SmugOne graffiti, Bristol. duncan c/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc)
“It’s good to be back home” said one of my friends after we had come back from a two-week holiday abroad. I looked at her not knowing how to respond and just smiled reluctantly. Before Brexit I would have said it too without hesitation, having lived in the UK for over ten years. But I could not share my friend’s excitement. It was three months after the vote.
A couple of days earlier, a Polish man had been killed in what was believed to be a hate crime attack. I found out about it from my parents who called me from Poland to check how I was doing and to ask if Bristol was a safe place for me to live. It was the first time they asked me this question since I moved to the UK in 2005. I couldn’t help but feel worried and upset upon my return rather than relieved and happy as my British friends did. Unfortunately, for me it was not so good to be back at not so home any more.
Brexit questioned my feeling of belonging to British society. I started having doubts if British people had ever accepted me and other EU citizens. Not everyone voted to leave. And of course, not everyone who voted leave is racist or xenophobic. The hate crimes, even though rapidly increased following the EU referendum, are still relatively low in numbers. However, this is not to say that they are insignificant. The death of the Polish migrant was not an isolated incident.
A few weeks later a Czech man was killed in London and a Polish student who lived near Telford was stabbed in the neck with a broken bottle. Both offences were treated as racially motivated. According to police statistics, hate crimes soared by 58% in the first week after the Brexit vote. These included ‘F… off to Poland’ letters received by migrants in their letterboxes in South East England and racist graffiti appearing on the walls of the Polish Centre in Hammersmith, London. The numerous incidents of violence and hostility towards migrants in post-Brexit UK have made many EU citizens feel unwelcome. And this feeling cannot be underestimated. It should be taken seriously. It needs to be communicated and heard by the rest of British society.
Were we ever accepted?
This is why such initiatives as the event ‘Catching up with the left behind: Empowering local communities in Bristol’ organised by the University of Bristol are important spaces for building bridges between groups which may experience isolation as a result of the referendum. The workshop gathered together various local practitioners as an opportunity to share their own experiences and discuss the consequences of Brexit for their communities. The issue of racism and prejudice was one of the themes which emerged. There was an overall agreement that Brexit had given people the right to be hostile. Thus, it has deepened the divisions between communities, making EU migrants, especially Eastern European and Black and Asian Ethnic minorities feel more vulnerable and insecure.
“I have always felt that I was the other one. Always, all my life”.
Indeed, EU citizens are not the only ones facing the rise of racially motivated offences. Black and Minority Ethnic Britons have also been victims of hate crimes as a consequence of Brexit. They have also been told to ‘go home’ and experienced physical and verbal violence and intimidation. This is not to say that there had been no hate crimes before Brexit. Racism towards Eastern European migrants and Black and Asian Ethnic minorities is nothing new. As one of the participants of the workshop, a black British woman, revealed: “I have always felt that I was the other one. Always, all my life”.
On the other hand, a Polish man who took part in the discussion admitted that only recently Polish migrants have started sharing the same feeling. The past year’s attacks on Poles were perceived amongst the Polish community as incidental. Now however, many believe that the Brexit vote has revealed resentment and anger from British people directed towards them. As he explained, “Poles feel they are not wanted here. We have lost hope”. Hence, Brexit has exposed rather than created racialised divisions between the diverse communities of British society. It revealed how challenging the inclusion of those who are perceived as different is. Difference, instead of being celebrated, is seen as a threat.
The divisions are even more complex when we consider conflicts and tensions within minority groups, an important issue that was also raised in the discussions. We tend to explain the Brexit vote as an expression of frustration against austerity and neoliberalism by the ‘left behind’ white working class. However, the causes for Brexit are more complex and other groups’ voices should be taken into account. Some Black and Ethnic minorities also voted to leave and have expressed hostility towards EU migrants since. And the reasons cannot be reduced to socio-economic ones, i.e. poverty or perceived competition on the labour market. The ongoing oppression of minorities might have led them to exclude newcomers in order to improve their status, even if this can be achieved only on a symbolic level rather than as material gains.
A need for local support
Thus, the divisions between communities caused by racialised exclusion constitute a barrier to open dialogue and the creation of mutual understanding. However, what needs to be acknowledged is that those who feel marginalised on the individual and collective level have the feeling of social injustice in common. The honest discussion we had during the workshop made people realise that, after Brexit, discomfort, anxiety and fear are shared across various racial or cultural groups.
Having said that, the long history of oppression of Black and Asian Ethnic minorities cannot be compared to the more recent marginalisation of EU migrants, neither in intensity nor frequency. And importantly, these differences in experiences were recognised by our participants when they listened to each other’s personal stories and shared their concerns. Perhaps creating spaces for a dialogue such as this workshop can help develop inter-cultural cooperation and resilience towards injustice and solidarity across perceived differences.
The feeling of insecurity will continue as long as the Brexit negotiations take place. And so will, most likely, the stigmatisation of migrants in public and political discourses. We should try to make a change on a local level. As discussed in the workshop, what can be done in this precarious interim period of Brexit negotiations is a joined effort of local communities to resist racism and help challenge hostile attitudes and practices. No one knows what changes Brexit will bring, when (or perhaps even if) it happens. Therefore, it is crucial that for the time being individuals have practical and emotional support available locally.
The main conclusion of the discussion on racism during the workshop was to improve education, which was understood in a number of ways:
• To educate migrants (especially those most vulnerable, for example those who cannot speak English well) on how and where to report incidents of hate crime. It is important they know which institutions are available to help so that they can build a support network that will help them feel more comfortable and less anxious.
• To create a platform for ‘imagining futures’ that everyone can access. Offering perspectives of various communities on their ideal society would allow assessing and addressing people’s needs. The reasons for voting Brexit are complex and there is still little knowledge of what has driven people to vote leave. Such a platform will give an opportunity for people to express how they feel and what change they seek.
• To educate ourselves about each other. Events such as this workshop help people learn about their experiences, struggles, teach them skills of communication and listening, and help to connect across perceived differences. This idea would also include creating shared spaces in neighbourhoods where various communities live next to each other but not together due to lack of infrastructure and/or communal areas.
• To have a curriculum which values diversity and to offer training to teachers which enable them to deconstruct own prejudice.
These ideas, together with other issues, will be further developed in a public event #BristolBrexit – a city responds to Brexit, which will take place on 23 May. The workshop is organised to continue the discussion and collaboration between the city council, the two Bristol universities, local practitioners and residents in order to find solutions to immediate challenges linked with Brexit.
As a Polish migrant who has lived in the UK for almost twelve years and has considered it my home, I have been recently torn between feelings of resilience and hopelessness, both caused by Brexit. I am slowly getting accustomed to the constant feeling of anxiety and uncertainty, while strengthening a sense of resistance and willingness to still call Britain my home. Although I’m aware of divisions, I tend to notice more similarities and have a sense of solidarity between people in diverse Britain. I hope local communities can recognise these commonalities as their strength to stand up against racism together.
This article has been written by a participant in the #BristolBrexit - a city responds to Brexit initiative. The views expressed here are personal views and do not reflect the views of the University of Bristol or the funders of the organisers' research.
#BristolBrexit - A City Responds to Brexit
#BristolBrexit - A City Responds to Brexit is a free public event at @Bristol on the 23rd of May from 10.00-13.00. The event, organised by the University of Bristol in collaboration with the University of the West of England and the University of Bath brings together stakeholders, practitioners, activists, educators, business people, city officials, religious leaders, and charity representatives to collectively and collaboratively address the challenges of uncertainty brought about by Brexit. The event will feature a series of interactive formats to bring representatives from across the city together to develop new and innovative strategies for taking Bristol into the future.
All are invited: register here.