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.

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Your Childhood is a Demon that You Hide from Yourself

Content Note: This contains discussion and a video of discussion of potential sexual assault

Does anyone remember ‘Chums’? It’s a very British institution, a parody of Friends that was broadcast on ITV as part of the Saturday morning kids programme SMTV:Live. I used to watch that show with my brother religiously because everyone knew ITV was where all the good cartoons were. We especially loved Chums though, because it was ridiculous and the live nature of the filming meant that we felt like we were watching friends (haha, but that was genuinely unintended). It was part of what Saturday mornings and the weekend meant to me as a child and so I had fond memories.

Childhood is like that – if you’re middle-class and live in relative privilege it becomes the time you keep turning to for good feelings. You have hope and possibility and no worries and genuine enthusiasm for silly things. Some people have smells that draw them back to this time, a lot have shows such as Pokémon, or old Playstation games (remember Rayman? It was the one game I was fairly competent at).

I suppose that this is why in the first year of university, homesick and lost in a different country I decided to go and find something from my childhood to watch. A nice comforting memory to stand in for the friends and family I had left behind. I picked Chums, since I figured that I would get the humour now as well. And I sort-of did, though the laughs were more because I was in a silly mood and feeling like I was transported back to sitting cross-legged on the white shag carpet. That sentiment was interrupted when I clicked on yet another episode only to bear witness to Ant encouraging Dec to attempt to strip a passed out Cat so they could see her breasts. Maybe more, I don’t know where they were going with it exactly.

As a joke.

As a joke in a show for kids.

Of course Cat wakes up before anything happens (it is still aimed at children after all so we can show them boundaries laughed away, but never nipples) yet that doesn’t actually matter. It’s incredibly messed up that anyone thought that was acceptable as a gag regardless of the target audience (as a heads up, if you have ever been confused about what rape culture is, well – this is what rape culture is. It’s where we go “haha, they were going to violate that woman, isn’t it hilarious because she wouldn’t know”). And now I can’t think back to Saturday mornings without dwelling on what other damaging messages I may have obliviously absorbed.

Since then I’ve told many different people, and they all seem horrified, mainly because no-one can remember registering the actual implications behind this kind of humour. A few have vehemently denied that a children’s programme would do such a thing. Nobody wants to admit that part of their childhood was laughing at the idea of sexual assault.

Anyway, after years of avoiding trawling the internet for it, I finally I found it again. So here is my proof that this did happen:

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As much as I would like it to be is not an isolated incident. I do not think these childhood betrayals are unique. Speaking to my mother she clearly remembers how her favourite book when she was young was ‘Little Black Sambo’ and a family favourite to watch was ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’. I was aghast that she could have thought this was okay but “everyone watched it” and childhood is a time when you don’t think further than yourself. It’s the responsibility of the society around you to protect you from this, but what do we do when the society around you doesn’t care?

Even in my youth I remember watching a show featuring a Gollywog in it – a grotesque racial caricature – and not thinking too much of it other than being a little scared. It took me until I was an adult to have a sudden realisation of what it actually represented. I think that’s the worst part – when you have privilege you just don’t even pick up on it because you’re not forced to. It’s only when you make yourself learn that you see all the terrible things that have been in plain sight. It’s why remembering your position and always striving to learn and listen is so key. It’s also why romanticising childhood is so bad – childhood is where all these murky ideas started to grow, and saying something was “of it’s time” is not an excuse. We have to know better.

It’s tough to watch your childhood destroy itself but you must. When you start seeing the flaws in everything is when you can start improving. Sure it tears holes in your nostalgia, but you need to honestly appreciate what the culture of the time wanted to teach you, and how wrong it was. And then you remember a time last year when people thought it was funny to try and get a girl to take her top off and you kept saying, over and over, that she didn’t have too. You see all the little links. They grew up on the same stuff but never got to the point where they questioned it.

I’m not saying you should have no fond memories, just that we should cast that adult eye – the one that calls their favourite show “problematic” because it is – and actually look hard at what we treasured, and still treasure now. Nostalgia is not and never will be worth the price of that girl’s dignity.

Charlie Hebdo: Freedom to Defend Nuance and Anger

I don’t know exactly what I will say when people speak to me over the next few weeks about Charlie Hebdo. I know they will lean in, head cocked, as they do each time something like this happens, and ask me what I think about it. I will begin with ‘It is a terrible tragedy’ and, jumping in, their eyes will light up as they discuss the backwardness of certain groups. It always feels like an awful talk segment titled When Muslims Attack!, where the conclusion has be set and I am merely the speaker drafted in for “balance”. To defend nuance makes you an apologist for murder.

When I was in high school I ran the Model United Nation’s club. At the beginning of each session we would discuss the top news stories. It was an Islamic country and, by extension, most of our members were Muslim. One week we discussed the Danish cartoon controversy, an incident that I now mainly remember for the months we were unable to buy Lurpak butter.

People were angry but only a few admitted to actually seeing the cartoons in question; most relied on information and descriptions from news and social media which were not always accurate. In the interest of a factual debate I described the cartoons as best as I could. People were still angry, but this time their hurt was only focused on certain cartoons – those that seemed to set out to offend for no other reason than they could. The rest were bad jokes or just confusing. It was a heated debate about the moral right to publish such things. No-one was debating the legal right of a cartoonist to draw such things, nor was the protection of these people from violent reprisals in question. They were upset that in a world were there was so much miscommunication about Islam, newspapers around the world were declaring that the very essence of freedom was to perpetuate cartoons depicting it as barbaric, and then gleefully documenting the violent reactions rather than the dominant response of either silence or non-violent demonstration. They wanted freedom to also mean the freedom to consider treating them with respect by not publishing them.

Muslims, it seems, are not allowed to be angry. They are not allowed to have the nuance of opposing something they find offensive, protesting it non-violently, and opposing violent reactions. We celebrate the rights both to offend and criticise in general, but for a Muslim to be an active part of this system is to risk getting lumped in with those who do not believe in debate and engagement. The only correct responses to such a cartoon are apparently either unquestioning support or the acknowledgement that it is “just a bad joke”. Yet if we make it so that our definition of a good Muslim is one who believes only what “we” deem progressive then what does that say about us?

I know that I will spend the next couple of days dealing with people labelling those close to me, in the most thinly veiled terms, as animals because when they hear ‘Islamic extremism’ what they actually hear is ‘natural progression of a dangerous religion’. I know that I will get the joy of reading ‘Muslims and the West’ as if it is not possible to be both truly Western and truly Muslim. As if Western values are a separate entity reserved only for the non-Muslim (and let’s be frank – often white) amongst us. As if the many people sharing these cartoons now in a show of solidarity do not include Muslims in their numbers.

I believe that some of the cartoons from Charlie Hebdo I have seen in the past day, and the calls to reprint them everywhere, can make people feel like they are not part of our society. We are reacting to an event by being divisive – “fully support these things and prove you’re with us, or get out”. People may share (as they should rightly be allowed to) some of these cartoons, including the ones that shore up stereotypes of Islam as intolerant and violent, but in the small area I control I won’t add to that public perception. It is a path which can contribute to the escalation of looks I receive in airports. It means adding to that culture that has people arguing with queer Muslims about their ability to be queer Muslims, or dismissing the choices of women who wear head-scarves as being rooted in oppression. I practice the freedom I value in my choice to not add to this labelling of Muslims as guilty until proven innocent.

Let people be angry about cartoons – now and in the future – and let them make cartoons for people to be angry about as well. Recognise that people can deplore murder and deplore things that hurt them. People can and should be allowed to show their opposition to such a horrific attack in many ways. One of them is engaging in the freedom that enables Charlie Hebdo to be published and hopefully to continue to be published in the future (for press, even ones we disagree with, should not be stopped with the barrel of a gun).

People are people, and the press are press. They are all flawed. Let both be criticised through the freedoms we cherish, and let both be free from violent attack.