TRAILBLAZER: Black women are put off public life by the level of racism and sexism we face
Diane Abbott a year before she was elected in February 1986, when she was equalities officer for the union ACTT | Alamy
The first day entering Parliament after being elected in 1987 felt both momentous and unreal. I was greeted by Lord David Pitt, himself of Caribbean origin. There are photographs of us embracing. It was symbolic.
David was a family friend but more significantly he was the first Black person to be a parliamentary candidate. He lost that campaign and was now one of just two Black members of the House of Lords, along with Learie Constantine. But here I was, having succeeded where he failed, an elected Member of Parliament.
Those early years were strange. There were just four of us: Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng and myself, plus Keith Vaz. The institution took some getting used to us. We were often stopped by security guards and House of Commons attendants who didn’t believe that we were MPs. They stopped doing it to me before the men because as the only Black woman in Parliament I really stood out. I had read history at the University of Cambridge, then was a civil servant, a civil liberties campaigner and a television journalist. In all of these organisations I was usually the only Black person. So being one of a handful of Black people in Parliament didn’t faze me, but nothing had prepared me for the ritual and ceremony of Parliament.
In 1987 out of all the parties in the Commons, I was the only Black, Asian or minority ethnic woman. Now there are 37
What made it worse was the isolation that I felt. I spent 10 years as the only Black woman in Parliament, and as late as 2010 there were only two of us. Looking back, I do not know how I coped with the loneliness. I relied very much on good women friends outside. But adding to all our feeling of being cut off was the attitude of our party leadership. Being the political party with the first Black MPs elected to Parliament should have been something for the Labour Party to celebrate. Instead they were wary. This was largely because we were all products of the London Labour Party, routinely attacked in the media of the time as “loony”. The causes that we fought for, including gay rights and race equality, are mainstream now. But in the 1980s, this was enough for our leadership to want to keep us at arms-length.
Another problem was the media. When we were first elected there was a flurry of quite positive publicity. But the print media soon settled into general negativity. The big conferences that I organised around Black women’s empowerment, Black children’s education and issues like stop and search were completely ignored. But if any of us made a mistake, that was news. The situation became much worse with the advent of social media. I had always received letters from racists. But with new media the amount of racial abuse that targeted me increased tenfold. Racial abuse flourished on Facebook and Twitter. If you wanted to send a racist letter, you had to write it, put it in an envelope and go outside and put it in a letter box. With the advent of online you could send abusive correspondence just by pressing a key.
As a Black female on the left I receive a huge amount of abuse online – at one point, more abuse than all other women MPs put together. The general racism and sexism that Black women in public life attract certainly does mean fewer Black women go into politics.
There are many things about my life in politics that I am proud of. I was the first Black person to run for the leadership of a major British political party. I became shadow home secretary and a privy counsellor. But the thing I am most proud of is the rise in the number of Black and Asian women MPs. In 1987 out of all the parties in the Commons, I was the only Black, Asian or minority ethnic woman. Now there are 37. I hope that I helped to pave the way.
Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington and the first Black woman MP
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