Racism, multiculturalism and Brexit

I take it as a given (by polls) that the most influential reason why people voted  Brexit was not to restore British sovereignty in the abstract but more precisely to “take it back” in order to stop more of “them” coming over. I also take it as understood that  this statement does not infer that all who voted for Brexit  are racists. Structural racism does not make of every individual a racist but implicates every individual, variously, in the reproduction and/or contestation of racial structures.

I’m sorry I hard to start with Political Theory 101 and Political Reality 101 but I’m afraid that’s the quality of some of the responses to Brexit so far.

Glad that’s over with.

Because I want to move away from an analysis that puts the white English voter at stage-centre and key interlocutor of the Brexit drama. I haven’t got anything that’s too formulated; just some thoughts about the other kinds of relationalities in Britain’s postimperial and multicultural polity that are implicated in the referendum.

Let me give you two examples. They emerge from the fact that, while 73% of Black peoples voted to Remain – the HIGHEST % of any demographic parsed so far, some Black people voted Brexit and it doesn’t make them any less black for doing so.

I have heard solid and compelling anecdotes of Black people voting Brexit because, in their experience, white employers were preferring white (Eastern) Europeans to Black people. In other words, they felt that EU migration was eroding the tentative gains made against structural (and often anti-Black) racism in the UK.

I’ve also heard a number of people of African heritage in the UK talk about the opportunity that Brexit might give to a renewal of links with the Commonwealth. We might dismiss these ideas as post-traumatic-imperial-melancholy. But some of the arguments I have heard reference the UK’s effective abandoning of the Commonwealth with the European Communities Acct of 1972. And now they see an opportunity to focus back on the Commonwealth, especially regarding reparations for slavery, the ills of colonial rule, and the inequitable settlements at independence. Some even talk of a renewal of pan-Africanism through renewed commonwealth links.

In other words, these responses are parsing Brexit in some way shape and form through a postcolonial (global) justice framework.

Yesterday all this got me thinking back to one of the things that really shook me when I was living in Aotearoa New Zealand. It was this: government and society seemed intent on painting over the historical challenge of “biculturalism” with a gloss of “multiculturalism”. Let me explain.

The “bicultural” challenge is code for “reparations regarding settler colonialism”. More specifically, biculturalism emerges from a movement by Māori people to get their “partners” to honour the Treaty of Waitangi that was signed in 1840. Article 2 of that Treaty assures that Māori shall retain control over Māori things – including land, language, culture, etc. Through intensified Māori and Pasifika activism and struggles in the 70s and early 80s the bicultural model was to some extent “constitutionalised” in the Waitangi Tribunal process, which ultimately sought to repair – fiscally and otherwise – successive breaches to the Treaty by settler governments.

Yet, at the same time that this bicultural “settlement” was being crafted  in the mid 80s, NZ took a neoliberal turn (termed “Rogernomics”  after Finance Minister Roger Douglass of the 4th Labour government). Consequent to this “opening up” of the economy, different peoples started to move to and settle in Aotearoa NZ. Like many global population flows of the 1990s onwards, these peoples did NOT all travel the well-worn colonial/imperial routes.

Previously, those old routes facilitated the increasing arrival of Pasifika peoples post-war, for example. In fact, in the late 1960s and early 1970s many Māori and Pasifika activists were calling THIS movement “multicultural”. There lies a hidden conceptual history of a very different mobilization of the concept “multiculturalism” that does not place the white man as the foundational cosmopolitan.

But anyway, the 1990s saw the arrivals of peoples from especially China but also India, other South East Asian departure points, and, of course, small refugee populations. All this gave rise to a “new” kind of “multiculturalism”, buoyed by a paternalistic refugee industry, restaurants serving “kiwi hot” (not hot at all) South East Asian cuisine, internet cafes, flat whites and long blacks.

But what I distinctly remember is how many white New Zealanders – primarily from settler stock – preferred multiculturalism as a lifestyle over biculturalism as a responsibility. And from a political-economy perspective, because these new arrivants brought capital and skills (not just labour), multiculturalism promised far more easy access to and positioning within the global economy than biculturalism ever could. None of this, of course, has stopped a casual and occasionally not-so casual racism towards these new peoples.

Still, just how much Government structures have differentiated multiculturalism from biculturalism (read colonial legacies) can be gleaned by the fact that there is Te Puni Kōkiri (effectively, Ministry of Māori Affairs),  Ministry for Pacific Peoples, and then an Office of Ethnic Communities (for all other non-whites), part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Anyway, I remember one elder Māori activist tell me, bluntly, and with great concern, that Chinese were going to outbreed Māori. In fact, I think the % of Chinese living in NZ is now as great if not slightly greater than the indigenous population (around 15% – unless things have changed drastically).Racist you might say?

Perhaps. Or we could take the line that racism can only be an exercise of power, and indigenous people – similar to Black peoples in the West – do not hold that kind of structural power to make a structural difference on another group of people. Then this would count as xenophobia, or prejudice?

Again, perhaps. But I don’t think this was the intention. Really, this elder was conveying to me a deeper concern: how can you have a harmonious multicultural society that has been placed precariously upon a foundation that is out of skew because its colonial wrongs have never been righted? The ethical dilemma being communicated to me was actually this: how can Māori ensure the well-being of all those who live in their lands (their duty as tangata whenua) if they are not able to be meaningful partners – at least! – in the governance of those lands?

I want to return to Brexit UK. And think along similar lines, even though it is a very different context.

The struggles from the 60s onwards by “minority” peoples in the UK to a) address racism and racialized inequalities IN the place where they now live and b) confront postcolonial legacies in the points of departure  of their parents/grandparents: neither of these inter-linked struggles have been adequately resolved or sufficiently addressed. They are not history. These wrongs are living. And for some “minority” groups more than others.

Nonetheless, our multicultural make up is now composed significantly through migrations that are NOT from the old British imperial and commonwealth circuits. Some of these routes are from outside of Europe, but many – and increasingly half – are from inside the EU.

In  the last week the media has been awash with reports of quotidian and/or organized racism or xenophobia against Polish peoples, Jewish peoples, Muslim peoples, South Asian peoples, and Black and African peoples etc. In short, what we have right at this moment in time is a mini conflagration of racism and xenophobia. It was always there, of course, but it has now seen the light of day in an intensely political fashion.

How could a white English person tell a Pole and a Black person to fuck off back home, at the same time? Well, I would argue, that’s because of the one constant. English nationalism is necessarily postimperial and necessarily has a racialized – white – dimension to it.

In empire, Englishness assured that white people could differentiate themselves from the “darker” peoples of the colonies and dominions. They had to do this because by the late 19th century all were subjects to the British crown same way. So the racial-colonial division became articulated as English and/versus British. The Commonwealth always had and has its racial divisions codified as old and new members. And the “Anglosphere” still finds it hard to include within its reach the biggest national demographic of English speakers – India. Then there’s “expats” versus “migrants”.. etc etc.

Of course, when those who considered themselves British came to live in England – well that proximity was problem enough, and to all “classes”. But then when children grew up in England as, ostensibly “English”: all hell broke loose. Only in 1985 did the British government categorically disavow the eugenicist claim that the poor schooling of African-Caribbean children was due to the fact that they were educationally sub-normal.

So against this history it becomes clear just how seminal English nationalism is to the situation we are presently in. Even against other ostensibly white people, even “working-class” white people, it’s still the (post)imperially-crafted nature of English whiteness that is doing the talking, spitting, hitting.

That’s why I am convinced that ANY agitation to return public services and even meaningful jobs to areas hardest-hit by neoliberalism WILL fail if it does not unquestionably oppose racism and xenophobia. More, even: both agitation and opposition have to be intractably and organically connected. To my mind, English nationalism is the key faultline – from a cultural, political-economic and ideological point of view. Anyway you cut it.

But enough of the white English. What, now, of those Black peoples who I mentioned at the beginning? People who can’t so easily take succour in English nationalism, even if they and their parents were born in England?

I think this position resonates with that of the Māori elder I was talking about. It’s something to do with the sedementations of migrations and movements upon a base that was always skewed, wonky, uneven, fractured. Here’s how I visualise it: multiculturalism, placed on top of postcolonial racism, and then, in a granular way, falling partly into that base, while nonetheless keeping a somewhat defined stratum.

How to address this challenge? Ideally, I would say this: First we need to attend to the long-standing and deeply-entrenched colonial wrongs that continue to visit racialized inequality and discrimination upon “minority” peoples in the UK (some more than others). And second, after that is resolved, we could deal with the xenophobia that emanates from an English nationalism even towards EU migrants. For hopefully, by that point, English nationalism would be neutered and could no longer be either a lived identification or an instrument to be wielded by elites as they seek to divide and rule.

But that’s just abstract thinking. We live in a racially sedimented society (global formation, even), which, being unevenly laid, makes the layers intractably blurred: they can’t be neatly separated out in any kind of strategic or political sense.

So, thinking about this kaladescope of racism and xenophobia, of postcoloniality and multiculturalism, I want to take those Black peoples who voted for – or sympathised with – Brexit seriously. Even though I voted for Remain, no apologies!

What does that mean? Not too sure. I would like to know what you think. But I could say, at least, that for me it means cleaving to some small, albeit important principles, as we go forward from here.

  1. Every locality – whether regional, town, city, or intra-city – will have its specific ecology of this sedimentation that I am talking about. The political economy of the UK is complex when you get down to the level. There can be no abstract model to fit everywhere. Everywhere, the articualtion of colonial wrongs with multicultural xenophobias will be of a particular history and mix, and must be engaged with in light of those balances of forces.
  2. The point is, though,  that everywhere  they DO articulate. That means that we must push for the redressing of living colonial wrongs as we push against the demonization of non-EU (but not traditionally commonwealth) and EU migrants.
  3. That means that we should take care to keep our moral and political sensibilities fluid, while retaining fundamental pinciples. If a Black youth voted exit because she witnessed East Europeans were taking her jobs, we should not presume that she hates East Europeans. Perhaps she voted against white racist employees? In any case, the conversation has to begin from a recognition of the intersectionalities of race and xenophobia, colonial wrongs and multicultural prejudices. Nor a willful exclusion of either. Everything, all at once, necessarily in fluid hierarchies, but always in relation.
  4. Hence the terrain of struggle is not narrowly national, even though the intensity of the fall-out from Brexit is – at least at the moment. To be intersectional in the sense I am talking about here means that our arguments and actions, even if they take place mostly in the UK, have to be informed by a horizon that includes not just the UK and EU but also the Commonwealth (especially the brown and black commonwealth and under-wealth) and those places and peoples scarred by fifteen years of fallout of the war on terror fought by the UK and the EU, amongst others.



10 thoughts on “Racism, multiculturalism and Brexit

  1. Love it! But not persuaded about the link between assertion of englishness and empire. Only a minority of the white British ever got to see any part of the empire – it was something we read or were told about – and the Brits who went out to the empire rarely had any need to assert their kind of Britishness against the black or brown Britishness of others, although this did happen. George Orwell’s essay ‘Shooting an Elephant’ is an excellent case study.

    OK, so the fact the whites and others were all subjects of the British King or Queen may have fuelled one kind of assertion of Englishness, but I suspect that one would need to dig deeper to get to the several roots of contemporary English nationalism. I first discovered my Englishnessas a teenager in the 50s and 60s through visits to Scotland and Wales whichmade it clear that I was neither Scots nor Welsh ( or Irish as I found a little later).

    More random thoughts: I suspect that any of my parents generation discovered their englishness during WW11, when Olivier’s film of Shakespeare’s Henry V provided powerful (and popular) nationalist propaganda and large numbers of US troops were stationed in England and it was important, at least for some, not to be confused with the yanks

    On a visit to Mexico, I found it necessary not to be confused with the other English-speaking visitors, most of whom seemed to be American. Saying that I was not American but British simply did not work. Being ‘English’ was much better.

    inally, I moved to Australia at a time when would-be citizens had to swear allegiance to the Queen – which I never had to do while I lived in England – so I never became Australian.

    I would not want to generalise from my experience, except in the negative sense. The empire was only one of several routes leading towards a sense of being english. This point makes English racism a more complex beast than your discussion suggests.

  2. Hi Barry! hope you are GREAT! and thanks so much for reading and replying! I take your testimony, and thank you for it.

    Just a couple of points to clarify. Race doesn’t exhaust the meaning of englishness but race is fundamental to englishness. it’s why many (not all) BME people find it easier to say “british” than “english”. British, by the early 20th century was the “catch all” term that allowed brown and black people to claim an imperial belonging. But british was always vicarious to english, which was the core mode of belonging, modelled upon the attributes of so-called good imperial governance, and exclusively white. CF the phrase “keep calm and carry on”. Englishness as we know it now was modelled by white settlers in the dominions first in order to differentiate themselves from natives. then it travelled back. There are a number of histories before this which are important too. e.g. IRish: Engels in his Making of the English Working Class contrasts the civilizable qualities of the English working class to the barbarisms of the Irish working class. I.e. this makes us start to think about the internal colonialisms going on as well. And in the Somerset case in the 1700s, the claim that due to common law no person on english soil could be a slave was tested. while Somerset was judged to be, by virtue of being in england, not-a-slave anymore, Mansfield still argued that the slaveholder would have to be compensated for the loss of servitude. So even here, the qualities of England are being parsed through race, leading to certain sublte but important distinctions of rights. Fast forward to our postimperial moment, and there is simply no way to say that Englishness is not racialized. Not that that exhausts the meaning for anyone. But race was and is never merely an “identity”.

    hope to see you soon!!! x

  3. My project is to use climate justice as the point around which post-colonial AND those “multicultural” struggles can find a degree of unity, transcending the shifting boundaries (temporal and spatial) of those marginalized communities. The concept of climate debt brings in measurable, concrete reparations for imperial exploitation (linked to carbon based and human energy) and a carbon budget (Empires having used up their allotments) stands as a metaphor for just re-distribution. Any thoughts?

  4. I question your initial assertion that the sovereignty issue and the unlimited EU migrants issue are inextricably linked. And trusting your argument to polls puts you in the same position as our misguided soon to be ex PM. He trusted his own poll that the remain camp would win comfortably and, in addition to doing absolutely no planning whatsoever for the consequences of the leave camp winning the vote, went back on his promise to initiate Article 50 the next day.
    To be clear, neither me nor any of the people I know who also voted leave are racist and not a single one of us linked the two issues, never mind in the way you suggest. My case is similar to the others. I have a foreign wife and we have friends from all over the world, including refugees who moved here under the protection of our political asylum laws. To us, allowing unlimited EU migration is simply ludicrous. It is not about ‘them’. It is about any people of any nationality moving here in ‘unlimited’ numbers. To take just one element: according to the governments own figures, house building year on year is hundreds of thousands below the minimum requirement! And that is with the current population.
    So on its own, this issue must be resolved (and some kind of points system must be used). Cameron went cap in hand to Brussels in February to argue that very point and came back with nothing. We were left with the realisation that this is a mainstay of a federal Europe, which in itself is not something we ever voted for and do not want. And to be clear, this point was taken on its own merits.
    Then there is the issue of sovereignty. Having been a democracy for over 800 years (albeit slightly flawed due to the lack of proportional representation), we simply do not accept the rush into federalism and the subsequent rule by unelected officials in Brussels.
    I am left with the thought that the main thrust of your argument clearly contains many truths, borne of extensive research and obvious expertise relating to NZ. However, as there is a big question mark over the initial premise, I wonder how valid are the parallels you have drawn.

  5. Hi Allan, thanks for your comments. Its a stretch of the imagination, at best, to say that the conclusive evidence from polls indicating the top reasons why either those who voted remain or exit is suspicious.. the polls were overwhelming in this regard. Subsequent analysis further suggests what is, to be honest, as much a “political fact” as there can be: http://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2016-07-04/the-2-8-million-non-voters-who-delivered-brexit
    As I said, not everyone is a racist who voted exit. I said right at the start that I took this to be self-evident, but explained it anyway.
    This is another blog that you might find interesting, especially re your assumption of 800 years of democracy (for whom) and is directly related to many of my points:
    Thanks again.

  6. Hi, Robbie

    I very much liked your analysis. The world out there is really very complicated. I know an Indian who voted Leave because he is scared that more Indians are going to come to Britain and make this place more like India. He himself came from India about 5 years ago and is hoping to be able to stay. What are we to think? That this Indian is displaying racist feelings against his fellow Indians? This would be very interesting indeed, but not unheard of.

    What’s more, he is not a bad guy by any standards. He works all days long and regrets not having more time to improve his English, which, given his accent and Indian intonation, is probably a serious barrier in getting jobs that would improve his material and social conditions in the first place.

    To come back to what you were asking (is it racism, prejudice or xenophobia?), whereby it seems that you are questioning that racism would be possible among victims of racism, I do think that it is possible (Stuart Hall once told a story about his parents disagreeing to his sister marrying a guy who was black. She never married again.). This is because the way power is “had” is not necessarily straightforward. We all have more or less power at various moments, though that may not necessarily be accompanied by high status or palaces. Nor may that necessarily be effective in bringing about change. We can speak of ‘degrees’ of power. With our diversified global world, this is the danger but, if I may say so, also the beauty, or the glimmer of hope.

    In good postcolonial fashion, I have to place, to ‘provincialize’ myself. I am Eastern-European, have been in the U.K. for about 12 years, and currently a EU citizen, if you want, technically speaking. I am highly educated in European culture, but also not a stranger to postcolonialism. I want to hold on to both, or even, I could say, to many things, knowing too well that a common world is not easy to achieve.

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