By Sadia Habib
The campaign for Britain to Exit (Brexit) from the European Union has now been firmly established as one that promoted racialised rhetoric ruthlessly and without any concern for the consequences. What does this mean for the multicultural conviviality in the postcolonial cities in Britain?
Even before the result was declared on Friday, social media was regularly revealing the dangerous anticipation of the xenophobic and Islamophobic underbelly of British society. They called for ‘taking our country back’ – a motto reminiscent of the pernicious politicking of UKIP, EDL & Britain First. There were reports of ethnic minority individuals being abused and accused in the street: “You are going back home on Friday, Paki!”
It is not just the far right racists who are to blame. Mainstream politicians often seem to ‘reanimate the language of assimilation’, making the quest for Britishness – for taking our country back – into ‘a political project and a tool of statecraft’, in response to migration and multiculturalism. That surveys show ethnic minority communities are very often loyal to their British identity, more so perhaps than the indigenous White British is rarely presented in media and political rhetoric.
The allegiances of ethnic minorities are rarely acknowledged in media and political discourses, nor are the evolving nuances and complexities of Britishness and belonging. Instead the language employed in relation to ethnic diversity – for example ‘conflict’ and ‘challenge’ – creates an image of ‘disaffected and inadequately assimilated minority groups destabilising urban life’, leading us to believe that there are ‘inherent pathologies in their way of life that have rendered them a dysfunctional and threatening presence in our urban landscape’.
Pernicious media representation – especially concerning Muslims and their incompatibility with Britishness – is ‘digested and repeated, feeding existing stereotypes and fuelling fears’ about the state of the nation. Moore et al. undertook extensive research into print news coverage of British Muslims during 2000 to 2008, finding Muslims were represented as a threat to British values. Sian et al. also conducted critical discourse analysis of print news finding prevalent Islamophobic discourses positioned Muslims as ‘foreigners’ and ‘outsiders’. Yet Muslims of distinct ethnicities identify strongly with Britishness, perhaps more than any other religious group in Britain.
Since before Friday, and now most definitely after Friday, in the very British spaces that ethnic minority communities live and work, feel they belong, and perceive as their home, we are witnessing a return to the racism of a nostalgic bygone era, a racism of “No dogs. No Black. No Irish”. Racism where there is no safety from violent verbal abuse and physical attacks has been unleashed by the recent Leave vitriol sanctioned by state and society. This new racism takes no prisoners when it comes to skin colour. My research with young Britons points to race and racism as a taboo topic in schools. Yet with young people having encountered new migrants (and old) in their neighbourhoods and schools, these conversations were ever more pertinent.
There is a sense of stunned disbelief emerging, not just about the result, but more about the explosion of racism – that perhaps lay dormant for some time or maybe was always very real for others. Racism has erupted in a post-referendum dystopia discrediting the myth of Britain being a post-racial space.
The White migrants from the EU are sharing with their Muslim neighbours the brunt of the anti-austerity and anti-establishment anger of the disenfranchised and vilified working classes. Yet these wounds are old harking back to Thatcher’s policies. Divide and rule of colonial times has succeeded once again. The working classes are divided and pitted against one another: ‘Chavs’, ‘Pakis’ and ‘Poles’.
My research with ethnically and culturally diverse young people also highlights their sense of class consciousness. White working class young people feel humiliated and demonised by wider society caricaturising them as ‘chavs’. Contemporary media and political discourses amplify a contradictory identity of those they stigmatise as chavs: racialised as embodying dirty, poverty-stricken Whiteness, while simultaneously being epitomised as ‘a bunch of racist bigots’ or ‘filthy White’ racists.
It is not as simplistic as claiming that all the Leave campaigners were racist, while all the Remain campaigners were liberal multiculture lovers. There were a myriad of reasons that Britons were arguing and voting for Leave and Remain: immigration, regaining sovereignty, economy and workers’ rights/wages and concerns about the NHS. The Left-exits (Lexits) wanted to dismantle the EU neoliberal and imperial project, as did some Muslims, who saw the EU as institutionally Islamophobic and feared the rise of xenophobia and far right hatred on the streets of Europe as seeping into Britain.
There have been stories about the political elite Leavers not wanting to exit, just wanting to ruffle a few feathers to create change of direction in their political party, and accusations of backtracking in wake of the result they had not expected. There have also been tales of many Leavers – like the political elite Leavers – not knowing what they had signed up to by voting Leave. The day the result was announced UK decided they need to find out what the EU is about. Yes – after having voted. A petition to parliament – signed by Remainers and Bregreters – calls for a second referendum.
Now is a more important time than ever for educationalists to ensure young people are discussing what they see unfolding before their very eyes – racist campaigns, worrying rise of violent attacks, hatred and hostility towards old and new ethnic and religious communities and media/political posturing that sows these socially damaging divisions. Young people have started resisting and challenging the increasing racism.
My research with young people observed high levels of student engagement and interest in issues and intersections of identity, multicultural Britain, race and racism, social class and defining and discussing Britishness. Importantly they emphasised their local and transnational attachments, sometime over national identifications. Young people – from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds – need opportunities to be critical of the decisions made by the political elite, to be given the full facts and nuances surrounding Remain and Leave, to be introduced to the necessary tools to explore and critically interrogate classed and racialised discourses, and offered spaces to reflect over the impact of the Brexit vote on their futures.
Sadia Habib is a former secondary school and sixth form college teacher who has researched identity, culture and education at Goldsmiths, University of London. She also co-edits @Soc_Imagination. It was a surreal moment for Sadia to be examined on British identities last Friday for her doctoral viva took place on the very day the referendum result was announced. Follow her on @educ_research.