Hackney MP Diane Abbott has been suspended from the Labour party for comments about racism. Rt Rev Dr Rosemarie Mallett, Bishop of Croydon, says we need to talk about how racism impacts different groups, even if Abbott’s words – for which she has since apologised – should have been wiser 

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Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington.

Source: https://members.parliament.uk/member/172/portrait under attribution 3.0

Let’s have the conversation about some of the names we use for discrimination and what they mean. I think we need to name things as they are.

The word ‘racism’ came into being at the time of historic transatlantic slavery, when we started to get these concepts of ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’, which were not there previously. And – though it’s used in many ways now, slavery and colour remain at the heart of what racism describes.  

‘Anti-Semitism’ describes the hatred levelled at Jewish people and is abhorrent to everyone.There are some people who are both Jewish and black, so for them neither ‘racism’ nor ‘anti-Semitism’ quite covers it.  

‘Islamophobia’ describes the lamentable experiences of our Muslim brothers and sisters. It, too, has elements of racism, alongside other forms of hatred. 

Each of these is a distinctive experience, rooted in identity, colour, religion and heritage. But – whatever we name it – hatred is hatred. It is an offence against God and humanity and we must stand against it in all its forms. 

We need to attend to and recognise the distinctiveness of black people’s experience of marginalisation in our society 

We have a long way to go in building a society in which all people are valued, and we must not shy away from these conversations. We have to recognise that racism has different trajectories and different impacts for different people. If we try to put them all together, to pretend that everyone’s experience is the same, we won’t really deal with the complexity that we know exists.   

We need to have conversations that deepen our understanding – and that should inform our actions. Diane Abbott regrets the way she expressed herself and I have no doubt that her apology is heartfelt. But let’s not shut down this conversation – and miss the opportunity to wrestle with the complexities around hatred.

We need to attend to and recognise the distinctiveness of black people’s experience of marginalisation in our society – just as we need to attend to the specific experiences of Jewish people, of Muslims and other groups, too. Abbott was wrong to just equate racism with something like hair colour – while for some people hair colour may be important to defining their identity, it’s also something that can be changeable, peripheral to who we are. 

What we’ve got to look at is the reality of people’s lives. The way the world works to marginalise too many people; how too much of humanity spends its time, very sadly, ‘othering’ people who are not like them.  

The situation with Diane is  sad, because someone who has really fought for justice throughout her career (and not just justice for black people) is now suspended from the Labour Party.  

While she was mistaken to address the issues in this way, it is my hope that her experience will not make others fearful of exploring these issues. This conversation needs both courage and grace as we seek to address key issues with regard to racialised identity in our complex and diverse society.  

Rt Rev Dr Rosemarie Mallett was speaking to Megan Cornwell. You can hear the full interview on the Profile podcast and read the Q&A in the latest issue of Premier Christianity magazine

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