Nostalgia for the “good old days” in the UK can often also be intertwined with xenophobic sentiment. While many Leave voters crave a return to the dark blue British passports of old, which were replaced with burgundy ones in 1988, and even a return to corporal punishment in schools, they also cite feeling as though they had no control over immigration as key reason why they voted out.
It’s also why there’s been such a huge spike in hate crimes after Brexit. There were 104 offences logged between July and September 2016, double the total from April to June of the same year. The victims of those hate crimes included people like Samsam Haji-Ali – who miscarried twins after being beaten up by a “shabby racist” in September. Quickly it becomes clear that it is not just white European migrants who are unwelcome here in the UK, it’s us visible “foreigners” (regardless of whether or not we were born here), with brown skin, or black skin, or “African” accents.
With this in mind, it’s hard to be positive as we move forward into a new political era. Modern Britain was formed off the backs of racist men, colonialists and imperialists. Even Winston Churchill generally viewed people of colour as uncivilised and terrible acts were committed by British forces during his tenure. Even further back, the Transatlantic Slave Trade dragged people with skin tones like mine across the ocean to the Americas, and funded many of our key institutions. When the time came in the 1940s and Britain needed able bodies following the war, black people encouraged to come to Britain immediately became second-class citizens.
Despite this history, we are still living in an era ruled by white-supremacist patriarchal nostalgia, which glosses over our extensive and expansive crimes as a nation. There’s a whole genre of media that proves it: from the upcoming movies about Churchill, Queen Victoria and her brown pet, otherwise known as Victoria and Abdul, and season two of The Crown, to our obsession with the contemporary monarchy, borne out over and over again, and particularly acute around royal weddings, British people as a homogenous collection are plump with affection for our history of empire. In 2015, it was found that 68 per cent of the British public believe the monarchy is good for the country, and Churchill recently made it onto our new five pounds notes.
Looking more closely at the current state of Westminster politics, which will of course be the key driver of what happens to the country post-Brexit, doesn’t provide much hope either. Even after the General Election, only a third of MPs are likely to be women, and the treatment that Diane Abbott, the UK’s first ever black female MP, has been subjected to as part of the 2017 election cycle proves we are not ready to have black women in high office.
As Gaby Hinsliff wrote in The Guardian, “Crying racism or misogyny in the face of legitimate scrutiny merely cheapens the issue,” but that doesn’t mean that the racist and sexist abuse that she’s faced should be discounted. During the election campaign, Abbott was an easy target for ridicule and bullying and while all politicians face abuse, hers was particularly putrid and inarguably influenced by her skintone and gender.
Nevertheless, us black and brown people in the UK are blossoming and – thanks to people like Reni Eddo-Lodge whose new book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race explains in depth how “racism is embedded in British society” – beginning to learn our history. As part of gal-dem, a magazine and creative collective exclusively written and run by women of colour we recognise that historically, thanks to our gender and race, we are disenfranchised, but we’re attempting to subvert our disenfranchisement.
The reality of racism, and sexism for that matter, is that for as long as it has existed, there has been kickback against it. And, in the age of the internet, the presence of those who want to create positive, progressive change that includes, and sometimes even centres the voices of historically marginalised people, is growing. People like to deride the Instagram generation and our hashtags and selfies, but I think for the majority of us these online interactions are both formative and genuinely do translate into IRL (in-real-life) change and interactions.
This is evidenced in positive online initiatives like #BlackGirlMagic, which often includes jubilant, viral pictures of black women graduating from prestigious universities and colleges, telling stories of how they persevered against the odds; the female-only Facebook groups for women in journalism which encourage us all to pitch to bigger publications and pursue our careers in the media; and the feminist trend of proudly and defiantly dyeing your underarm hair in a climate where it still feels radical to not be as smooth as a seal.
These are mirrored by positive statistics, such as the fact that black American women have become the most well-educated demographic, and that 65 per cent of British journalists who entered the industry in the past three years were women. One in four young women have stopped shaving their underarms. This, plus the anecdotal evidence I have gathered from working with young women of colour as part of gal-dem – who are almost uniformly ambitious, brave and smart – help me to look to the political future of our country without utter despair.
So the dream would be that yes, because we are taking up space, things will actually change. That we could look into a future where multiculturalism is lauded and appreciated, where we positive-action-scheme the hell out of the industries where people of colour and women are underrepresented, where marginalised people and refugees are given adequate protection by the law and not left to drown in the Mediterranean, where women make up more than half of MPs.
Effective activism by groups such as Black Lives Matter UK, who are slowly gearing up towards fresh campaigns, Sisters Uncut, who recently “occupied” Holloway Prison, an infamous women’s jail in north London which closed down last year as part of ongoing action to demand more domestic violence services from the Government; and ‘Why Is My Curriculum White’, who have forced universities like Leeds to look into black British history modules, would be encouraged and never criminalised. The police would be held accountable for their institutional racism, and perhaps even dismantled and rebuilt as a force that has the best interests of the whole population at their heart.