A curious thing happened to me last Thursday while I was reading Bim Adewunmi's article on The Guardian website.
Adewunmi was describing, in a very rational and factual manner, the circumstances surrounding her Twitter chat with Diane Abbott - which made headlines after the Shadow Health Minister seemingly accused all white people of being colonialists who "love playing divide and rule". I appreciated Adewunmi's dispassionate article, and I aired my opinion to that effect. Here's my comment in its entirety:
"Thanks for this explanation, and congratulations for (unwittingly or otherwise) exposing Diane Abbott's true views about white people. Last time I checked, I'm not a colonialist. So I now consider her a racist."
Harmless enough, I thought. And my fellow readers appeared to agree. As the tenth comment in a thread which now runs into the hundreds, my highly visible two cents quickly became the second-most 'recommended' post beneath the line. But The Guardian's moderators took umbrage to my contribution, deleting it under the pretext that it had failed to "abide by our community standards". I hastily re-posted the comment, appending a request that they explain which specific standard - racism, offensive behaviour, or another - had been breached. But that post also disappeared within minutes.
Now as a journalist who has previously written for The Guardian, far be it from me to question the wisdom of their editorial policy. I have a great deal of admiration for the paper, and I respect their right to police comments as they see fit. But I do regard last week's trigger-happy moderation as an archetypal example of what I can only fumblingly describe to be 'proto-racial guilt' in Britain. As the following paragraphs will hopefully elucidate, this is the phenomenon of white people being conditioned to believe that they can only ever be perpetrators, and never victims, of racial impropriety. Indeed, it is now apparently racist to suggest that a black person may be a racist.
Let's be clear from the offset that this article is not analysing the semantic thrust of Abbott's tweet. Countless other writers have already dissected that subject, and I believe the majority of readers very quickly concluded that her use of the present tense and her stereotypical lexis had at least some racial overtones. It's perfectly fair to accuse an individual of being a colonialist - but Abbott was implying that all whites, by dint of their genetic make-up, somehow fit that mould. That is a derogatory generalisation based on skin colour, which is a textbook definition of racism.
Even if you disagree, and if you view her comments as merely distasteful, or perhaps even innocuous, the bigger issue to me is why British whites are so reluctant to cry racist. It may astound you to learn that, up until the 1990s, the government's British Crime Survey did not even recognise that a white person could fall victim to a racial crime. That anomaly reflected the historical definition of racism as "prejudice plus power" - two components which in British society had previously only seemed relevant to whites.
The government's interpretation of racism was rightly updated after the racially motivated murders of Ross Parker and Kriss Donald by Asians in the early 2000s. Its legal definition was amended to reflect any incident "which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person" -- expanding the scope and shifting the emphasis onto individual viewpoints. With this broader, more subjective catchment it became possible, for example, for a white man with German ancestry to allege racism against a fellow white person who had called him a Nazi. The spotlight turned onto our own perception of our ethnic identities, rather than state-sanctioned edicts about our blood.
Following this change, the 2004 survey showed that while 87,000 blacks and other minorities reported being a victim of a racially motivated crime, a more substantial 92,000 white people also felt targeted. Predictably, given the white population's higher proportional representation, this still leaves minorities far more likely to encounter discrimination. But the figures drive home the point that, contrary to the whitewashing some social commentators were propagating last week, racism affects whites too.
When placing Abbott's remarks in this context, only a fool would liken her off-the-cuff blunder to a prosecutable hate crime -- and anyone who reaches that conclusion is merely swapping apologism for radicalism. But what we can reasonably infer, and what Abbott embarrassingly failed to grasp until reprimanded by Ed Miliband, is that racism exists on a scale. Her words may not constitute a race crime, but a racial slur they most certainly do. And indicative of racist tendencies in her thought processes, we can now fairly speculate they may well be. In Abbott's mind, as suggested by her impulsive tweet, whites are quite simply different.
Different, you might say, in a comparable way to how disgraced former Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith viewed blacks as different. "I don't believe in black majority rule ever in Rhodesia," he famously said. "Not in 1,000 years." His bigoted reasoning? That blacks were an inferior race, incapable of governing themselves without corruption. Now ask yourself whether such prejudicial stereotyping is any more offensive, any more misguided, and indeed any more racist than suggesting that whites are somehow hard-wired to colonise, to plunder and to enslave - as Abbott did?
I do not pretend to be an expert on race relations, but nor should any of us need to be in order to deduce, based on personal value judgments, whether we draw offense from Abbott's remarks. Sadly, the reality is that most white Brits are nervous about voicing opprobrium for racial affronts, being acutely aware that their lineage has by far the worst track-record. In public discourse the issue is therefore entangled with self-censorship by left-leaning multiculturalists on the one hand, and vitriolic outbursts by right-leaning xenophobes on the other -- the upshot being that anyone staking a claim in either camp is branded an ideologue. One set do-gooders, the other racists.
It is perhaps fitting that, as a second-generation Hungarian, I am no less an outsider than Abbott. Hungarians are descended from the nomadic Magyars who originated in what is now Kazakhstan, and as such they have few cultural, linguistic or genetic ties to other white Europeans. Under British law, if someone attacks my Hungarian roots I have every right to seek prosecution. But with white skin on my face, an RP accent on my tongue, and the proto-racial guilt of centuries of Anglo Saxon imperialism wrongly placed on my conscience, I am more likely to resort to that quintessentially British trait -- silence, with a stiff upper lip.