What can we learn from Diane Abbott's journey to success?

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Following her pre-election mauling by the press and the barrage of racist and sexist abuse that followed, Tom Traill charts Diane Abbott's many successes and challenges, examining what they say about British society.

Diane Abbott stepped down the day before the June 2017 election because of health issues (later revealed to be type two diabetes) after her lifelong battering of racism, sexism and general bigotry was elevated to a new level.

During the election campaign, in her 30th year as MP,she received particularly unrelenting abuse and vitriol following a poor radio performance on LBC. Yet a recent disastrous performance by Boris Johnson on BBC Radio 4 received no such weight of negative attention, as Hugo Muir noted in the Guardian.

Abbott, though, has kept going and succeeding despite the extreme abuse so often thrown her way. Shewas re-elected with an increased majority of more than 35,000 and resumed her role as Shadow Home Secretary.

Witnessing the path she has forged for herself shows us something uncomfortable that white Britain has long chosen to ignore: just how difficult we make success for people that don’t grow up white and rich.

Diane Abbott was born in 1953 in Paddington, shortly after her parents had arrived in the UK. They had come with the first significant post-war migration of non-white citizens of the ailing Empire to the UK’s shores. Abbott therefore grew up at a time Britain was almost entirely white.

She was the only black student in Harrow’s girls’ grammar school, where she finished among the top in her class and, despite advice to the contrary, applied to Cambridge. Thus begun the pattern that Abbott maintained: being either the first or only black person (or black woman) to tread her tracks.

She noted of her time in Cambridge (as the first person in her family to study after the age of 14, the only black person in her college, and the only black person in the history department) “I felt like I did not belong there,” while pointing out that other working class students were “academically brilliant but simply crippled by the loneliness.”

Each stage of being an ‘only’, of treading a new path that no one has proven to lead anywhere, makes success less likely. The UK’s education institutions remain dominantly white. There are only 60 black professors in our 154 universities today, even fewer black women professors, and two years ago only 27 black students were admitted to Oxford (my own college didn’t admit a black student for five years while I was there). Black students (and academics) today may not be firsts so often, but they are often still onlys.

Abbott went on to create more firsts: she was one of the three first black MPs elected in 1987 (and the only black woman), in 2010 she was the first black person to contest the Labour Party leadership (and the only woman that year, and the only candidate that hadn’t voted for war in Iraq).

On top of having to forge routes alone, unlike the well-trodden path from Eton via Oxford to Downing Street, for Abbott condemnation was always swift.

One often remembered instance was following a tweet in 2012 that “White people love playing 'divide & rule.’ We should not play their game.” It kicked off a furor. She was reported to the police by at least 40 people for racial harassment though nothing was pursued because, of course, she had done nothing wrong.

Outrage was not limited to the right wing. Negative reactions also came from the Lib Dems (then-leader Clegg: "her comments were [a] stupid and crass generalisation") and Ed Miliband’s Labour Party (“We disagree with Diane's tweet.  It is wrong to make sweeping generalisations about any race, creed, or culture.”)

British colonial history would have been a good place to start if Abbott were ever to defend her original tweet, but instead she was left to apologise, having been officially dressed down by the party leader.

In 2016, as the highest ranked black politician in the opposition, she was illustrated as an ape wearing lipstick, threatened with lynching (“if only they could find a tree big enough to take the fat bitch’s weight”), and revealed that she receives sexist and racist abuse daily.

Because Abbott has been so successful she has created a public record for thirty years of the wide variety of singular struggles she has had to endure. There is unlikely to be any such documentation of racism endured by black and minority ethnic people who aren't in the public eye. Abbott’s experience shows that to be successful, black Britons still have to upset expectations, be several ‘onlys’, receive constant macro and micro-aggressions and maintain enough poise to never express too much frustration with the dominant white society in which they exist.

Whether or not you agree with her politics or her tweets, Abbott must be extraordinary. She has succeeded despite challenges that white men, like myself or Boris Johnson, do not have to face.

We need to admit the reality of Abbott’s experience if we are ever to change our society and reach a point at which black Britons, like white Britons, can succeed without being so exceptional.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @tom_traill

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