Denial and ignorance: the legacy of elite upbringing and (Oxbridge) education.

Unpublished Guardian letter 07 01 2012

‘Divide and rule’ (Andrew Sparrow, ‘Abbott survives sacking call’, 06 01 2012) is what oppressors do, whether on the home front, within an organisation or society, or globally. It is how the powerful (most commonly, historically, élite and white and male) deploy and abuse their power for their own purposes, to reinforce advantage and inequality. It is a routine feature of power that shades into dominance and abuse. I thought this fact of life was common knowledge.

What seems less understood is its link to the strictures of white western epistemology and its binary discipline: either/or; black/white; male/female, gay/straight, civilised/native, right/wrong, etc.. The evidence of history, sociology, psychology, feminism and postcolonial literature and theory, for example, bear witness to the dominance of this culturally specific mode of operating, which, as a result of relentless promotion, becomes normalised and internalised as both ‘natural’ and ‘right’.

Black American feminist scholars, theorists, novelists and poets, and postcolonial thinkers have suggested otherwise, drawing on their own cultural heritage and its ‘epistemology of connection as opposed to separation’ (Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist Thought [1991]), where ‘both/and’, hybridity and dialogue, for example, are central to thought and understanding (see also the work of Audre Lorde, bell hooks, June Jordan and many others.) Toni Morrison’s words (1987) cited by Angelita Reyes (1996) in Etter-Lewis, G. & Foster, M [eds], Unrelated Kin: Race and Gender in Women’s Personal Narratives, testify to this difference, which I believe also resonates  in the lives of other non-élite women:

‘Black women seem able to combine the nest and the adventure. They don’t see conflicts in certain areas as do white women. They are both safe       harbour  and ship; they are both inn and trail.’

The cheap jibes, knee-jerk reactions and point-scoring that Diane Abbott’s comments triggered in England in 2012 are thus rooted in both ignorance and prejudice They demonstrate that these politicians and journalists, of the right and ‘left’, are unaware of these important cultural differences and their value, because they have seen no reason to explore anything beyond their own gated communities, that might dent their class-based / race-based / gender-based certainty, privilege and power.

By contrast, as a politicised black woman living in the UK, and as a very minority MP working in a white, male dominated parliament, Diane can and must bear witness to the realities of, for example, women / BME women and BME men. As a member of a long oppressed constituency, she is in a position to testify regarding inequalities, cultural differences and power differentials (i.e. the violence inherent in and consequent on inequality).

Diane is not implying that all white people are racists; but we have to admit the risk is high for us, given our resistance (as a constituency) to giving up our power and taking responsibility for our bloody historical record of cultural and economic dominance, exploitation and enslavement. White people have been very bad at even listening, never mind learning from the colonised Other. This is surely historical fact, not racist observation. But we also, on the evidence so far, have shown that we can refuse to be determined by that history: we can learn and develop, and across our differences, work for a more humane and just society.

The awareness, understanding and knowledge required at this special moment, if we are to forge a new politics and a dramatically revised society in the wake of both the financial crash and Doreen Lawrenson’s 18 year struggle to get the Metropolitan Police to do their job properly and bring her son Stephen’s murderers to court and to justice, have not hitherto been fostered by an élite (Oxbridge) education. That’s another fact, surely?

Feminist and postcolonial citizens / scholars / theorists, as cultural and political activists, have been mainly marginalized, ignored and demonised by powerful élites in academia, politics and the media. Society is paying a heavy price for this   ignorance and prejudice. But it is not too late to listen to these Other voices.

Shame on the Labour Party for not having the intelligence, integrity and courage to address the issues, as opposed to taking the patriarchal, bureaucratic route, by requiring Diane to deny hard-won knowledge, so as to appease our rightwing masters and oppressors. It is pretty close to implying that, in voicing her view, she was being ‘too black’, as well as too feminist (outspoken and articulate translating into ‘naughty girl’/‘troublemaker’).

Managed change, as opposed to the current social and economic catastrophe, requires the expertise of inquisitive minds and open hearts: reading, study, debate, and participation in multi-ethnic and feminist-inspired communities on as equal a footing as possible, not just looking on from your own enclave (whether in fear and/or superiority). This is not a lifestyle option or a PR opportunity, but both necessary and right: simultaneously both politics and ethics. In assuming the link between racism and misogyny/homophobia, will I now be accused of sexism?

val walsh


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