Somewhere at my parents’ house is a laminated piece of paper that has two things written on it: “Future Prime Minister” in bold, typed font, and my name, scrawled underneath. It was a staff party token from a teenage Saturday job – all of the shop girls had a list of things to vote for (Best Dressed, Nicest Smile) and I won a title that betrayed quite how much I was fascinated with politics at the time. In those days, becoming a politician was a not-so-secret dream of mine. When friends joked about it I’d feign mock-disgust, but I was secretly thrilled at the thought. While a bunch of my friends had dived head-first into cool, grungy anarchy, I was more practical; if I wanted to change the world I’d have to start off as an MP, ideally in charge of the Peckham and Camberwell Labour stronghold I’d grown up in.
Nowadays, I like to say I gave up on the idea of a political career because I, too, have grungy anarchist leanings. Sometimes I blame how jaded I’ve become, how austerity and doctors’ strikes and library cuts have shown me that even those with power can still lose the political dance, and sometimes only direct action works. Occasionally, I bring up New Labour or Tony Blair – I’m technically too young for that argument, but it always inspires a sympathetic left-wing nod. The truth, however, is a lot more simple, a lot more selfish: 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.
Diane Abbott – the first black woman to be elected to the House of Commons – is easily one of the most well known female politicians in the UK. She is also, arguably, the most attacked; if you want to look into the pits of world wide web abuse, try having a scroll through her twitter mentions. Saying that, all MPs (especially the female ones) get online abuse. But still, I’ve never seen a white female MP get abuse at the scale Abbot does from people who should be relied upon to show a decent level of respect: the journalists who write about her, and her parliamentary peers.
Like all women, the way we look is often disparaged, but brown skin takes any sexist mocking or criticism and adds a grimy layer of racism to it – like the icing on a particularly shitty cake
On Tuesday, Channel 4 political correspondent Michael Crick gave us all lesson in professionalism – or lack thereof – tweeting about Abbot from his personal account. He claims to have overheard a London cab driver say he wouldn’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn, “not for anyone that's messed around with that Diane Abbott”. And that was it. The whole joke, the entire punchline was nothing more than the perceived revulsion your average person must have at the idea of willingly being intimate with Abbott. Ha ha, Diane is hideous and Jeremy is untrustworthy for possibly once finding her attractive, lol. How can this be acceptable?
If you’re wondering, like a random Twitter user horribly did, how not wanting to “fuck that hippo” is racist, I wonder if you’re being willingly obtuse, deliberately antagonistic, or both. White women aren’t treated this badly. Black men aren’t treated this badly. It might not be roses for them either, but Abbott – like so many other black female politicians – gets thorns pricking away at her in public, with the media reveling at the sight of blood. Whether it’s MP Jess Phillips gleefully saying she told Abbott to “fuck off” to her face (articles about this tend to show Abbott looking shouty, as opposed to Phillips herself), or Julie Burchill’s pretty extraordinary paragraph where she calls Abbott a “racist, preposterous creature”, people from all sides get away with a hell of a lot when it comes to Diane. All her perceived flaws – she’s supposedly rude, mean, unlikable and aggressive, even when she’s the one being sworn at – fit perfectly into the racist and sexist tropes that all black women have to fight against. There are political positions Abbott and I disagree on, sure, but I’ve found myself so often winded by the double standard, feeling furious on her behalf. I defend Abbott not because I think she’s perfect, but because I understand what it’s like to know perfection still wouldn’t be good enough. No matter what she says or does, Diane Abbott will forever be “aggressive” – no wonder now she seems to speak her mind regardless.
Black women in politics need tough skins, and as far as the media is concerned, they’ve got them – as well as tough everything else. This week, a cartoon of an exaggeratedly masculine Michelle Obama side-by-side with a dainty Melania Trump has been doing the rounds, proving to us all that even black women simply married to politicians aren’t safe from the relentless scrutiny of a racist and sexist media machine. A scowl on her face, arms pumped up, a bulge in her groin– the cartoon falls back to this idea that black, and therefore masculine women aren’t proper women at all; our perceived manliness is unpalatable to so many. Instead of being called stupid like young, white women in politics often are, criticism of black women is always brought back to physicality. It’s as if they’re all seen as having fought their way into power, somehow beating the system with nothing more than brute force. How else do you explain a black woman doing so well?
For the black female politician in the West, racism and sexism (or, as feminist scholar Moya Bailey called it, misogynoir) is a part of life. Like all women, the way we look is often disparaged, but brown skin takes any sexist mocking or criticism and adds a grimy layer of racism to it – like the icing on a particularly shitty cake. In France, ex-minister Christiane Taubira battled grim cartoons and “monkey” and “banana” slurs for years, while in Italy, MEP Cécile Kyenge has faced fellow politicians bleating about the possibility of her imposing “tribal conditions”, and even had bananas thrown at her as she spoke. At least, some might say, at least it isn’t that bad here. Supposedly. We might not throw bananas, but it feels like a lot of people still have them in their pockets; peeled, rotting, and causing a racist, sexist stench that the rest of us are trying – and failing – to ignore.