely lovely. I used to go and stay with friends in Singapore, and have very happy memories of it, especially the wet markets and the chicken rice.

    niinpa niin - How very kind you are. And welcome. You have no idea how thrilled I get by new readers.

  10. Tania: oh, how right, how very right you are.

    I have great difficulty biting my lip when older members of the family - usually ones that I love dearly and hold in the highest regard - do any kind of 'lumping together', whether it's based on race, colour, religion, age or anything else.

    This Christmas, in an otherwise amiable and enjoyable bit of socialising, two of my older male relatives started banging on about some dreadful episode in modern life - I can't even remember what it was - that was clearly ALL THE FAULT OF THE YOUTH OF TODAY. (Well, as we all know, there are similar accusations being made back at least a couple of thousand years.) But what really saddened me was the unintelligent dismissal of a vast sector of society in an appallingly convenient bit of shorthand.

    I suppose I can only be grateful that my own life experience has rendered me incapable of making assumptions based on skin colour, as I was educated alongside my four best friends: a West Indian, an Asian, a Pole and an 'English' (whatever that may mean) Caucasian. The only noticeable differences to me were the outfits they chose on non-uniform days - and I so envied Sima those gorgeous saris, shimmering with vivid hues. [All four of them got higher academic grades than me, by the way.]

    I despair when I hear such comments; but my faith is renewed when I return to your writing.

    Happy New Year, by the way.

    PS: I've done the genealogy bit on all sides of my family - all of whom are 'very English' - and I don't think one particular side were best pleased when I found conclusive proof that they arrived with the Huguenots.

  11. Cassie - oh, oh, so agree about the youth of today. Although I probably make the same mistake on the other side by occasionally declaring, on the blog, that I love The Young People. If one does it with slight irony, does that make it all right? Very happy new year to you, too. :)

  12. An excellent post today- measured and thought provoking -and as always tempered with stunning photographs...

    .I also found your comments most interesting too- having lived two years in Singapore teaching in a bilingual Higher Mandarin girls' school and eating chicken rice most days in the school canteen!
    AND we are off to South Carolina shortly to stay with friends so Ellie' s comments are pertinent.

  13. Aurora - oh, oh, the chicken rice. I have never been able to reproduce it here, and there is not a single place even in London which makes it, as far as I can tell. I remember getting it from hatchet-faced old ladies from a hole in the wall, and they always looked as if they would rather eat their arms off than give you the recipe. Which I presume was passed down through the generations.

  14. I haven't read your blog before, but Cassie sent me a copy of your book, so when I saw she'd posted to your blog on twitter, I figured I'd take a look.

    I find the whole idea of colour very difficult - as an East Anglian who has spent time in various parts of France and Romania, I have met any number of different people of different backgrounds, languages, races and so on, and I have to say that the colour of their skin is the least important of all those. It provides so much less talking point than a person's history, than their specific linguistic turns of phrase, than their way of presenting themself, and so on.

    In the same way (and as a wine merchant) I find it infuriating when people write off a whole country's wine ("I hate French wine") or a colour ("I can't stand white wine") - OK this lessens the argument, but it's another way of dividing things that don't need dividing, things that should each be taken on their own merit.

    Beautiful dog, by the way!

  15. Not only is it disturbing when someone lumps together a segment of the population by skin color, but also it's infuriating when so many others, denying that person’s record of service, burst into loud squawks of "She's got to go! Racism!" blah, blah, blah. If everything were just peachy-wonderful, that would be one thing, but given the amount of trouble in the world today, don't they have anything better to do?

    Abbott says she meant to analyze historical trends, so I have a question. Speaking historically, it seems clear in the U.S. that there were certain things 'white' people did to 'black' people (slavery comes to mind). In the contemporary sense, making sweeping statements about segments of the population is stupidly divisive, but speaking of the past, is there justification?

    Again, thank you for The Pigeon.

    PS Ellie perfectly describes Rick Santorum and his stance on black people. His comments employ shorthand for a part of the population that he seeks to demonize, particularly with the receptive Tea Partiers who want to blame anyone unlike themselves for all the country's troubles.

  16. "The careful responsible skilled use of words is our highest instrument of thought and one of our highest modes of being: an idea which might seem obvious but which is not by any means universally accepted."
    -- Iris Murdoch

    Diane Abbott made a careless mistake and is apparently getting slammed for it.
    Rick Santorum continues to twist language as Ellie so beautifully describes and gets votes for it (and not a lot of criticism in the mainstream media?).

    I keep thinking of that comment (and, knowing me, I probably heard it in a B movie late at night...), paraphrasing: when you cut people we all bleed red.

  17. Well said, Tania! "Intellectually lazy" is the perfect description of prejudice based on skin color, or any other physical attribute.

    I was born and lived in the deep South for 35 years. From there I moved to New York, and I currently live in Arizona. I've found the same degree of racism in all 3 places, whether it's directed toward black people, Puerto Ricans, or Mexicans. Or women, obese people, or the disabled. I must disagree with anonymous when he/she asks if "making sweeping statements about segments of the population" are justified. I refuse to be held responsible for actions of others that I've always known were inherently wrong. And thank you for pointing out that our world is a much more interesting place because of the diverse cultures that we humans should all celebrate and respect.

    Still can't get enough of your Beech avenue! And that beautiful Pigeon, of course.


  18. Tania, this post is close to my heart having enough skin colour for people to make assumptions about me based purely on that. I was brought up with my 'european' family and had no contact with my other parent's culture until I instigated it when my daughter was a baby.
    When you're surrounded by people who love you dearly and see you as colourless, all is well and good, however the outside world is less kind. I think my family and friends would be utterly astounded to think I had experienced racism, let alone taken to heart the sometimes careless statements from those close to me. It's the subtle nuances that are particularly deadly.

    Not an easy topic and you, as always, manage to get to the heart of it with such grace. I can just imagine all the Dear Readers nodding along like me!
    Sorry, bit long and I have to say the Pigeon looks stunning in black and white. :)

  19. To robyn ~ LOL, you can't disagree with me; I was asking for opinions, not advancing them. My question related only to the possible usefulness (if any) of assigning labels to past actions. I think we all agree that generalizing about people in the present is pointless and sad.


  20. The Pigeon is gorgeous, whetherin colour, black and white or sepia tone :)

    At "So too with Abbott", for some reason, I thought you meant Tony Abbott, the current leader of the Opposition here in Australia. He's also known as the Mad Monk (was a priest in training) and is given to saying similar things. Particularly about refugees. And his promises only count if they are scripted, not if they are part of an impromptu speech. He really does believe in catering to the lowest common denominator.

    I'm quite capable of disliking people, but that's based on who they are and what they do, not their skin colour, gender or sexuality.

  21. One of your most interesting posts:lucid, thoughtful and full of the best kind of humanity. You are a talented advocate for the importance of precision and meaning in language.

    Pats to Pigeon.

  22. 365 - WELCOME. So lovely to have new readers. And anyone who admires the dog is clearly a person of great discernment. Rather agree about the wine, by the way. :)

    Bird - interesting question. At the time,it seemed there was no historical context, although afterwards Abbott did say that she was thinking of 19th century colonialism. This may indicate the danger of Twitter, as well as sweeping statements.

    Pat - LOVE the Iris Murdoch quote.

    Robyn - it is always so fascinating for me to get responses from readers who have lived in such different and interesting places. And so glad you like the dear old beech avenue.

    Em - oh, oh, your comment makes my heart break. Can't bear the idea of anyone being cruel to such a Dear Reader. I salute you and thank you so much for bringing a personal note to what can be a bit of a theoretical debate. And you know that I can never get enough Pigeon love. :) :)

    Erika - LOVE the quite capable of disliking people bit. It made me laugh a lot.

    Sue - how very kind you are. Thank you so much.

  23. Tania - I have turned to the garden these past few months, and eschewed anything vaguely techhy. How wonderful to discover you are still writing with such elegance and grace on humanity, juxtaposed with images of the gorgeous Pigeon and your amazing grounds.

    Unfortunately, nothing much to report here. We are still shaking - more thsn 9,500 aftershocks since September 2010. That's been the biggest learning curve. It just keeps coming. Thus the gardening focus. There's something calming about repetitive clipping, snipping & weeding.

    Happy New Year to you. Michelle x

  24. Michelle - so lovely to hear from you again. The aftershocks sound terrible; I had no idea. But I am so glad you are finding some solace in your garden. Happy New Year to you too. :)

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