This isn’t “Brexit racism.” It’s British racism

Many compared this poster to Nazi propaganda.
Many compared this poster to Nazi propaganda.
Image: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Within hours of the polls closing in last week’s Brexit vote, reports of racist incidents across the UK started to trickle in. A woman in hijab was accosted as she walked into a mosque. A Polish mother was told to get off a bus and start packing her bags. A child was targeted by school bathroom graffiti telling her to go back to Romania. In the week since, that trickle has turned into a steady stream.

It shouldn’t be a surprise. The pro-Brexit campaign lied about potential Turkish migration, cast aspersions about refugees importing sexual violence, and put out Nazi-style propaganda posters. From the beginning, it was hard to ignore the stink of racism at the heart of this fight. (A familiar stink for Americans who know Donald Trump’s brand of dog-whistle politicking.)

“Ugh,” a Malaysian Chinese reporter from Quartz’s London office wrote in our office chat on Friday, as we watched reports of Polish immigrants being called “vermin” and chants of “make Britain white again” near the office. “Not looking forward to seeing what I encounter on my way home.”

I could imagine, for a moment, how he felt. As a half-Bengali kid growing up in northwest London, race was always at the edges of my consciousness. Walking home from primary school, my stomach would flip when I passed a group of white teenagers on the street. I braced for the words I dreaded hearing: “Paki.” “Darkie.” “Half-caste.”

It has been dispiriting this week to feel so little has changed. To be clear, the England of my childhood was not the 1950s England that my father came to as a teenage undergraduate from India, where his landlady worried that his brown skin color might stain her bathtub. My England was Kentish Town in the late 1970s and early 1980s—a diverse neighborhood where my class at the local primary school was a mix of white, black, and South Asian kids.

And yet even in this relatively safe and progressive gentrifying London neighborhood, racist taunts were common in the grim concrete playgrounds. On a beach holiday when I was eight, my parents told me later, I stubbornly refused to play in the sun, and skulked under a beach umbrella. When pressed, I explained: “I don’t want to get any darker.”

I’m now watching Brexit unfold from America, a place with no shortage of its own race problems—many of them deeply systemic after centuries of slavery, segregation, and bias. In comparison, the petty microaggressions and name-calling of British racism and xenophobia have always seemed to me ugly but transitory—a fading hangover from colonialism.

Until the Brexit vote, I believed that Britain had come a long way from the days when prime minister Margaret Thatcher publicly worried the country would be “swamped” by immigrants (privately, she bemoaned the plight of whites having to compete with non-whites for housing).

And indeed, as I have gone back and forth between the UK and the US over the years, it looked to me like the UK was the one hurtling toward true multiculturalism. Some of this progress was, admittedly, superficial: Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” had a kind of glossy, Benetton optimism that was hard to resist. British DJs and musicians were reinventing soul, dub, dancehall, and hip hop, and the festivals and dancefloors were a delicious, multiracial, utopian frenzy. Mixed-race families were a common sight in London, while they still drew stares in America’s most cosmopolitan cities.

Some of that progress was measurable: increased political representation for minorities, for example, and government initiatives to reduce inequality (though there’s still a long way to go on both, of course). As recently as May, when London elected its first Muslim mayor, my British friends filled my Facebook feed with their elation and pride.

So despite my childhood experiences, the images and words I have seen in the last few days—of crowds holding banners saying “rapefugees not welcome”; and of a man explaining that his Leave vote was “to stop the Muslims coming into this country, simple as that”—have shocked me.

There has been plenty of crowing online about the irony of Britain, with its own notorious colonial history, complaining about immigrants or declaring “independence.” Some even welcomed the poetic justice of England’s humiliating football loss to Iceland earlier this week.

“Good-bye, Great Britain; hello, Little England,” wrote Josef Joffe, editor of Die Zeit. “The nation that masterminded Europe’s fate for 400 years will slink off into an offshore Austria, a remnant of the once-mighty Habsburg Empire. Little Britain is a place of quaint villages and peculiar habits, like warm beer—but the country will no longer matter.”

There’s an appealing schadenfreude, I’ll admit it, to watching the sun set on Britain’s world dominance. The country post-Brexit looks smaller, meaner—like a peevish child sent to his room for being naughty. But now is not the time to gloat. (Especially for us in the US, where we still face the real prospect of a Donald Trump presidency.)

On Tuesday, I watched a widely shared video of an incident on a Manchester tram in which teenagers yelled racial slurs at a man during a crowded morning commute. “Get back to Africa!” one shouted, then flicked beer from an open bottle. It’s an upsetting scene, but it’s also a pathetic one. The boys—hard-looking white children in puffy jackets—could easily have been loitering on Kentish Town Road when I was a kid.

“It’s like a bad zombie movie,” said a childhood friend of mine, who is also mixed race (Ghanaian and English). Like me, she recalls racial slurs and boys like that in Kentish Town. She also had worse experiences: being chased by skinheads, and her white mother berated for having a black child. Still, when I blamed the Brexit vote on British racism, my friend resisted the oversimplification.

“It’s not purely a race thing,” she told me. “Sadly, too many let down by mainstream politics chose this as a protest vote… In a competitive, complex society, everyone seems to be comparing themselves. And if they fall short, or feel they do, they then blame that section of the community, whether that’s West Indians to Africans, Indians to Pakistanis.”

The data bear out her argument that Brexit is the consequence of a country divided—one that is failing a large portion of its people, of all races. Poverty and lack of education were defining factors among Leave voters, along with age and race. “One of the best predictors of how people voted was their education level,” the New Yorker explained. “Those with college degrees tended to opt for Remain, while people without them tended to opt for Leave.”

Brexit and its aftermath have brought back memories, for me, of the racism of the 1980s, but England today is not the place I remember from childhood, just as it wasn’t then the place my father knew as a young man. Despite the setback of Brexit, England is a better place now—one that is more ethnically diverse and less arrogant.

That’s partly because of the country’s participation in the European Union. Today’s young people voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU, and as my colleague Cassie Werber recounted, they woke up feeling true grief on Friday morning. “We have grown up in the EU,” she wrote. “By the time we were born, the UK already had become a country in which people with widely diverse heritages coexisted, for the most part in peace.”

The reports of hateful incidents keep popping up on my Facebook feed. But they’re interspersed with pictures of London mayor Sadiq Khan’s multi-faith Ramadan iftar; a video of young musicians gathered to express their emotions by playing “Ode to Joy;” a friend’s mixed-race children giggling in the branches of trees on Hampstead Heath.

What I’m watching from afar, I realize, is a country shifting, turning inward, facing its own demons and—I hope—continuing the process of repairing itself.