Diane Abbott is having a rough month. It seems every other day a new story about someone attacking her surfaces. The litany of criticism reached such a fevered pitch that, earlier this week, Abbott wrote a piece for the Guardian highlighting some of the more vicious abuse she’s received. “I receive racist and sexist abuse online on a daily basis. I have had rape threats, death threats, and am referred to routinely as a bitch and/or nigger, and am sent horrible images on Twitter. The death threats include an EDL-affiliated account with the tag ‘burn Diane Abbott’.” she wrote.
This is, of course, nothing new. Diane Abbott has been the victim of misogynoir – that is, a particularly nefarious combination of sexism and racism directed at Black women – since she first entered parliament 30 years ago. A lengthy profile by Stephen Bush for the New Statesman last month documents a lot of the abuse Abbott has experienced over the years, from bricks thrown through her constituency window to the then-speaker, Bernard Weatherill, worrying that the four MPs of colour elected that year would be disruptive because, well, they weren’t white.
Politicians are not above criticism, no matter who they are. The last week has seen a lot of valid criticism of Abbott, especially from her constituents who are unhappy she missed the second read vote yet, in the end, voted to trigger Article 50. But so much of the criticism Abbott faces isn’t about policy, but about her race and gender, even if it disguised as simple criticism.
The most obvious recent example is Alan Pearmain, the deputy chariman of the South Ribble Conservative Association, who commented disparagingly on a photo of an ape in lipstick which encouraged people to “get the Diane Abbott look.” To the Conservative Party’s credit, Pearmain was suspended, but this is the type of ridicule that Abbott often receives. In 2017 it should go without saying that comparing a Black woman to an ape – an insult with historic roots which dehumanises and objectifies Black women – is utterly racist, but Pearmain told the BBC he didn’t understand why it was offensive.
Black women are frequently dehumanised or masculinised. Abbott, and Black women in general, are often portrayed as angry and aggressive. “When a black woman speaks out, she is often said to be ‘angry’, with the implication that that diminishes whatever is said,” Victoria Princewell, writing for the London Book Review, correctly asserts. “Her sex appeal, or lack of it, is often up for discussion too.”
Even while denying their sex appeal, white men often feel entitled to Black women’s bodies. It’s after harassing Abbott in the Strangers’ Bar last week, Brexit Secretary David Davis sent a text message to a friend claiming that she wasn’t pretty enough for him to attempt to kiss – which is what he’s alleged to have done.
This prompted right-wing broadcaster Julia Hartley-Brewer to have a conversation on her TalkRADIO show on whether it was sexist to suggest Abbott is unattractive. Hartley-Brewer claims that Davis was “treating her as one of the boys and taking the Mick out of her.”
That he said this privately – and not as part of some banter with Abbott – suggests it was more nefarious, but I’ll go as far as to give Davis the benefit of the doubt. That doesn’t change the fact that he shouldn’t have been attempting to kiss a colleague in the first place nor does it change the racial subtext of the exchange.
As if reducing Black women to their bodies, though, their accomplishments are also frequently diminished. I had a dear Tory friend recently accuse me of only being a fan of Abbott’s because she’s Black. He claimed that she would not have such a prestigious brief if she were a white man. This is a friend who routinely defends women from sexism, but he couldn’t see that a criticism that would have horrified him about Amber Rudd or even Priti Patel was exactly what he was making of Abbott.
Black women constantly face people diminishing their accomplishment as “tokenism” or “diversity hires.” That Diane Abbott is a Cambridge educated woman who has served thirty years in Parliament and, through her own graft and talents rose to shadow one of the Great Offices of State never occurs to them, because many white people simply don’t see Black women as capable.
Of course Diane Abbott is capable, but that doesn’t mean she’s infallible. MPs work for the public, after all, and it’s perfectly fine to hold them accountable. But like so many Black women, it’s rarely her performance, but her personhood, which is attacked. For 30 years Diane Abbott has endured misogynoir and unwarranted abuse from all corners. It’s time her political opponents to start criticising her record and stances, not her race and sex.