In the twelve years he’s lived in London, my husband Ryan has grown eye-rollingly used to the question he’s asked when people learn he’s from the South: “It’s pretty racist there, right?” Conversely, whenever I visit America (ten times and counting, seven of them to South Carolina), as an English person, I know what to expect when I meet new people: “What year was your house built?” or “Will you say the word ‘governor’ for me?” Until a few months ago, if someone had said to me “It’s pretty racist there, right?” about the United Kingdom, I would have looked puzzled and assumed they’d misheard the name of my country.
But in the four months since Brexit – the referendum in which the UK voted to leave the European Union – my home country has become a place I no longer recognise. There has been a frightening spike in racially motivated attacks, and there is a social climate of increasingly accepted racism and bigotry, which make me feel ashamed and anxious about the direction our society is moving in.
I won’t go too much into the details or the significance of the vote, but needless to say, there were many reasons why people voted Remain, such as wanting to retain the strong trade deals the EU has afforded us and to stay part of a bloc of united countries during these uncertain times (the EU is a direct descendant of organisations that were founded to forge a lasting peace in the wake of the Second World War). And there were many reasons people chose Leave, including not wishing to pay money to the EU that might be better spent at home (membership amounts to around £8.5 billion a year) and wanting the British Parliament to have sole decision-making power over its people without input from Brussels.
In the end, though, it all boiled down to one enormous, emotional issue: immigration. Citizens of EU countries are permitted to live in any other EU country. As the UK is an attractive place to live – it has a typically strong currency and free healthcare for starters – immigration has steadily risen, especially in the years since Poland joined the EU in 2004. In recent times, the mutterings about foreigners “coming over here, taking our jobs” have been getting louder, fueled by the scaremongering right-wing tabloid press. Recent coverage of the refugee crisis in certain newspapers has been reminiscent of propaganda during the rise of Nazi Germany: they are “cockroaches,” “swarming” to our shores to bleed our resources dry.
Brexit should have been a decision that was made based on economic sense and careful deliberation about what’s best for our country, not on gut feeling. To me, it seems so obvious that a debate this nuanced and high-stakes should never have been reduced to a black-and-white choice of In or Out.
In the lead-up to the referendum, voting Leave came to represent a vote for the “good old days,” for “getting our country back,” and, eventually, for expelling anyone seen as “foreign” or “other.” The success of the Leave campaign was a surprise to many people – and it was close: 52% to 48%. But in the days immediately following the result, it felt as though a spotlight had been shone on the darkest, most hateful aspects of our society. In the week after the vote, reports of racist violence throughout the UK were up by 50%, and social media users posted their experiences to the Facebook group Worrying Signs or on Twitter with #PostRefRacism. Reading either of these in one long sitting paints a chilling portrait of a society in moral freefall: children telling their foreign classmates “You’re going home!”; a Polish couple’s house burnt to the ground; white people being challenged on the street to “check” that they speak English; women having their hijabs ripped off them by strangers in the street; banners proclaiming “End immigration. Begin repatriation.”
At the time, in those first few days, I was shocked – we all were. The vile, xenophobic underbelly of our society had been exposed. The bigots were emboldened, believing they’d “won” and that 52% of the population held the same views as they did.
But now it’s four months later. And what should have just been a spate of shameful behaviour during a time when emotions were running high shows no sign of dying down. This week I’ve watched footage of a Muslim family of five being mown down in a deliberate hit-and-run. My favourite seaside town just hosted a white supremacist rally. And then there are all the smaller, more insidious things that all add up: an advert for a car for sale, but “not if you’re black, Muslim or Polish”; or a muttered “go back home” as someone gets off the bus.
I’m having to face up to the fact that I live in a very racist country. That this has come as a surprise to me is embarrassing; I fear I’ve been living my entire 32 years with my head in the sand, believing what I wanted to believe: that most people are essentially decent. I’ve had hours of conversation with Ryan and with friends about how shocked we were by the result of the referendum – very few of us knew even one person who was planning to vote Leave – and by the ensuing wave of violence, and we put it down to living in the “London bubble”, a liberal echo chamber where views identical to our own are bounced back to us by our friends and colleagues. It’s dismaying to realise how out of touch we are with the mood of the rest of the country.
During the most recent series of The Great British Baking Show (which aired last autumn over here), I was telling anyone who’d listen that it was a perfect portrayal of what it meant to be British. The twelve contestants had almost the full spectrum of skin tones, religions, accents, and origins – but they were all so, so British: they all were passionate advocates of cake and a nice cup of tea, and they were all blushingly happy when they did well but equally pleased when others succeeded.
There are other traits I’ve always associated with being British: an ironic sense of humour, humility, and an interest in safeguarding the weaker members of our society. Now I’m not sure how I’d characterise the British psyche, but fearful, vicious, and inward-looking have a truer ring to them.
I really don’t know what’s going to happen. Voting to leave was supposedly a step in the direction of greatness: cut the ties to the EU and the UK will be a superpower again in no time. At the moment we couldn’t feel less like a superpower – just a sad, frightened little country looking for someone else to blame.