Xenophobia in the UK

One of the first times I experienced serious xenophobia in the UK was when a car, which had made an illegal turn, almost hit me on my bike. I shouted at him. He heard my accent. Then followed me and shouted at me to ‘learn how we do things here’. He probably added ‘sweetheart’, ‘darlin’ or ‘fucking cow’. I can’t remember. He’d made a wrong turn. He’d almost run me over. But I was in the wrong because I’m a foreigner… It wasn’t the first time and wasn’t the last… And I’m pretty tired of British people—especially today—trying to pretend that this stuff doesn’t go on. It does. A lot.

Before the EU Referendum vote last week, I would have placed money on the Vote Remain side winning. And I am not a gambler by any stretch of the imagination.  Had I in some sort of political desperation turned to tarot cards or tasseomancy, nothing would have led me to think that it was possible in the United Kingdom that the Leave campaign would win simply because poll after poll showed that the Remain camp was leading and that as a foreigner in the UK, despite a recent xenophobic attack on my family and me which ended in a man kicking my child’s pushchair with my child in it, I naively believed that this country might be more forthright about its historical relationship with its colonial past and its contemporary cultural morass of racism and xenophobia.  Post EU Referendum, not only has this country become an oxymoron of its own name divided almost completely in half over Brexit, but it appears that nobody has won anything of worth.

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Just before the day of the referendum,  I received a flier from Vote Leave which was notably different from its website version.  The pamphlet emphasises the dangers of immigration with the first two points setting up the ethos for this campaign: “Over a quarter of a million people migrate to the UK from the EU every year” and  “The EU is expanding to include: Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey.”  The cover of this leaflet reaveals a physical road sign at a cross roads to demonstrate that this battle is not only about the geography of us  and them, but there is a subtle directional message in telling people, take this road out of here where not only the voter for Brexit will “VOTE LEAVE and take back control” as the sign indicates, but it is a clear visual message to the foreigner that they are not welcome.   The catchphrase “take back control” eerily echoes Florida’s “stand-your-ground,” where guns are replaced with another eerily xenophobic message to run out of town immigrants and this mandate has never been so visible since the outcome of the vote last Friday.

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That this entire campaign was met with almost zero resistance from the Corbyn camp is shocking, to say the least.  I will leave Corbyn’s incompetence in this matter to the side for the purpose of focussing on the larger narratives of racism and xenophobia, but it is worth noting that the Leave camp’s silence in the face of a campaign which was clearly orchestrated on the back of xenophobic ideology gave a tacit nod to its structural ethos.  And it was this finely orchestrated avalanche of nationalism and racism from the right married with an ostensibly leftist attempt to “bring down the system!” which demonstrates, in the interstices, the ways in which xenophobia and racism is not uniquely tethered to Brexit and serves as a social subconscious within the UK today.

Just this week alone on my Facebook wall, I had one British person who posted to say that “Not everyone in the UK is xenophobic, but foreigners…”  and on it went from there. In her favour, however, I do believe some of her best friends are black.  And another person lectured me on how my being offended by his using the term “mixed-race” and “mixed-race couple” is not a problem because even his Indian girlfriend uses this term.  I replied that race does not exist amongst humans.  I even had a woman, many years ago while looking to buy into a farming cooperative in Cornwall, ask me what “race” my child was.  At that moment in time I was not only 6 months pregnant but I did not know this woman at all. When I told her that race doesn’t exist, her response was, “You know what I mean.  Don’t play games.”  I informed her that games were really far out of my purview and that I find the question extremely problematic and racialising.  She completely flipped out and of course I was the uppity one.  Before I gave birth to my son last year, I was given a form to fill out in the hospital and did not fill in the “race” question and told the nurse, “It’s 2016 and I prefer not to categorise myself.”  Upon my discharge, I noticed that it had been filled for me.  It was then that I learned the heritage of the United Kingdom and this society’s pathological need to document, to label, to name, and ultimately to use these apellations to put every single person in their place.

The funny thing about racism, as I told my Facebook interlocutor (you know, the one with the “Indian girlfriend”), is that he would never use terms like “my heterosexual neighbour,” “my British friend,” or “my white girlfriend.”  In the UK today, the other is still very much encoded in the quotidian discourse of belonging.  And of not belonging. So of course it is shocking to many British people when you point out that their words or actions are profoundly offensive. Indeed, it is not uncommon that the offender will attempt to turn the tables on you since your interfering with hundreds of years of British colonial legacy is rocking their boat.  And when manifestations over ethnic  inequality occur, just leave it up to the BBC to brush away institutionalised racism rushing to aid the government in eschewing its responsibility to the people as it recasts the events of Autumn 2011 as a “riot” perpetuated by a small group of angry, outlaw thugs with a following of uppity black and brown folks.

The neo-colonial mind believes that saying “my Indian girlfriend” actually levels out the playing field, but this is just more identitarian nonsense where words become surrogates for real political action and a remotion of the personal recognition of one’s complicity within the larger system of racism which disavows people of colour and immigrants from being fully integrated into a society which ostensibly we all share. So by saying “my Indian girlfriend,” the white British man telling me that he is being “contemporary” and “progressive” in his usage of a racialising term, is also conceding, albeit obliquely, that words mean nothing if the only descriptor of his girlfriend is anyone who does not look like him.  If one cannot even understand how language actually has meaning, then perverting words to mean anything you want because you are white and claim that science doesn’t matter and because in your mind race is real, then you can hardly win over the black and brown segments of the population which you are so desperately trying to own.

And herein lies the problem. The white British subject is generally completely out of touch with how racism functions in their own country because they participate in perpetuating certain economic and class models that would have them believe and parrot fictions such as foreigners taking benefits from them (when there is zero factual base for such assertions) or that immigrants are to blame for decrease of jobs in the UK (when studies have shown that it is the global financial crisis and not immigration which has effected the job market here).  What is shocking, as an American in the UK, is how for decades I have heard my comrades on the left deliver righteous and complex critiques of racism of my own country, but who are today blindsided and mute to critiques of racism of theirs. Indeed, the United States has given its friends on the other side of the pond much to critique, but I assumed the media they watched of our society, was in addition to critiques of their own and not the featured film. As I researched this subject more, however, racism in the UK is hardly given any airtime because generally speaking, Brits prefer to think of their society as far more equitable in this regard whilst finger-pointing westward.  When one looks to the prison system, the sentencing of criminals, and poverty in the UK alone, the facts reveal that black and brown people in the UK are treated no differently than in the USA.  When one speaks to immigrants of any colour, it is shocking how xenophobia has persevered for so long in this country without nearly as much media attention that the recent obsession with identitarian politics today has garnered.

If the underlying bubbles of racism and xenophobia were not evidenced by the manifestations of 2011, then the Brexit vote in this country has precipitously pulled away the curtain of ignorant bliss to confirm the flip-side of this situation.  Just as shocking however are the many debates I have undertaken this week with Lexiters who truly believe that their vote to leave the EU was fuelled by class consciousness and who actually proclaim this a “left-wing victory.”  The problem with the Lexit rationale is that you simply cannot have class-consciousness if this state of mind leaves behind vast swaths of the population in a revolution which seem to be uniquely taking place in the mind and to the detriment of many marginalised persons.  Over the past week I have witnessed what resembles a quasi-juvenile rebellion against “the system” from some on the left who have zero sense of Realpolitik and a lesser sense of solidarity with people who are not British and not white.  Make no mistake, this is not a victory of the people—this was merely an unspoken alliance with the right to piggyback a “victory” while Lexiters taciturnly turned their backs on the mounting racism and xenophobia at home.  We are just “collateral damage” for the Lexit faction, or as I am told, we just need to sit tight and be patient for the impending revolution.  Apparently, the Lexiters are going to topple market capitalism and liberate us all while, in the meantime, Johnson, Gove or May will become Prime Minister somewhere between now and October and someone will point us to safety with the bat-signal.  Someone pinch me now!

The reality on the ground is bitter. (And yeah, I am speaking to those of you in Canada who keep telling me how the revolution is coming my way!)  That my family and I have suffered several xenophobic attacks while living in this country does not indicate that this problem is somehow more urgent, it just makes us one more dot on the vast chart of statistics.  Hell, just ask your Uber driver or the person who makes your flat white about theirs. And believe me, they all have their stories.  The last Uber driver when I asked if he has experienced heightened racism since last Thursday responded, “Oh yeah…I just ignore them and go on with my day.”

What is terrifying as a foreigner living here, however, is knowing that there is nothing that can be done to change this tidal wave of anger directed towards some of the most vulnerable members of this society who paradoxically are the ones ensuring, thanks to the generally low paying jobs which many immigrants occupy, that the benefits received by a UKIP supporter in Newcastle are even possible.  The Brexit campaign took up the mantle to fight against Westminster and the EU as a bloc, but it did so on the backs of the very immigrants that Farage uncovered in poster form (because you know, when we aren’t watching the Eastenders and thinking of other ways to scam the system, we pose for UKIP propaganda pics).  As an epilogue to this message, the Lexit camp responded with its “purity politics” whereby one can only a “true” leftist if one did not vote to invade Iraq, if one did not misstep with the Troika in Greece.  So to hell with the those who will be be unduly harmed by a vote which naively assumes that power in the UK is any less problematic and centralised than that of the EU, justice will be orchestrated in our name. And indeed the left and its brocialists galore are each marking out their territory insisting this will be their revolution.  And not coincidental to the UKIP party, this “revolution” is quite white.

Richard Seymour has chimed in on this tragedy most beautifully:

The vote cannot be reduced to racism and nationalism — but that is the primary way in which it has been organised and recruited and directed, and that is the primary way in which the outcome will be experienced. That this was achieved so soon after the fascist murder of a centre-left, pro-immigrant MP, is stunning in a way. It says something about the truculence of some of the chauvinism on display. It says something about the profound sense of loss which a reasserted ‘Britishness’ is supposed to compensate for. This is what many of the left-Brexiters have simply failed to appreciate. In refusing to see that resentful, racist nationalism was indispensable to the Brexit victory, in imagining that the flag-waving and conspiracy theories about the EU are superfluous relative to the ‘class anger’ about neoliberalism and declining living standards, they have adopted an exceptionally crude model of ‘consciousness’.

The jingoism of the right is met by the self-congratulatory delusions of the far left who together have contributed to the parade of dunces.  And if anyone is to doubt the severity of things over here while pundits theorise to death what the referendum “really means” and the benefits of last week’s vote, please allow me to detail what this referendum signifies from the ground. You know, reality, if that even matters any more.  This happened to a friend last week on a train from Oxford to London:

I phoned [name] to tell her that I made the train in time, speaking in Hebrew. This was a very short conversation, but apparently not short enough. The obvious Brexiter from across the aisle said in a loud voice: “In this country we speak English! Can’t you speak English, Sir?”
I had to stop breathing for a second and then said to him, in the same tone of voice, with everyone around watching: “You know, Sir, I have a principle – I never take advice from racists, and I am not going to make you the exception!”.  To my utter amazement, people around us clapped… the guy got up and walked away, red faced. A woman said to me afterwards “I wish I got this on the phone, it was perfect”. I wish she did… In few months time, people will indeed be worried about speaking in foreign languages, and then, no one will clap [for] me – they will clap [for] him.  So you see, they actually got their country back.

Or why not take a look at this article, “A Muslim Shop in the UK Was Just Firebombed While People Were Inside,” or the Jewish lecturer attacked on a train for carrying a bag with the word  “schlep” in English and Hebrew printed on its side, the hundreds of tweets which attest to the xenophobia experienced or witnessed, or just go directly to #PostRefRacism  and Worrying Signs where you can have a field day reading through racist reports.  The Independent has taken note of a surge in police complaints of xenophobia over the past week currently surpassing the 100 mark such that one could believe that xenophobia and racism were not problems before last week. Just look at the very same newspaper, one of the UK’s great leftist publications, and you will find this article, “Why did people really vote for Brexit?”  What is fascinating about this piece is not so much the article as the comment section beneath which could be viewed as the working notes of what the article is referencing, replete with racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia.  There is an incredible dissonance within these comments, for one can only fathom that if a leftist publication’s readership is harbouring this degree of animosity for immigrants, how much more violent must the ire be for immigrants by those on the right?

The bottom line here is that while xenophobia is not something that UKIP alone created, this party has certainly had a hand in inciting fear and hatred towards foreigners among its constituents, rather than to explain honestly to these individuals the ABCs of market capitalism and the economic crisis of 2008, the true cause of their woes.   Similarly, Labour constituents were not guiltless of a similar pushback to immigration as the EU Referendum has revealed. In fieldwork conducted from 14 through 25 April, Ipsos MORI in a survey of 4,000 British adult, almost half (48%) stated that immigration would be an important factor to them when in voting in the EU referendum. Among those who were planning to vote “leave” this rises to 72%.  In a post-referendum survey conducted by Opinium from 24 to 28 June, these figures citing immigration as a motive for voting to leave the EU remain quite high.  To the question, “Which of the following issues, if any, was most important in your decision to vote to ‘remain’ or ‘leave’?”  37% voting to leave the EU selected “Britain’s ability to make its own laws without interference from the EU” and another 45% selected “Britain’s ability to make its own laws without interference from the EU” which arguably would also include the immigration question along with other domestic affairs.  The more nuanced question to ask, however, is where the line exists—if any—between a “concern about” immigration and what such a concern constitutes and xenophobia.  Given the numbers of Labour Party members who also voted out of the EU not on a Lexit platform, uncomfortable questions loom regarding the UK citizenry’s views on immigration and how financial and social crises are often projected onto the foreigner.

While the current theatre of nationalism and xenophobia is not without its repercussions socially, politically, and personally,  the current crisis of xenophobia and racism in this country is one that must be addressed head-on.  No more can we pretend that these are one-off incidents. Any immigrant will tell you they are not.  It is crucial to realise that such eruptions are responses to an underlying problem that very few are discussing, namely capitalism and its associated ills. It is clear that we are coming to the end of capitalism’s reign. And when the recession hits the UK, which by the predictions of many economists is due to come this way soon, the levels of frustration and anger will only rise as will the sense of injustice and disenfranchisement.   And the racism and xenophobia will certainly not be limited to solely Farage’s camp or to the right-wing. Plainly put, racism and xenophobia cannot be spun into class solidarity, nor can they be forgotten away as if some new class spirit will erase the eruption of hyper-nationalism.  Race as a construct is a tool to silence those who are disposable by those who feel authorised to dispose.  The moment the flags come out (and the Union Jacks are unfurled!), lines are drawn as to who does what to whom, who feels entitled to shout “Britain first!” while wielding a knife, or who tells the stranger with the “funny” accent to get out of his country.

I told my interlocutor in his “mixed-race relationship,” the other day that he should strongly consider the a reality most uncomfortable to most British people: that not only is there no race amongst humans, but nobody is purely British or purely “white.” Not even the Queen.  The Slave Owner registers from 1834 in England demonstrate that not only was slavery intertwined within English life in the British Isles, but DNA is telling another story. Roberta Estes, a scientist working on genealogy, has laid out a fairly convincing case for the presence of Africans in England as far back as the 12th century, having uncovered in Europeans and British persons who have never left Europe, “haplogroups that are unquestionably sub-Saharan African in origin, such as Y DNA E-M2, old E1b1a now E-V38, and often, mitochondrial haplogroups such as L1, L2 and L3.”  It is even contended by some experts that Queen Charlotte, wife of the English King George III (1738-1820), was directly descended from Margarita de Castro y Sousa, a black branch of the Portuguese Royal House. Just like Farage’s anti-immigration stance despite his having a German great-grandfather, there is an oblique absurdity to anyone in this country who claims that immigration is hurting this country.

The unspoken dilemma central to all “white power,” neo-Nazi and nationalist movements is that they almost all invariably operate upon the myth of whiteness when the reality is that we all—each and everyone of us—have more than a few drops.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com