Tobi Oredein | Contributing Writer | Monday, 27 June 2016

The Legacy of Brexit Has Made People of Colour Feel Unwelcome In Their Own Country

The Legacy of Brexit Has Made People of Colour Feel Unwelcome In Their Own Country

The Debrief: The EU referendum campaigns are over. We’ve left the EU and now Brexit's legacy is one of racism and xenophobia

Last Thursday I cast my vote (#StrongerIn) and waited for the country’s ballots to be counted. Since Friday morning, when it was announced that Vote Leave had won by 51.9% to Remain’s 48%, I have been trying to come to terms with the choice that we as a nation have made.

Finally, after months of what feels like tit for tat squabbling amongst the country’s most powerful men, we know that, one way or another, Great Britain is leaving the European Union. The weekend that followed the results announcement saw great uncertainty and confusion sweep the nation. It also saw the toxic legacy of a toxic campaign continue to seep into our communities.

Police are currently investigating a report of an ‘alleged racially-motivated’ attack on a Polish community building in Hammersmith, West London. In Cambridgeshire there is an enquiry into the posting of hate notes through the doors of Polish residents.

On social media there were many accounts of post-Brexit racism. There have been worrying accounts of people racially abusing Muslims and telling them to ‘go home’.

There’s a lot of uncertainty over our country’s future. What’s certain is that things will never quite be the same after Brexit and that’s not just because of our decision to leave the EU and the consequences it could have in years to come. Things won’t be the same, because a debate which should have focussed on the European Union’s effect on our country’s economy, housing problems and security, turned into a referendum rooted in racist rhetoric, xenophobia and was driven by an agenda to frame those who aren’t white and English as the ‘other’, or, rather, the enemy.

An individual's decision to vote leave in Thursday's referendum certainly doesn't make them racist. But we're already discovering that when you centre a campaign around that sort of hateful rhetoric, then that has far-reaching consequences - today the Conservatives’ Baroness Warsi has told Sky News that she sees reports of racism on our streets as being directly linked to a ‘xenophobic and divisive’ campaign. 

The two loudest voices in the Leave campaign, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage both used racism, albeit with different racist tactics, to smear the remain campaign. Boris went down the route of using dog-whistle tactics to retaliate against Barack Obama’s advice to stay in the European Union. In a column for The Sun, the former London mayor made catty and unnecessary remarks about the President’s decision to remove a bust of Winston Churchill from the White House:

He declared: ‘Some said it was a snub to Britain. Some said it was a symbol of the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British empire – of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender.’

While Boris used ever so slightly subtler racist tactics, his anti-black sentiments were heard loud and clear. By attempting to discredit the most powerful man in the world on the basis of his heritage Boris made me, as a black Brit, born and raised in the UK feel uncomfortable.  The subtext of what he wrote in that article spoke to me loudly – he made it clear that he is not opposed to using my skin tone as a weapon against me to undermine any opposing views I might have. With that single comment, Boris, a man who ran the country’s most multi-cultural city for eight years, makes me and other people of colour feel like our views and opinions aren’t welcome in this debate.

Not to be outdone in the game of racial stereotyping one-upmanship, Nigel Farage took things one step further with his Breaking Point poster. Standing smugly in front of an image of non-white migrants and refugees, ‘queuing up’ to come to the UK (this picture was actually taken in Slovenia), with a caption reading: ‘we must break free and take back control.’ The picture creates racial hatred because it tells the public that immigrants only look a certain way, that immigrants are never white. The consequences are that those who are non-white, but British, are looked at through the same lens as those on the poster, an unwelcome visitor intent on ruining the nation. This awful image, illustrated that UKIP’s priority was xenophobia and even took a step towards a ‘racial cleansing’ of British society. It’s not surprising that the hashtags #proudchildofanimmigrant and #proudtobeanimmigrant appeared in full force on Twitter, used by people of colour who were determined to prove that they are positive contributors to our nation. However, nobody should ever have been put in a position where they felt compelled to prove that.

It’s not just the words of politicians which gave the impression that British people of colour weren’t accepted in this country. It was the reaction non-white-British citizens received when they tried to start dialogues or engage in national debates about the referendum. When podcast host and blogger, Imriel Morgan challenged Nigel Farage’s policy to protect British people of colour if we decided to leave EU, she was met by a shocking wave of online racist backlash, where she was branded the ‘face of racism in Britain’.

‘After being publicly chastised, ridiculed and tormented by people who failed to listen or hear my concerns. I'm pretty disillusioned,’ says Imriel.
‘I think after my encounter with Farage, it's pretty clear that Brexit have no interest in listening to how minorities feel or that they are damaging their communities. I almost didn't vote because both sides failed to address issues within our communities. I voted remain because I don't want to risk having the UK turn into 1940s Germany.’

As a nation we pride ourselves on free speech and tolerance, but it seems that the luxuries of free speech and tolerance in this debate don’t quite extend to people who aren’t white - and that is problematic. If we can’t allow a non-white person to have their say in arguably the most important political decision we’ll ever make without trolling her on the internet, it does pose the question, how far has Britain come in acceptance of ethnic minorities? No doubt we have made magnificent progress in some areas, but many now argue that Brexit has brought existing racial hatred to the surface and, even, legitimised it.

It’s not only what was said during the referendum campaign which has made non-white British citizens, like myself, feel like we are viewed as part of the problem, it’s what wasn’t said. Silence, the lack of people of colour speaking on panels or in debates about Brexit, has played its part in making the identities of British ethnic minorities invalid.

The referendum, despite what Boris Johnson seems to think (has he been in a bubble recently?) revolved around the issue of immigration. The far right pushed that narrative and used it to spread fear and division, with classic lines such as ‘they’re taking our jobs’, but with no factual evidence.

We hardly heard that migrants contribute more financially than they take out. A study showed that between 2000-2011, migrants made contributed a total of £20 billion to our economy and 60% of new migrants are university graduates. If those in power are happy to feed the public lies and erase the contributions made by EU nationals to push a political agenda, there is no way to guarantee that those from commonwealth countries won’t experience the same vilification and erasure in the big democratic decisions which must follow.

It’s hard for me not to take this victory and its vilification of immigrants personally. If society can happily dehumanise Europeans and not acknowledge their contributions to society, how does it feel about those us on the darker end of the skin spectrum to watch such hatred take place? The legacy of Brexit isn’t just David Cameron’s resignation and economic uncertainty, it has planted a seed in the minds of people of colour that that there will come a time when our contributions and presence will go face the same criticism, when we may be subjected to the same hatred.

You might also be interested in:

In 20 Years We’ll Look Back On This Race-Baiting Mayoral Campaign With Shame

The Week That Negativity Took Hold

Brexit: All The Questions You Want Answered

Follow Tobi on Twitter @IamTobiOredein

Tags: Politics, Race