On Friday morning when I woke up to the news that the Leave campaign had won I was in total shock. Complete disbelief. A sick feeling filled my stomach and lingered there for the rest of the day. My mum and I exchanged thoughts on what a disastrous result it was whilst my dad – usually a loud character – mumbled something about how David Cameron should never have let this referendum come to be. Turning on the TV confirmed that this was not a terrible joke – Britain (or rather England and Wales, I’ll come onto that later) had indeed decided that it wanted to part from the EU. This is what the majority of people in ‘my’ country had decided. I say ‘my’ because already I was starting to re-think where I fitted in this country which felt like it had just become a different place; a place where I may no longer want to be – or be wanted.
Flicking between Piers Morgan and Nigel Farage talking on the matter made for depressing viewing. Various people were interviewed on the results and what it meant but their words were irrelevant, as was the fact that Leave had won by a relatively small majority. Leave had prevailed and that was the only fact I cared about in the moment, still trying to comprehend it and the magnitude of what was a significant moment in British (and world) history.
It was only when a map of Britain appeared on screen breaking down how each are of the UK had voted that my attention was really won. My mind-set at the time was along the lines of: who is responsible for this? That map made and the accompanying statistics made for fascinating viewing and was a real eye-opener to the state of Britain today. Scotland, a solid block of yellow (yellow representing Remain), had unanimously decided that it wanted to stay in the EU. I had not really paid much thought to Scotland’s position in the debate and do not know what I had expected but seeing that large block of yellow was certainly a point of interest. Then there was London – a significantly smaller yellow area on the map. But London, unlike Scotland, did not stand out because of its sheer size, quite the contrary. London stood out by way of contrast and juxtaposition – a small yellow island floating in a mass of Brexit blue. Scotland looked strong on the map, London looked overwhelmed, which of course it was.
Looking at that map, which also showed strong support for remain in Northern Ireland and that other major cities like Birmingham, which I, along with many others, thought would probably vote like London, I got to thinking about how regionally varied the United Kingdom is and how that had affected voting.
When it was first announced there would be an EU referendum I thought it was a no-brainer that Britain would vote to remain; the entire debate much ado about nothing. As the months passed however and the campaigns really got underway, watching various talk shows and following the media – and ultimately when it was announced that a prediction poll had found Brexit to be in the lead – I realised that Remain was not such a certainty.
In all of the campaigning and discussions I had been reminded that the United Kingdom, despite its name – is not a single, unified body, far from it.
In several ways I have had the privilege of being exposed to and experiencing the diversity of Britain and its different parts. Being mixed-race (my father is Jamaican, my mother white British) means that I have always been in touch with both black Britain and its subcultures but also traditional white British culture.
As a Londoner who has travelled to rural England, places like the Isle of Wight and Scotland, I have seen how vastly different – geographically and culturally – places which appear so close together on a map of the British Isles actually are. As a child and during my teenager years I would take trips to Essex to visit my mother’s family and my brother, cousins and I (all from London and all of mixed ethnicity or race) would pass comment on how different the county was despite being just over an hour’s drive from London – things like: the only black person we could see being the post man, the fact that there was no Oyster card equivalent and that you had to wait such a long time for buses, the aged population (we used to think how boring it must be to live permanently in such a place as a young person and wondered what the youths did to pass time), and the different fashion choices of our peers there (we obviously thought our style choices were better).
My family would also often holiday in places like the New Forest, Devon and Suffolk. At the time telling my friends that I was going to these places didn’t seem very cool or exciting when they were going to the likes of Spain, Portugal and other destinations abroad where there was guaranteed sun and sea – did going to somewhere else in England really qualify as a holiday and should I still buy souvenirs? Well actually, the answer is yes. These other parts of Britain were so different to London that I may as well have been in a different country but for the shared language. The rolling hills, pure streams and dramatic rock faces of the Peak District, the horses roaming free in the New Forest, the Victorian-style tea rooms and intimate parish churches in small country villages and countless other novel sights and experiences greeted me on these holidays which were a world apart from the hustle and bustle, tubes, noise and concrete of the big city. A lot of young Londoners I know, despite having travelled abroad to other countries quite a lot, have barely seen the rest of own country and although I have ventured out there are still many places I have not been – particularly in the north.
Brexit has made me want to (but also really not want to) visit places like Liverpool and Newcastle and places where the Leave campaign was most popular to really understand what made the inhabitants of those towns and cities vote so differently to Scotland and London. Similarly, places like Clacton where UKIP has gained strong support must hold something alien to me and my experience and outlook as a mixed-race Londoner which I want to know more about, to really understand how there can be such ideological disconnect between not-so-distant parts of the same country.
A lot of people were horrified by what happened to our currency immediately in the wake of the Brexit result and the charts showing the pound plummet but for me the sick feeling in my stomach came from my understanding of the cultural significance of the decision. Nigel Farage was the face of the Leave campaign and Brexit to me clearly meant one thing: Britain had just decided to adopt the intolerant, inward-looking anti-immigrant and racist ideologies associated with UKIP and far-right organisations like the BNP. Britain had just become somewhere where immigrants, ethnic minorities and Muslims had become even more at risk and vulnerable to racist hate crimes. Jo Cox’s murder had been a major wakeup call and reminder of the growth of such prejudice and bigotry in British society, which has been gradually on the rise for years now and reflected by ever-growing Islamophobia, the surge in support for UKIP, immigration dominating headlines and political debates and, ultimately, immigration and scaremongering about immigration seeming to have clinched the result for Brexit.
I have seen racism in Britain up close but I had convinced myself that the BNP and other racist far-right groups were a tiny percentage of the population not really of national concern. One incident I remember vividly is from a few years ago when I had gone to Brighton for the day with my parents. Not long after leaving the train station and walking into the town centre we could suddenly hear a lot of noise and chanting. As we continued soon it emerged that there was a far-right march taking place with those involved projecting their ignorant, bigoted thoughts through shouts and banners. They were a sizeable group and stood next to my dad, an obvious target for such racists, as they passed by, I suddenly felt overwhelmed and scared. I have always viewed as an extremely strong, undefeatable man but in that moment I felt that I needed to protect him; that he might be vulnerable, and that was a horrible feeling. That day I cried. I cried because I could not understand how anyone could have such hatred for people they do not know – purely based on where they come from or the colour of their skin. I cried because I could not understand how anyone could view someone as amazing, kind and generous as my dad with hate or disgust. I cried because I had just come face-to-face with the truly ugly face of racism and the very tangible realisation that within my own country there are people who would do me and my family harm because we are supposedly un-British.
On Friday evening, once the news of Brexit had really sunk in and I had considered it from both a logical and emotional perspective, I cried again. This time I cried because I had just realised that what I thought was a small minority of British people who held prejudice towards ethnic and racial minorities and immigrants and want to “take back” Britain was in fact a sizeable majority. I cried because I thought about how unwanted, saddened and scared immigrants and ethnic minority people across Britain must now feel, after a long build-up of anti-immigrant sentiment and outright racism in Britain leading up to the referendum, and then the victory of that movement. I was thinking of the lovely, hard-working immigrant friends and colleagues I have and how they must have felt seeing Nigel Farage’s despicable ‘breaking point’ poster, being talked about as if they were leeches on society and then hearing the news that Britain had voted against being a society of openness, cultural exchange and the movement of people (both to and from Europe). I cried because I did not know where I fitted into this new, intolerant Britain which had emerged from the referendum. Did these people so obsessed with immigration and “taking back” their country view all non-white people, even if born here like myself, as immigrants and as having stolen “their” country? What about my father and the many other Caribbean people who had been asked to come here as part of the Windrush generation to help build up Britain and who have contributed so, so much to British society?
My deep sadness was rooted in the fear that people like me – anyone non-white – might soon be made to feel unwelcome in Britain. I have long been involved in combating racism and the movement for racial equality and it is something I feel so passionately about. I have also made it my business to stand against Islamophobia, homophobia and other kinds of prejudice because I understand that each of these forms of hatred and bigotry and intertwined – all stem from an irrational fear of the ‘other’ and it would be almost hypocritical to fight against one whilst remaining silent on another. I was sad because Brexit and the embrace of anti-immigrant, anti-Eastern-European sentiment is surely a precursor to a broader move towards an anti-black, anti-Asian, anti-Muslim society where everyone who is “different” is susceptible to bigoted attacks and made to feel unwanted.
In the days immediately following the referendum result it is with much regret that I see that my concerns seem to have been justified, with the news that there has been a rise in hate crimes and racist attacks in the aftermath of Brexit. At the same time, walking the streets of Brixton (where I now realise I have the extreme good fortune to live) since the announcement of Brexit I also have hope that actually diversity, multiculturalism, love and unity will continue to triumph of divisiveness and hatred in Britain. Immigrants have done too much, and continue to contribute far too much, both economically and culturally to British society to ever be erased from it. Being British to me has always been distinct from being English – anyone can be or become British no matter what their race or where they have come from. To be British is not about where you have come from but about identifying with and subscribing to a culture, its norms and language. British is not a label which can be denied to any person who is immersed in the culture and society and as such self-identifies as British. I am British and I always will be. The only thing which may change in light of Brexit is not whether I will still qualify for the label but the extent to which I am able to take pride in being British.