If Brexit isn't about racism, what is it about?


It hit me like a tonne of bricks. “This is England. foreigners have 48 hours to f**k off. Who is foreign here? Anyone foreign? #Brexit”.

Um. Me?

This quote, as said in a local grocery store and quoted on Twitter, is one of many pieces of disturbing hatred and bile being spewed around in the UK during the last couple of weeks.

It’s like the racists have come out to play. Or feel more justified in saying whatever they want.

Not for the first time, my race has undoubtedly played in my favour.

In fact, I saw a whole Facebook post dedicated to instances of race hate that have been noticed around the country over the past few days. One is of police being vigilant in Cambridgeshire after some Polish citizens found laminated (!) notes in their post boxes with notes telling them to ‘Leave the EU. No more Polish vermin.’

‘Vermin’. Not unlike Jewish people were called before and during World War II. Not unlike what Tutsi people were called by Hutu people during Rwanda’s genocide.

Long-time problem

What shocked me initially when coming here almost a year ago (well before the referendum vote) is that it’s strikingly apparent that there is an issue of race here – at least for some people. A British hair dresser told me in hushed tones during my first two months here how “Romanians and Poles always steal their jobs,” a rhetoric I’ve heard repeated in different forms since then. I went to a Polish hairdresser after that.

A friend of my mine said he hates it when people says he looks ‘Eastern European’, because he knows that for many this is a veiled insult.

It needs to be said that I also underestimated how cosmopolitan the country is. In my neighbourhood there are probably 6 ‘foreign’ people for any ‘British’ person.

Not for the first time, my race has undoubtedly played in my favour. As I’ve seen online, people with other skin colours have had a harder time fending off ‘foreign hate’. Truthfully, I’m sometimes scared that people will hear my (very pronounced) South African accent. “My grandparents were British!” I want to yell. “My ancestors fought for the British!” But it frustrates me that this is even a consideration on my part.

Why vote leave, if not for race?

But I know, just based on basic statistics, that not all people who voted leave are racists. And based on basic human principles, I can’t hope for anything else.

So I made it my mission over the past few days to find out why people voted ‘leave’ if not for race. And here are my unscientific findings:
Many, if not most, of the people in this group (the non-race leave voters) have big issues with how the EU is run.

“From the outside looking in, it must look like the country has been swept away on a tide of nationalist sentiment. It hasn't,” James Horrax , a Briton, told me.

“I hate the EU, but love Europe” one woman said.

“I do not see a vote to 'Leave' as being a Little Englander. I see a vote to 'Leave' as a chance to stop the EU being 'Little Europe'. Horrax strongly believes the EU has no ‘democratic accountability’, a sentiment echoed by many. He also believes EU structures are crippling the UK’s chances of being flexible.

‘No common European identity’

“Leaving the EU is not about race - emphatically it isn't,” he said. “The European Union is made up of 28 countries whose ethnic makeup would be described as majority White European. I do not believe in or subscribe to a European identity. I am British first, English second and a human being finally. There is no common European identity - and nor should there. Diversity is a good thing. I do not want a mono-culture - I do not want a homogeneous polity.”

Others have repeated this. “I hate the EU, but love Europe” one woman said.

Victoria Frampton, a Briton, says she voted leave on a purely economic basis. “Brussels [where the EU is based] is wholly corrupt, sucking in money from each country with no accountability (they have not shown their accounts for 7 years), and the members are living incredibly well in Lear Jets and chauffer driven cars, all with money from the member states.”

For me, and many other intelligent, highly educated people, this vote centred on regaining control of our laws and decisions, through our own elected politicians.”

A rose by any other name?

Some believe my wording is wrong and that it’s all about ‘migration’ and not ‘immigration’. Alta Taljaard, a South African who voted (we’re allowed to vote, because we’re commonwealth citizens) believes it’s not about race, but about ‘migration’. “I voted leave because of uncontrolled MIGRATION. Immigration and race has never been the problem,” she says.

In whatever way you phrase it, migration and immigration have definitely played a part in many people’s decision to leave.

Having strong feelings about this, doesn’t make you a vitriolic spewer of hate, though. As one person was quick to remind me: The loudest people in any situation aren’t necessarily the majority.

One can only hope.

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