Brexit

About June: Talking Brexit in the Land of Nexit

The hand of Fatima offers protection. Mine was an Eid gift from my mother when I was 15, a small silver piece on a simple chain that sits just below the jugular notch. Whenever I am nervous I grip it in my palm, twisting the links into my neck. After the massacre in Pulse I put it on, and again after Jo Cox was murdered. When Pride arrived in the aftermath of a pro-Brexit vote I once more fastened it to me. Those days in what seemed to be ever increasing public violence it seemed to be the first thing my hand stretched to in the morning rush.

I started writing this piece almost four months ago. Each time something else happened until it grew into such an ungainly monster I thought let’s just wait until things settle down, and I’ve finally moved and adjusted to graduate school. In times like these you don’t want to be just adding to the noise, letting your frustration meaninglessly join to all the other frustration in the world without having something more unique to say. I had written my last piece on how using wedge politics to demonise select group should mean you lose a moral right to govern an entire population. At the time I chose to tone down some of the language in the interest of not letting my anxious state seep in since I thought my fears weren’t as physically founded as I emotionally felt they were.

Brexit is not a prospect I supported, but my main concern after June was that it had been reshaped into a debate on something else entirely – on who has worth as a person in this country – rather than the fact that people in deprived areas understandably took the chance on the possibility of a better future (a choice I might have very well made in the same circumstances with similarly limited information). I was thankful for perspectives like this that showed more nuance, mainly because I saw the key danger as allowing the narrative to be “people only voted Leave to get them out”. The issue is not with Leave voters as a whole, even if I think the decision will prove to be a horrendous mistake. Racist attitudes and actions have always been around and though some people are surprised by this higher visibility it is not as if you ever had to look particularly far to find them before. The issue is that when people assume others voted for the same anti-foreigner reasons they do, they become more confident in voicing xenophobic and racist opinions no matter how unsavoury or violent. We are now in a place where these narratives are part of the mainstream political discourse; something ugly that is staying at the surface, at least for a large part of the time being.

Being a British student in the Netherlands nowadays seems to mean constantly discussing Brexit with incredulous fellow Europeans, and accepting our status as the joke country. The conversation becomes repetitive and a little shaming, though never anything undeserved. However in these debates I can see the same incomprehension regarding those who discount the multicultural project that so many of my contemporaries in Britain faced pre-referendum. Britain is seen as exceptional in the level of its fear of the other, since Brexit and its aftermath holds proof, even as a recent study shows these views are widely held across Europe. Geert Wilders, who recently posted on Twitter “They carry our passports but they do not belong to us. They spit on our identity and behave like conquerors” (the they is of course implicitly understood by everyone to definitely not be white, nor Christian) is on track to head the largest party in the Netherlands after the next election, even as he goes back to court yet again on charges of hate speech. Yet we still like to pretend that it is only in other places and not our communities where the worst views are held.

This same rhetoric that now alienates those like me who are assumed an “outsider” on the basis of name or looks should register to them and yet often they aren’t noticed until pointed out. I on the other hand don’t get the luxury; many of the anti-immigrant actions the UK government proposes will reverberate to me anyway so it is something one needs to be hyper-tuned towards. When discussion of a speech by May centres on her apparent ‘parking of the tanks on Labour’s lawn’ we have not learnt.

A large part of my life was spent with an immigrant parent – my mother was white British in Sudan – yet people in the UK will always think my father must have been the interloper, or even me, always asking “but where are you really from?” after I’ve said I’m British for the third time. It’s bound in the way that so many otherwise reasonable people think only of others as fractions of nationalities rather than multiples, and who think there is some definitive Truth of citizenship in borders rather than the nation as an imagined community that we get to define and redefine. Notions of race and religion and immigration are threads tightly bound together and people will use one in lieu of other even though they are not the same.

My fortune is that I can escape if need be – it is a sign of privilege to be relatively assured that you can move most places and be fairly accepted; always the expat and never the immigrant so long as I pick location wisely. In comparison some of the best people I know will now have to spend time in limbo, not knowing what will happen to them in the country they have called home. Others will have to additionally deal with the likely rise of even more open xenophobia and racism from people who will never consider them British. And some of the worst off will likely get an even worse deal, as more parties are tempted to out-xenophobe each other in pursuit of votes, rather than focus on beneficial change.

Last week I had a chance to practice my language skills, but it was Arabic and not Dutch that I spoke to the shopkeeper. I wasn’t surprised, though a little saddened, as the rest of the people in the shop looked momentarily scared when he let out a joyous “Allahu Akbar” at someone he could chat to in one of his native languages. In this environment, where being yourself carries a danger of invalidating your nationality in the eyes of others, we are wrecking chances for expressing a more nuanced identity. We self-monitor because the consequences can be further alienation, and that in turn allows others to ignore that this is happening. In an environment like this why would you not cling to something that gives you a little hope, whether it’s a silver necklace or a foreign move or a conversation with someone in the same boat, and pretend that everything could be okay?

I have little faith that this will be solved in the coming years, because it an undeniable part of our political culture. We know where this road leads and yet here we are again, rumbling towards more exclusionary populism. In the meantime though I am embracing the fact that here – for once – I am just being treated like a foreigner because now I am actually one.