Amongst the mounting excitement that precedes any kind of voting process, the news of Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, stepping down temporarily due to “ill health” muffled the fervour and, for me, felt like a punch to the gut. When I was younger, my dad told me that in order to achieve any kind of success, I would have to work twice as hard because not only was I black, I was also a girl.
During her political career Diane has achieved so much, such as becoming the first black woman MP in 1987; founding the Black Child initiative to raise educational achievements among black pupils in London; winning Parliamentary Speech of the Year in 2008 for her speech on civil liberties in the counterterrorism debate; almost always voting in favour of higher benefits for those unable to work due to illness or disability; voting against the Iraq War; and being one of just 48 MPs who voted against Tory austerity cuts in 2015 and therefore defying the Labour Whips. And yet, despite all of this, it felt like the routine, relentless humiliation and abuse of the UK’s first black woman MP had finally triumphed.
Over the last few weeks especially, every time Diane’s name has made its way into mainstream media with the focus on blunders in interviews, I’ve cringed. The Telegraph gleefully described her appearance on Sky News responding to the Lord Harris report on improving London’s ability to respond to terrorist attacks as “another car crash interview’” while Conservative cabinet minister Priti Patel stated: “Jeremy Corbyn wants to make Diane Abbott home secretary in just two days but is hiding her away from voters… The woman who would be in charge of our police and the intelligence services cannot even be trusted by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell to go on the airwaves to explain their shocking record on national security.”
As a policy minister, there are some mistakes that will justifiably earn public criticism. However “incompetent” and “inept” appear to be the go-to buzzwords whenever Diane’s name is mentioned. But what about Boris Johnson? Often described as a clown, buffoon or jester-type, the ex-Mayor of London has flirted with controversy over his role in the Vote Leave campaign, extra-marital affairs and racism and yet, he has still be intrusted with this country’s foreign policy hardly having his intellectual facilities questioned.
Or how about Philip Hammond? The Tory Chancellor told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that a high-speed railway would cost £32bn when it is actually expected to cost more than £52bn. In fact, it was noted by many social media users that the mistake “was not immediately reported by most major news outlets”. Considering that Hammond has been in charge of the Conservatives spending for a year already, should this not be more worrying? Out of these three blundering politicians, there is only one who is perpetually vilified by journalists and the general public alike.
This is not to say that Abbott should never be critiqued, but it is undeniable that many of her peers do not face extensive derision and ridicule that she does. She is held to an impossible standard, not uncommon for black women in positions of authority. Writing about how misogynoir manifests in professional settings, writer Guilaine Kinouani notes that as a black woman, “your authority is routinely questioned… mistakes you make are amplified and invite disproportionate ridicule/discipline or attention and/or you are often micro-managed”.
However there will still be those who will stretch their long necks to screech that “this isn’t about race, stop making it about race”. In her piece for the Guardian, Diane included a message she had received online which read “Pathetic useless fat black piece of shit Abbott. Just a piece of pig shit pond slime who should be fucking hung (if they could find a tree big enough to take the fat bitch’s weight”. I guess we’ll stop making it about race when you stop making it about race.
Reflecting on her 30 years in politics, Diane highlights the way in which mainstream media coverage feeds into misogyny and, in Diane’s case, racist online culture. You only have to take a cursory glance through her Twitter mentions to see racist vitriol.
This is fantasy politics. The ONLY way that Diane Abbott is getting into the Home Ofiice would be as a cleaner #Marr
— David Vance (@DVATW) May 28, 2017
— Guido Fawkes (@GuidoFawkes) June 5, 2017
Fuck you nigger and labour )
— Gary Stevenson (@GarySte65501254) May 16, 2017
To see someone who has made history be treated with such casual disregard is painful. Here we have Diane Abbott, who has been nothing short of a trailblazer, having poured herself into her work for her constituents and that still not being enough. If anything, unfortunately Diane’s high profile legacy may act as a deterrent rather than being a source of inspiration for young black women considering a political career. As the well-established writer and poet Bridget Minamore admitted in an article for The Pool last year: “I’m dark-skinned and I’m female, and I’ve accepted that I’m far too fragile to be a black woman in the political, public eye”.
So when I woke up to the live updates on the General Election to see that, overnight, Diane had received over 42,000 votes in her constituency of Hackney North and Stoke Newington – meaning an increased majority of over 35,000 – I simply started crying. I was inconsolable.
Humbled to receive an increased majority of over 35,000 in Hackney North & Stoke Newington.
A vote for hope and a better Britain.#GE2017
— Diane Abbott (@HackneyAbbott) June 9, 2017
“As a dark skin black British woman, what they did to Diane Abbott made me lose faith in this country. To know it didn’t work? I’m undone”
I’m under no illusions when it comes to this country and its treatment of visible people of colour; sadly, this does not mean that racism has been eradicated. However, to know and visibly see that many chose to back Diane and win her her biggest majority ever, shutting up journalists, press and members of the public who have dragged her time and time again, is powerful; it’s an elixir that will keep my skin glowing for weeks on end. Additionally, the appointments of other women of colour MPs such as Marsha De Cordova, who is also a disability activist, Eleanor Smith, Fiona Onasanya and Preet Gill – the first woman Sikh MP – is just the cherry on top.
— THE ABSOLUTE BOY (@eleanorkpenny) June 9, 2017
— Tom King (@tomilo) June 9, 2017
Watching Diane simply get on with it and appear to take all it in her stride from my early childhood made me, and countless others, forget that behind the face that she shows to the public, there is a person and people have breaking points. Diane stepping back was a jarring reminder. I can only hope that the sheer volume of supportive messages – mostly from black British women using the hashtag #AbbottAppreciation – on top of this election result will bolster her, reminding her that what she has done for this country but most specifically black British women is admirable, inspiring and has not gone unnoticed. Lady Di, take all the time you need to rest.
Misogynoir tried it and today, it did not win.
You can donate to the funding of a care package which will be sent to Diane, with any extra funds being donated to charities that operate or are based in Hackney.