Two weeks before the UK’s referendum on EU membership, now familiar to us all as Brexit, I was standing in a queue at a Costa coffee shop at 10:00pm. Perhaps exhausted by a long day and lack of caffeine, two people behind me launched into a spirited debate, one disgruntled customer for Leave and the other for Remain. The Leave supporter, a middle-aged white man in a fedora, after saying that he would move to Italy if the UK ‘didn’t brexit’ (try unpacking that one), proclaimed that unless the UK controlled its borders, there would ‘be war on the streets of London within 10 years.’ I knew what fighting bodies populated the streets of his xenophobic fantasies — they were bodies like mine. I wondered if I turned around so he could see my horrifying brown-skinned face whether he would get such a jolt that coffee would be rendered unnecessary.
Two weeks ago I still had a timid, halting faith in the unrealized, yet attractive, idea of a multicultural, open UK, in the kind of UK defended by the exasperated pro-Remain woman in the queue calling fedora-man out on his incoherent politics. One the day the results came in, I was reluctant to leave my room, and once out on the street I shrunk into myself, wondering how many emboldened racists celebrating the triumph of little England were training their eyes on my unacceptable complexion. Caught behind a woman on the sidewalk holding a Union Jack umbrella, I kept my distance — enthusiastic tourist or triumphant Brexiteer? Is this the new reality we are doomed to? These feelings of vulnerability were echoed by many minority ethnic people, both in my own circles of friends and on social media outlets.
Don’t let the economic justifications, like the manufactured figures about Britain’s recovered wealth and incipient economic takeoff once free, deceive you into thinking this referendum was an informed debate on the failures of an EU too invested in maintaining a status quo that favors the global elite and the perpetuation of a neoliberal consensus that has criminally deprived the working classes in Europe. There are cogent and compelling criticisms to be made of the European Union’s structure and functioning. Yet, when voters from places like Barnsley that voted Leave flatly state that their vote was one to keep Muslims out of Britain and regurgitate platitudes about how Britain will be great again, and when within days of the referendum reports of hate crimes are pouring in from across the country, it is safe to say that if this EU referendum ever began with these valid criticisms, it certainly ended with something else. What the referendum became was a vote on solidifying the institutionalization of xenophobia and a narrow nationalist mentality about a country standing taller when alone, and despite the hopes of young voters who opted for Remain, the mandate for hate has prevailed.
Minority folk and political allies are reflecting on the Brexit result, driving home the point that the Leave campaign was fueled by anti-immigration rhetoric and fear-mongering propaganda, with a healthy dose of Empire nostalgia. There is a palpable fear that the Leave campaign’s victory will fully and finally mainstream racist as well as Islamophobic attitudes in Britain, making the lives of Black-minority ethnic (BME) folk in particular even more difficult on an everyday basis. One student activist commented on the vote, “It isn’t that racism and xenophobia wasn’t already bad in the UK. . . The difference post-Brexit is that the right-wing in the UK have never received such political centrality in the past. Today, with Brexit, fascists know that they can act with relative impunity. You can feel it on the streets.”
In the days leading up to the referendum, the hashtag #proudchildofanimmigrant trended as people of minority ethnic backgrounds tried to counter the reprehensible rhetoric of Leave campaign leaders like UKIP’s Nigel Farage. In the wake of Brexit, Media Diversified’s twitter account has been retweeting anecdotes of people already witnessing or experiencing racist abuse and taunts. The twitter account @PostRefRacism was also started to aggregate reports of abuse and racist incidents. People of Polish background have been specifically targeted in the more high-profile attacks of the weekend, as well as BME folk, Muslims and UK residents originally from other EU countries.
Given these unsettling realities, and the fact that some of the Leave campaigns’ most egregiously racist rhetoric honed in on the fear of brown and black bodies, it is valid to focus on the outrage and vulnerability of BME folk post-Brexit, especially as commentators try to minimize the appallingly xenophobic dimensions of the campaign. At the same time, it’s important to take into account the complexities of the racism peddled by Farage, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and their ilk, in order to begin to make sense of how Leave prevailed. The EU labour migrants who come to Britain, particularly from Eastern Europe, became a scapegoat for the havoc wreaked on socioeconomically precarious Britons which was in reality the product of the austerity policies enacted by the Tory government and the economic vagaries of globalization, but the images embedded in voters’ minds as the referendum campaign progressed were the faces of Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees and the footprints of Turkish migrants armed with EU passports. In the course of the Leave campaign, the political elites who either benefit, or stand to lose much less, from the policies that pummel their white British supporters, managed to obscure the facts that revealed their own culpability by appealing to the easiest instinct to arouse in their discontented and one that the right-wing marshals masterfully: the always latent racism and hatred of the Other. What is striking is how Leave leaders managed to collapse racialized-as-white EU migrants, black and brown refugees, and the potentially first Muslim majority member of the EU into one ‘swarm’ of job-stealing, public services-draining, culture destroying menace for the voters.
In yet another cognitively dissonant twist, Nigel Farage reiterated his position over the course of the campaign that he would prefer for the UK to limit EU migration and instead value and invest in immigration from the Commonwealth. I wonder if anyone told him that there are probably at least a few Bangladeshi and Pakistani migrants scattered throughout the crowds in the reprehensible propaganda posters he smugly poses in front of. It has been pointed out in the past that David Cameron is also guilty of pitting ‘good’ Indian (Hindu), hardworking, integrated immigrants against Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians. As a student from a Commonwealth country related to me, ‘I can’t count the number of times since I’ve arrived in the UK where people have expressed regret that ‘my kind’ of people are shut out in order to accept ‘bad’ immigration from the EU.’ Other people who may directly or indirectly benefit from a Commonwealth-focused immigration policy are not so self-critical; take for instance Amarjeet who called in to BBC Asia Network’s Nihal show on 24 June, who celebrated the fact that now immigration to the UK will be easier for South Asians since EU migrants will be kept out. Or Pasha Khandekar, who called in and claimed the root problem of Britain’s woes was immigrants like the Polish, especially the ‘unskilled’ ones coming in and making honest Britons’ lives hell with their criminal activity and lack of English, while proudly proclaiming himself a good migrant.
What are we to make of this roiling mixture of racist attitudes, other than that Leave has figured out the perfect strategy to make literally everyone hate each other? Scare the white voter with pictures of black and brown refugees, threaten the South Asians with spectres of Eastern European workers encroaching on their turf, refine and repeat until victory. How do we fight back against this tidal wave of multivalent suspicion and hatred in solidarity with those we are being dog-whistled into despising? Importantly, how do we combat right wing nationalists without playing into the very narratives they hope to perpetuate, namely that the root of all our economic ills is those pesky migrants, not globalized capitalism and the destructive elite neoliberal consensus?
Ultimately, one could discount my perspective by questioning what stake I really have in this whole Brexit business as an American. The reality is, though, the Leave victory has international, alarming implications. It shouldn’t be taken lightly that the likes of Marine Le Pen and Greece’s Golden Dawn congratulated the Leave campaign on their victory. And of course, Brexit invited congratulations from Donald Trump, who managed to characteristically disregard the facts by tweeting that the Scots had taken their country back by voting Leave, when all of Scotland voted in favor of Remain. Though it is early stages still, Brexit could very well prove to be a decisive moment in the resurgence of exclusionary, fascist attitudes in Europe and outside it.
I left the USA to study in Britain just as my home country was teetering on the brink of xenophobic hysteria with Trump at the crypto-fascist vanguard, only to now prepare to soon leave a United Kingdom that has beaten us to the sickening punch. In the meantime, I got to be one of those pesky migrants the Leave camp finds so distasteful, and a brown one to boot. One of the crucial things Brexit has driven home for me is the urgent need for a global Left politics to combat the right by refusing to play on their terms. However, this cannot be not a politics that throws minority and migrant voices under the bus (or into the Mediterranean sea, or into detention centers in Texas) in the service of a starry-eyed vision of social upheaval that will supposedly create the conditions for revolution and true freedom from the undemocratic and oligarchical EU, or the tentacular American establishment. It has reminded me that despite all the failures and truly structural problems of the EU, the vanishing and unrealized vision of an un-bordered, open society it once represented as a possibility in a global future is still one worth fighting for, both within and beyond Europe.