The Feminist Review Collective members have put together narrative fragments reflecting on their reactions to the EU referendum results and its effects. The pieces are intended to be anonymous, but to capture the diversity in positionality and viewpoints in the collective.
I have never felt a sense of belonging to a nation state. Growing up in Germany, the horrors of nationalism were very much at the centre of my early education and consciousness. My father’s religious, ethnic and national, background (Muslim Arab Iraqi) must have contributed to my underdeveloped sense of belonging where German national identity was concerned. But I certainly did not feel Iraqi either. Bi-annual trips to see my family in Baghdad were filled with surprises and confusion about proper conduct and etiquette.
I have already shared my ambiguous relationship with “Germanness” and my constant childhood and teenage struggles to fit in, to be “more German than the Germans’, but never quite succeeding. Being European was something I latched on to early on. I loved the fact that we lived only 30 min car drive from the Dutch border, 45 min from the Belgium border, 2 and a half hours to either Amsterdam or Brussels, 3 and a half hours to Paris. Italy and Spain were regular destinations for summer holidays as well.
I never forget the moment when I was 10 or so when my Iraqi uncle “ Ammu Jawad” was visiting from Baghdad and we took him to the closest border town in the Netherlands. He could not get over the fact that there were no border controls and no one was checking any papers. My brother and I were looking out for signs and indications that would tell us that we had entered another country while driving through Europe.
Feeling European accompanied me during my time studying in the States as well as my 6 years living in Egypt. By now I have lived in London longer than anywhere else. 22 years. It is my home. And it has been the place where I thought my Jamaican, German, Iraqi, British south London daughter could be at home. Despite its history of colonialism and more recent imperialist ventures, as well as continued racism and the rise in Islamophobia over the last years, I still felt that London, as opposed to either Germany or the rest of the UK, was a more welcoming and safe space for me and my family.
The day of the referendum I sent the email below to our SOAS UCU discussion list while sitting in a café in Cihangar, a leftist bohemian area of Istanbul:
“As many of you have pointed out, the EU is far from the progressive entity we want it to be. It is implicated in some of the worst measures of austerity, has been failing to have an adequate response and policy to respond to the “refugee crisis” and its foreign policies are often extremely disappointing, to put it mildly.
But to my mind, many of the limitations and problems of the EU are about lack of proper collective thinking and problem solving. And not about too much collectivity.
I understand that economic factors have driven the establishment of the EU and its institutions. However, for many of us who grew up on the continent, and I assume here on the island as well, the idea of Europe and European unity is very much tied to our awareness of history. In its origins, the European union was supposed to make “war unthinkable and materially impossible”.
Like many of my colleagues I cannot vote today. It is not that I am emotionally tied to my German passport. I am still of the generation of Germans who grew up loathing and fearing any kind of expressions of nationalism. But I just can’t get myself to swear allegiance to a monarch and state my loyalty to a country.
Having talked to other continental Europeans, I know I am not the only one who will feel less welcome if LEAVE will win today.
Being privileged in holding a citizenship that allows me to travel relatively easily (as opposed to my Iraqi relatives who can’t get anywhere these days), I know I should not moan. But I also fear the ascendancy of right wing xenophobia and have not much hope of a leftist revolution in this country, even if Corbyn makes it. It scares me.”
Most of my colleagues on the SOAS UCU list made passionate pleas for Remain. But there were 3 colleagues, all very much to the left who argued for Leave. Their main argument seemed to be that Remain was to vote for the status quo and Leave was opening up the way for a progressive working-class led revolution to occur in Britain. I have to say I hold these people and their friends as responsible for the outcome of the referendum as the large number of right wing xenophobes.
The day of the referendum I anxiously tried to distract myself in Istanbul where some colleagues were bemoaning Cameron’s scathing remarks about Turkey joining the EU (“not in a thousand years”) while most complained about the EU’s turning a blind eye to the Turkish government’s increased authoritarianism and human rights abuses in the context if its role within the “:refugee crisis”.
Meanwhile, Mark, my husband, voted for the first time in his life. Yes, can you believe that I am married to someone who refuses to vote out of principle, I am not even sure what this principle is aside the recognition that the whole political class is corrupt. Weeks before the referendum, I told him that I would divorce him if he did not go to vote. Until the actual day of the referendum I did not realise that he would actually do it.
I feel ashamed that I had not realised how strongly he felt about it. He has been depressed ever since the results come out. The day after the referendum he told me that he never felt like this in Britain. When walking on the streets for the first time after the results was announced he felt if he had forgotten something. His trousers? He was looking at everyone wondering which way they voted, and if they wanted him out as well. My daughter announced that she was going to leave the UK once she finished her GCSEs. “I will go to a boarding school in the US unless Trump becomes President.” I was stunned.
Me, I have felt gutted. Surprised. In disbelief. I do feel less welcome. My first reaction after the initial shock was wanting to leave as well. At home my husband tried to make some jokes about me being dependent on him as a British citizen unless I passed the citizenship test. But then I am not really worried about that so much. Any kind of self-indulgent worries or thoughts got quickly replaced with the recognition that the beast had been unleashed. Or rather the unleashed beast normalised. Everywhere I turned, all my friends have told stories of racist and anti-immigrant remarks and incidents, almost on a daily basis.
Clearly, Leave voters contained a range of positions, backgrounds and motivations. I am aware that the Remain campaign and its supporters has been accused of elitism. But I can’t help it: populism scares me. People voted for Hitler in Germany.
I have a red passport with a lion and a unicorn on the front and a stamp on nearly every page. My first passport wasn’t red, it was navy blue with my name hand written in the oblong white space at the bottom. “Holder is a dependant of a member of her Britannic Majesty’s diplomatic service” stamped on the page after my 5-year-old picture – mandatory early 80s bowl cut and a pink sweatshirt with Speedy Gonzales on the front. (The nanny told my feminist mother, by way of explanation, that she’d wanted to buy me the blue one, but the shop assistant scolded, “No! Pink for a girl!”)
But that was a lie. The pink and the stamp.
More like: holder was a dependant of “dragged himself up by his bootstraps” / 1960s social mobility / grant to study / grammar school / a bath once a week and one pair of trousers tough if they’re not ready for school on Monday morning / council house / Mass on Sundays / over on the boat / baby sister dead from TB / char woman / factory work / hopeful back to the old sod / hopeless back again when the doctor’s bills broke them / homeless.
“No blacks, no Irish”.
He’s one of them, you see. I’m one of them, you see. Not that you’d know, to look at me, or to hear me. Same goes for him. We pass. Assimilated. Taken the Queen’s shilling (well, he did. I did the online test but they told me I wasn’t civil service material). Or at least, we tried. Easier when you run away, neutral territory, “that’s what it says on my passport so it must be true”. No need to think about it. But then there’s “This man may be a competent diplomat but he will never make it in the salons of Paris or Rome”.
It’s not just the Irish blood in his veins, of course, it’s all the things that came with that: the poverty, the grammar school, the Catholicism, growing up in a place that only looked inwards. Poles were alright – Catholic, you see. Better a Pole than a Protestant, even if they didn’t speak very good English. Yes, they had Poles back then, too.
Anyway, back to those stamps. And the nanny. Class is a funny thing. Dad went up, you see, high enough for his kids to be on solid ground (despite the salons of Paris). Nanny. Private school. Big house. Married up, both times. Travelled the world “on behalf of her Britannic Majesty”, me in tow. So I got the bug, which hasn’t helped on the assimilation front but it keeps things interesting. But his brothers and sister? Not so much. My cousins are factory workers, barmaids, lorry drivers. Not much solid ground there. “White working class”, apparently.
See, that’s the thing. You say “there are too many of them”, but you’re not defining your terms. And that’s whether you’re talking about migrants or those mythical members of the “white working class”. You want them to “go home” but where are they supposed to go? Most of them are home already. Scrape the surface and there’s migration-on-the-grounds-of-economic-necessity a few layers down.
“Not me,” says my feminist mother. And that’s true, but then three centuries of prosperity does give one a bit more of a solid grounding in the world. Or at least, it did until last week, or whenever it was. She’s as shaken and upset as the rest of us (and yes, for the record, that does include my “white working class” cousins. Some of them, at least).
Anyway, I’ve had enough. I never did understand what you meant by “English” and I never saw what was so great about Britain, either. I don’t need your lion or your unicorn. I can wander the world with a passport with a harp on it, just as well, thank you very much.
“Go Home Paki, Go Home”: The Aftermath of Brexit
The result of the UK’s referendum on EU membership came as a surprise to many. Before heading for New York City, I had already sent off my postal vote because I knew for certain why my vote was so important and I had vociferously expressed that concern to friends and acquaintances. Having noted too that the debate was being dominated by white men in pinstriped suits, I had added my name to numerous “Remain” campaigns, urging everyone in our communities to vote IN on 23 June.
My vote to remain was cast in support of hope and in recognition of all those who have fought for peace across Europe. While acknowledging that the EU system is far from perfect, crucially for those of us working to end violence against women, it needs to be noted that Europe’s politico-economic union has established important frameworks that protect women living in the UK. My vote to remain was, therefore, also cast in the hope that many of those hard-fought legal rights gains would be protected The EU has also made important laws in the area of employment, such as safeguarding parental leave and helping defend part-time workers (the majority of whom are women) from exploitation, and we know that any financial insecurity, recession or increase in austerity affects women first and foremost.
A few days before the referendum, the far-right, anti-immigrant UKIP party had, as part of its OUT campaign, unveiled a poster showing a queue of refugees with the slogan “Breaking Point”, along with a plea to leave the EU. Like most of the “Leave” campaigns, this poster suggested that unrestricted immigration from Europe could lead to greater competition for government services, with the tone of panic and loss of social control creating a lingering implication that it could even put British women at greater risk of sexual violence. Boris Johnson’s “Vote Leave” campaign too was built on racist, xenophobic rhetoric that blamed an influx of immigrants for the overtaxing of health care and schools. Those of us against this nasty politics of scapegoating were standing up for the next generation, looking outwards not inwards, and marching forward against the hateful rhetoric spouted by the likes of Nigel Farage.
When I was flying back from New York on the evening of 23 June, the pilot announced the narrow margin win for the “Leave” campaign over the intercom. A casual silence followed, as though nothing of much note had happened. I was gutted, but it seemed my feelings were not widely shared. Only one person mirrored my sense of disbelief about the situation I was returning to in Blighty. I phoned my brother and he informed me that not everyone in our family had voted “in.” He joked that “Some of them have shut the door.” Forgotten their journey from the Pind… To top it all off, my 18-year-old niece, who was planning a weekend post-A-level break in Barcelona, seemed to be mostly upset because she wished she had bought her Euros before the date of the referendum result.
I felt an overwhelming sense of dread. Why did so many British Asians vote to leave the EU? And why were they exhibiting the same xenophobic attitude as the white British “Leave” voters? Waiting in the early hours of the morning at Heathrow, I read through a Desi family WhatsApp chat group. A group of Sikh Punjabi friends and family had posted 257 messages between 23 and 24 June. Most of the messages expressed concerns about immigration, with these stated in the same racist “us versus them” rhetoric used by the white racists:
Kick them out, it’s my country and I am voting out.
(Second-generation Asian male)
Fact – why don’t you see what percentage of Eastern Europeans have committed crimes in this country since coming here 10-15 years [ago] – then compare [it to] when our fathers came here. And you still want them in??
(Second-generation Asian male)
One of the Punjabi women (who happened to be the sister of the above commenter) responded:
I’m happy in Hackney, all races and dogs!
(Second-generation Asian female)
Growing up in an inner-city area of the East Midlands in the 1980s, I was surrounded by racism, poverty, social exclusion and inequality. Racial harassment was the norm and being called a “Paki” was a daily occurrence – in school, on the street and even at the corner shop. It was vicious, visceral and deadly. It was also merely a physical expression of the racist animosity of the larger society that my family and I inhabited back then. For it to rear its ugly head again has re-planted a seed of vulnerability in me and my fellow Asian friends that, in many ways, has caught us off-guard. I have lost count of the number of racist posts my friends have reported on social media feeds since 24 June. Once again, our right to be here is being questioned. “Go home you f*****g Paki,” people say.
Go home? But this is my home. You can’t send me and my family back. We don’t have another home; we thought this was our home… There is a strong feeling of being pulled backwards. For example, one of my good friends posted this on her Facebook timeline (on the 26 June 2016):
So, today, for the first time in a very long time on the streets of London, I have just been called the P*** word by a van driver who refused to stop for me at a zebra crossing and almost mowed me down. What is going on people?
The EU referendum result has provided a legitimate platform for multiple forms of re-victimisation and discrimination. These racist attitudes are deeply rooted in our society and no #safetypin campaign is going to be able to gloss over them. Prepare yourselves for a future of atavistic nationalism. In calling a referendum, our (now resigned) Prime Minister David Cameron has unleashed a bevy of problems with ramifications for generations to come. He should not have called the referendum in the first place. The former Prime Minister of Belgium Guy Verhofstadt summed up the crisis: “The Brexiters do not have a clue what needs to be done. Cameron, Johnson and Farage behave like rats fleeing a sinking ship”.
In London, the only credible politician to steady the ship has been the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan. At the annual Pride march, he expressed a defiant message of reassurance to local communities, calling on Londoners to stand together against the tide of increasing reported hate crimes after the Brexit EU referendum vote:
I want to send a particular message to the almost one million Europeans living in London, who make a huge contribution to our city – working hard, paying taxes and contributing to our civic and cultural life. You are welcome here. We value the enormous contribution you make to our city and that will not change as a result of this referendum.
The crisis we are facing in the aftermath of this referendum, however, is deepening, with political meltdown and Machiavellian treachery amongst politicians who are unable to curb their egos and deal with the Brexit mess they have created. It is difficult to know what the costs of the referendum result for minorities and women will be. The fallout for them is just the beginning of this calamity. There is no off-the-shelf solution. Much is at stake. Not the least of our problems now is finding how to live in a new world order in which hard-fought rights are being drastically undermined in what can only be described as an atmosphere of fear and hatred and against a backdrop of economic and social disruption.
I am an immigrant.
I am an immigrant but you don’t see me. I am a Commonwealth citizen so I can vote in the UK. I am a white woman so you don’t see me as an immigrant. I am from a white settler colony in the Commonwealth so you don’t see me. You don’t see me as a threat. You don’t racialize me. You listen to me. You let me walk by in peace. You let me say my piece. I have a voice. You give me a home. You stamp my passport and welcome me at the borders. I am an immigrant.
Brexit is about whiteness and Britishness, it is about race. As a white Australian living in London for twenty years I am never labelled or acknowledged as an immigrant. I don’t suffer racial taunts, I am not told to go home (unless it a bit of sporting humour). The United Kingdom referendum that resulted in the majority vote to leave the European Union brought home, for me, the privilege of whiteness, of colonial settler states, of language and of voice as a marker of belonging: all drenched in stories of nation, belonging, safety and economics and driven home as racism. When I invoke home I invoke home as a space of belonging, I am allowed to belong – in theory the stamp on my passport decides this and yet a thousand micro acts tells me this, permit me to walk in London and the United Kingdom and be told I belong. Brexit demonstrated how the belonging colleagues and friends had thought was similar to mine was always something given, something conditional and something racialised.
If Britain no longer belongs in Europe, which community of states does it congregate with – the Commonwealth? The Commonwealth is an old-fashioned story of Empire that pretends the outposts of the British Empire still gaze back to the metropole as mother-country and re-tells colonialism as prospering and in the absence of indigenous lives. Europe too has a genealogy of violence, of occupation and conquest that must be rendered present in our lives. Brexit turns its back on how these histories of racial hatred and national pride fragmented and killed. Brexit reminds me of how privilege is so simply and easily carried, an invisible marker of belonging with brutal consequences for those who are no longer permitted to belong. I am a white Australian immigrant living in the UK, I voted to remain in the EU and stand against all racism, all stories of exclusion and I fear the insurgent nationalism told as parliamentary sovereignty, security and economic gain.
It is a week and four days
It is a week and four days after the referendum. I have experienced different stages of grief since the results were announced, including disbelief, profound sadness, and denial. I wake up and I am still in shock when I remember the results: I have still not mentally readjusted to the reality of Brexit and what it may mean. While I suppose few know what it will mean and how it will unfold at a practical level, it has changed everything in the atmosphere in this country and has already caused incredible damage. How things have changed: in a less than three years, the EU has become the evil institution that can be blamed for immigration, for the failure of the NHS, for everything really. We hear already that the fate of “EU nationals” is in discussion and their right to remain in the UK will possibly not be guaranteed. One of my friends in Brixton, when we met the morning after the results of the referendum were announced, jokingly said: “See you in Dover when they deport us all.” It was obviously a joke, but a chilling one. He added: “well, it was nice while it lasted.” “It?” For me, “it” means living in the UK as an EU national, on a Romanian passport, without visas. Feeling like you are part of a larger community, of a postcolonial, postsocialist Europe, in a diverse, cosmopolitan London. At my son’s primary school, it has been a joy to be part of the community of children and their families who hail from all over the world. Another friend once told me that the school was like the United Nations.
But some of us no longer feel welcome.
I worry about the racist attacks that have proliferated after the Brexit results. They have legitimated racism, not only against “new comers” to the EU table—EU nationals from the former Eastern bloc, Poles, Romanians etc—but also against all those perceived to be immigrants, including non-white British citizens. I teach my students about Enoch Powell’s 1968 racist and inflammatory “rivers of blood” speech in the hope that such language will never be used again, and most of them have not heard about it. We are going through yet another similar moment, when the polarization into “us” and “them” only apparently targets a different set of immigrants, and unleashes racism against everyone who may be perceived not to “be from here”. Once you start telling one group to go home, it’s a slippery slope.
As someone who had no right to vote in a matter that directly affects me—despite having lived here for ten years and paying taxes—I am very angry at how the media has covered the referendum campaign and how difficult it was to get basic facts. The polarisation of the debate into claims and counter-claims, without a basic fact check, has turned the discussion into mercantile bids about monetary gains and losses. You will be this many pounds poorer if we leave the EU, but house prices will fall, said the Remain campaign. £350 million will go to the NHS if we leave the EU, claimed the Leave campaign. And this last argument really seemed to stick, even though it has been removed from the leave campaign website, because it was a promise that cannot be sustained. The same morning after the results were announced, I spoke to someone who was delighted because all that money would now go to the NHS…
Coming from a country that has aspired to join the EU for many years after 1989 and finally did so in 2007, I identify as European and the freedom of movement within the EU is precious, and even more so because I had to wait for it for a long time. In the mid to late nineties, I waited and queued at embassies to travel to European countries, only to be turned down. I remember putting in an application at the Dutch embassy in Bucharest, having to wait half a day outside to be seen and be denied a visitor visa. As a student from a post-communist country, I was eager to travel, after having spent my childhood under Ceausescu’s dictatorship, unable to move outside the Eastern bloc. That’s why I do not take for granted the freedom of movement, and I am glad young people can go wherever they want within the EU. You see, for me, Europe is about much more than a couple extra thousand pounds per year, or the money that goes into the EU as national contribution, even more than the free market, and all the undoubted benefits that come with it. It is about being united against racism, nationalisms and extremism and it is about building a future together rather than in closed off communities. We can’t go back to being small islands. I certainly am not.
BRANDED BY BREXIT
There have been bleak times before, events which take you into catastrophe time, when the thirst for information overwhelms the normal rhythms of life, work, care, love, friends, when every conversation is a restatement of what is so far known or understood. In very different registers one can have a body memory of responses to (this list only some that come to my mind) the Kings Cross fire, the 1992 election, the build up to the Iraq war, air strikes on Libya, Dunblane, Katrina, 7/7 and 9/11, and its myriad bloody aftermaths, Hillsborough. This list is not (quite) random (though it is idiosyncratic) and perhaps there are some links indictment and fear, the local and the global and the sense of disgust at what is done in the name of something to which one is attached (if only by proximity or accident of birth or by something even less tangible, more haunting) to rank injustice, by design or otherwise. Catastrophe time is felt -breathless, sleepless, anxious; it curtails the ability to think, to write to ‘make sense’. A present uncertainty that throws a shadow forward, defiling futures we did not know we had so much invested in until they were lost.
It is as many have said, the temporality of grief, too. Preoccupied, stricken. Jo Cox.
Brexit, has produced an unnecessary and catastrophic racist ‘state of emergency’ as Brendan McGeever put it. It has become clear that the failure to speak out (or to be heard) against the insidious creep of rhetoric around the movement of people toward ever more dehumanising and animalising tropes – tropes and figures with a long, long blood stained history in the British lexicon- seems to have produced a perfect storm of kick back against a cruel and carping elite, happy to stigmatise and humiliate, pander to and enrage as the will took them. This utterly unnecessary, negligent, vote was taken because the careers of a few rich white people is more important than the well being, livelihoods and everyday safety of all of us. All of us, because catastrophe time will soon become mundane remorseless grim time, bleak time. I do not say all of us because I’m unaware of the difference these events have had and will have on those with a different skin tone or accent to mine, but because we are all branded by Brexit into a crystallisation of projections, mine? ‘White British’ what an ugly, ugly sound.
One of the many creoles spoken on the South Asian subcontinent is Urdu which makes a distinction between ‘ajnabi’ and ‘ghair’.
16th June. Avtar’s Brah’s words, a companion. The Scent of Memory.
An ‘ajnabi’ is a stranger; a newcomer whom one does not yet know but who holds the promise of friendship, love, intimacy. The ‘ajnabi’ may have different ways of doing things but is not alien.
At my desk, I’m reading through the last pages of a collectively written book on government immigration policing campaigns. Alone in front of the screen, I wonder if the emphatic claims that we have made about the performative politics of immigration campaigns, xenophobia and racism need to be toned down. I do not know who or what is sitting on my shoulder. The cursor, a familiar heartbeat flickers.
She could be(come) ‘apna’; that is, ‘one of our own’.
I turn the radio on during a tea break. The news: an MP has been shot. She’s been taken to hospital. I’ve never heard that name before. Someone says they heard the attacker shout ‘Britain first’. I can’t take in what is unfolding. I remember the MP Stephen Timms who was stabbed years earlier for supporting the invasion of Iraq. He had survived. Surely she will too?
Jo Cox does not survive. She dies from her horrific injuries.
19.19pm I send a text to one of my co-writers: ‘Shattered by the assassination of Jo Cox. Feels like even we underestimated the hatred and malice out there. Feels important to talk about in the book? Up till recently when I’ve described things to Z [my son] about how bad the racism was when we got here, he’s found it difficult to understand. And in a way I took that as a sign of progress. He will never know what it’s like to have your window’s broken, to be spat at and abused in the street, to be scared for your life walking past a skinhead. And in the past few months things feel different, more precarious, more dangerous. I despair.’
The idea of ‘ghair’ is much more difficult to translate for its point of departure is intimacy; it walks the tightrope between insider/outsider.
18 June. ‘My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain’. This is how Thomas Mair, the man charged with Jo’s murder responds when asked to confirm his name at his first court appearance.
22 June. Brendan Cox, Jo’s husband is speaking to thousands of people who have gathered in Trafalgar Square to celebrate what would have been her 42nd birthday. ‘Jo’s killing was political’ he says. ‘It was an act of terror designed to advance an agenda of hatred towards others’. A plane flies over the square, trailing a banner. ‘Take Control #VoteLeave’.
I dream of Jo’s murder. I see the knife. She was assassinated because in Thomas Mair’s eyes, Jo’s xenophilia (a new word I have learnt since her murder) made her a race traitor. What does it mean to betray your race? Or to be loyal to your race? I don’t know. I’ve never really had a race or a nation.
Apna Jo Cox. Apna.
Thursday 23rd June
Thursday 23 June – I go door knocking around London Fields for three hours, reminding Green Party supporters to vote in the referendum. Many of them have Remain posters in their windows. It’s pouring rain and my flyers are soaking wet, as am I. One woman offers me an umbrella. Later I realise that the encouragement and solidarity on the doorsteps of Hackney lure me into a false sense of security. In the pub afterwards someone says that the Leave campaign has told such blatant lies that someone may take them to court; their strategy must be that they’ll deal with any legal action afterwards – a small price to pay if they win. The conversation feels hypothetical. I retire early.
Friday 24 June – I awake at 5.30 a.m. and look at the Guardian homepage on my iPad. The little Boris cartoon at the top of the page has its fist raised. Blurry eyed, I send an email to friends with the subject heading ‘What the fuck are we gonna do now?’ And somehow manage to get back to sleep for a few hours. Replies to my only half rhetorical question are surprisingly earnest. Someone says it’s time to throw all our weight behind the Greens, another that we need to work now with the Lexit crowd. One friend states bluntly that Higher Education will go down the tube with no EU funding and students, another that she wishes she had bought her holiday euros before today. Somehow it feels easier to nurture fears for our jobs and our unaffordable summer voyages to the continent than to face the enormity of the bigger loss. Over the next week I will try to articulate to myself and others just what was and still is at stake.
Later that day I write to C, because if anyone will appreciate the affective dimension of all this it will be her. She is distraught. We are painfully aware of the vulnerability of our queer community, this motley chosen family made up of people from all over the EU, the Middle East, the Americas, and beyond. All living in London thanks to a combination of birthplace, ancestry, happenstance, fortune – good and ill – freedom of movement, and various acts of ingenuity and solidarity. I’m tired of hearing that Londoners are out of touch with the rest of the country. ‘They may call it a bubble,’ I tell C. ‘We call it home.’
In the early evening I go on Radio Ava to talk with old friends about the implications of Brexit for sex workers’ rights. Work, migration, freedom of movement. Preaching to the converted. For good measure – for the record – I add abolitionist feminists, with their anti-trafficking campaigns, to the list of those we should hold responsible for the anti-migration hysteria that has enabled this fiasco.
Saturday 25 and Sunday 26 – We dance and laugh our way through Pride weekend. At Black Pride on Sunday it doesn’t rain until nightfall, the first dry day all month. A DJ from Pulse Nightclub comes on stage; memories of Orlando surround us. With Jo Cox’s murder in the middle of it all, we have 10 days of shock and grief to sweat off. D looks healthy and beautiful and she goes up to a hot young butch and gives has a sexy kiss – her first proper snog since diagnosis and treatment. I feel giddy.
Later that night we hear the news of the depressing election results from Madrid, and I commiserate with Spanish friends in London and abroad. This too feels easier than facing the pain closer to home, though I know it’s all connected.
Monday 27 – Tuesday 28 – Days off, not from politics, but from the intensity of the past few days. Seminars and red wine under the stars. Sublimation of trauma into high theory? We buy our last drink Monday night in a Soho bar where the Spanish barwoman says to my Spanish companion: ‘Vivimos y trabajamos aquí, y ahora no nos quieren.’ In this construction, I implicitly belong to ‘they’ – the subject of not wanting. Of ‘Leave’. Of ‘Send them back’. My loved ones the objects.
Wednesday 29 – I get excited about the safety pin campaign. Discussions with friends online bring up questions about who can feel safe wearing this small symbol of solidarity. I fear for many of my friends, my closest family in the UK, but safe in my own skin. Because I am one of those migrants who ‘doesn’t count’. Because I am white, from a Christian background, a native English speaker. Because I am impeccably middle class. At the British Library no one else I see is wearing a pin. The action seems to divide more than unite, too many good reasons – but also excuses – not to wear it, even among the mostly white academic milieu of Humanities 2.
Later I have my first real outburst. I row with a friend and new lover over dinner. Both Remain supporters, both EU citizens, one resident in the UK. It’s not a disagreement. I am not angry at them. Only one sentence of my rant remains clear in my memory: ‘There ARE legitimate reasons to leave the EU, but the case for these was never made effectively during the campaign. And all those supposedly progressive Leave voters had a full week following the murder of Jo Cox to get it through their heads what a far-right political assassination is, and what Brexit would mean in practice, not just in theory.’
(Over the coming days I will come back to this thought time and again, and to the nagging feeling that too much of the white British left does not see issues related to borders, migration, race and racism as central to progressive movement in the way class is – and should be – central. And it’s not just about how we deal with the present and work towards the future, but how we understand the past. What would an anti-Brexit History curriculum look like? The History programme I teach on seems more painfully parochial than ever. We have not begun to meet the task of building a postcolonial curriculum with and for our postcolonial student body. The task of de-centring England and the UK, decentering northern Europe and Christianity, is more urgent than ever.)
My mates are alarmed – not at my argument and sentiments, but at my tone. I am reminded of the thin line between passion and dogma, in politics anyway. One says sympathetically, taking my hand, that anger is good, but it needs to be transformed into productive, practical action. I snap back that I have had less than a week to take this all in and I still have the right to be angry. I go home alone in the rain and cry myself to sleep.
Thursday 30 June – I go to work exhausted, and for the first time hear people – colleagues – talk about grief. About not being able to sleep. About mourning.
That evening, another respite. A last supper. Preparing and sharing vegan food, glasses of Rioja, quiet, intense conversation. Communication. Contact. Touch. I know I will hold onto this memory in the times to come. I have started to build my anti-Brexit solidarity archive.
‘We have to have a conversation’ – but which one?
So, it’s the day after the referendum and I have the news on,
and there’s this older white woman on the screen,
who is tearfully proclaiming, with a catch in her voice, ‘I’ve got my country back!’
And I think, who do you think you’ve got it back from, lady?
And all the political commentators are drawing the lesson
that ‘we have to listen to these people’,
and Remain lost because it didn’t listen to these people,
because this liberal metropolitan elite has looked down on these people
and didn’t take their fears and concerns seriously,
because we ‘have to have a conversation’ about immigration,
and I think, where have you been for the last ten years, at least?
Because the normalising of this particular language of everyday racism,
of people naturally feeling unsettled by the presence of difference,
of people needing to hold on to an illusion of sameness
in order to feel comfortable and in control of their lives
has been a relentlessly repetitive part of mainstream political discourse for a long time now.
From New Labour’s ‘Secure Borders, Safe Haven’ in 2002,
through all the years of austerity politics, the migrant –
with his/her sham family,
with his/her failure to integrate,
with his/her demands to access the welfare state,
to sap and drain ‘our’ healthcare system, our housing, our schools and services –
has been one part of the pack of scroungers who need to be told to ‘do the right thing’,
to stop Breaking Britain.
And no one, in mainstream politics, has been willing or able
to step outside the logic of that narrative
that can only talk to ‘hard-working families who do the right thing’ to say,
well, actually, living with difference is part of being human and social,
having to rely on each other is part of being human and social,
being changed by the change that is happening around you
is part of being human and social.
Don’t think you’re getting your country back, lady,
what you’re ‘getting back’ is some narrow and – to me – ugly and enclosing home
that shuts you up and shuts you off from a good part
of what makes us human and what makes us social.
Let’s have that conversation for a change (lady),
you might even like that different kind of home better, in the end.