When you have just finished work, picked up your kids and gave instructions for homework, travelling to Digbeth on the tail of M38 traffic does not seem attractive. It was January 26th, the coldest day of the year so far, and ghost factories of inner city Birmingham felt unwelcoming until I reached the Impact Hub with its bright and optimistic spaces.
I must admit, it has been a while since I have attended an academic debate, there’s not been many in the last 10 years raising two children. Understanding Brexit – Inequality, Inclusion and Social Justice was worth it, I thought, after all, Brexit is what keeps me awake at night, worries my friends and clients and I am not even going to mention the Trump-effect. It’s the end of the world as we know it – at least since 1989.
I came a bit late and decided to camp on the carpet by the door as the room was completely packed. The Panel were already discussing the reasons why majority of people voted for Brexit whilst we (the audience that is) all know that Brexit could never possibly solve them. They discussed the migration statistics and various half-truths and lies told by the Brexiters. They went into a lot of depth explaining structural inequalities entrenched in racism since colonisation. They also talked about the rise of fascism, nationalism, xenophobia and white supremacy across the world. We were told by Kehinde Andrews that Britain has always pursued the ‘whiter the better’ model of citizenship.
I am looking around the room – and I wonder, whether I am the only one who thought the debate should also touch on social injustice and exclusion faced by newly settled migrants from very diverse communities – white and non-white who are all EU citizens (some old and some new) and who are having to reconsider their life chances in this country. Many of these people did not have an easy ride – coming from both rural and urban communities devastated by the fall of Soviet Block, austerity or possibly war refugees from around the world who happen to have Italian, French of Dutch citizenship. Worse still, if you are a Roma hated by your neighbourhood with that sneaky feeling you thought you’d never have – that actually, you had it better during the communist era….at least the hate attacks were not as widespread and there was regular work.
These people took a gamble, learnt languages, uprooted their families, kissed good-bye their relatives (whilst still supporting them financially)- and obediently paid taxes for decades in this country, some say, to prop up the generous British welfare system. And it still was hard – their kids were queueing up for school places (waiting for months and years), their genuine intentions (to work and contribute) were constantly questioned, their housing infested, their workers’ rights undermined but that they still kept their loyalties. Of course, it could be worse – they could have been ‘enslaved’…or ‘sexually exploited’ like some of their less fortunate friends. So they persevered.
It troubles me is these people have little voice in debates such is the one hosted by the Impact Hub. They do not know or relate well to the current debates of inequality, discrimination or racism. The old concept of working classes and proletariat versus ‘evil imperialists’ pushed so aggressively during the era of Eastern and Central European socialism is obsolete and unhelpful. The left across Europe is generally going though difficult times, searching new identities and answers.
Yet, we are becoming more and more unequal societies, where migrant workers are on the bottom of food chains and I am afraid that racism discourse – mainly focusing on visible ethnic minorities, does not offer any practical answers. After all, many migrants are voiceless, their contribution invisible and they are resented by all different colours of the spectrum – for taking jobs, marrying for passports and money, for drinking in the street, or sleeping in the park…or just speaking their mother tongue.
So – where does this leave us? I believe that anti-racism movement shouldn’t shy away from exploring different perceptions of racism experienced by people who are officially described as Other White but their culture is portrayed as base, alien, mistrustful, cheating, hugely anti-social and generally inferior regularly by Daily Mail and other media.
The word xenophobia does not always cut it. If one understands European history (East versus West) and even – Euro-Asian history – one finds many shades of racism dividing the continent to Aryans and non-Aryans, Ottomans and Europeans, Slavs versus Germans, Roma versus non-Roma, Jews and non-Jews , commies versus capitalists and Hungarians versus everybody else in Central Europe.
One only needs to look at development of 20th century fascism to realise that many European administrative procedures were racial-ised at one time or other. If one goes further into history and etymology, soon discovers that the word ‘slave’ was inspired by the ethnic label for Slavs who used to be hunted and sold into slavery via Ottoman Empire and Muslim Spain. And yes, I do need to address one wicked problem – as many people assume -that European migrants are themselves racist and therefore have very little understanding 0f ‘the struggle’.
Since I came to UK, I wanted to join several black and minority ethnic networks and my ‘whiteness’ was somehow in the way – ‘this is about visible differences that lead to discrimination‘ I was told. And not long after, the employee network changed its name into a Black Workers’ Group – which made the point absolutely clear.
But I accept – these are valid arguments and we mustn’t ignore the accumulated disadvantage and colonial legacies. And I can’t deny that Eastern Europe has its own horrific issues with racism. But that does not justify the stereotyping, hatred, mistreatment and direct discrimination, perceived as racism, by the victims who happen to be Polish, Moldovan, Italian-Pakistani, Russian, Slovakian or Roma.
We all carry prejudices based on information our brain has been fed (particularly in our early development). It’s a fact now observable through neuroscience experiments. We can be Asian and affluent and have a particularly negative view of Eastern Europeans (the label, by the way, that chucks half the continents’ diverse population into one basket). Or we can be poor and White and have dual heritage kids as our best friends.
So, I disagree that the European project is simply built around the idea of White ‘fortress Europe’ that purposely excludes non-White populations and this is why ethnic minorities voted for Brexit. European countries, like the rest of the world, are experiencing squeeze on resources, squeeze on middle class. Social mobility of our children is threatened. This represents struggle for resources at every level, be it access to education, a decent library, a GP surgery or relatively safe neighbourhood.
Coming out of poverty is extremely hard for those who aren’t able to pull on these resources and public resources are becoming very scarce. The fear is felt mainly by those who think they have a mandate to talk about Britain’s future – White or non-White as opposed to the newcomers who clearly do not have it. Not only do they not have a vote but they also, by their own admission, do not claim any space for any voice because they have tried, for all these years, to keep their head down and be ‘invisible’.
With so many different languages, cultures, political heritages, previous conflicts and wars, Europe has no chance to survive without close cooperation. Europe needs to allow its citizens to move freely to test their stamina, to thrive, to help out poorer regions, to become multilingual, to compete, to try survive. And yes, Europe should reform and become more democratic and reassess many things that have gone wrong.
And every continent should have their own European Union that tries to find the best way to live with their neighbours. Let’s have a multipolar world, where different transnational structures negotiate between themselves to find the best deals for their citizens.
It is a shame that Britain has never fully embraced this concept and is now ‘feeling in the dark’ for some kind of a narrative – of greatness and strength that can hardly ever come from isolating itself from your nearest neighbours.