'Britain is not a racist country' I used to wail, as I frantically waved my little virtual Union Jack. 'We are a post-modern, post-bigotry, post-post wonderland; this island is just all about Instagram, edamame-beans and enlightenment, now.' But Brexit has changed things.
The over three-thousand reported hate-crimes since the referendum vote is disturbing. But more shocking is the reaction to them. Aside from well-phrased mumbles in the House of Commons, the occasional Guardian column and John Humphries sounding ruffled on the Today program, we have sort of shrugged our shoulders and said a national 'oh dear', before forgetting about it and going on to more pressing news, such as Princess Charlotte's slippers or Mary Berry and the 'bake-off face-off' (please stay, please stay). Just to re-state in case your mind is still cloudy with clafoutis: in the space of a few weeks, over three thousand people have been attacked or abused either because of the colour of their skin or because of the country they were born in. Three thousand. And our reaction? Almost silence, and I fear worse: apathy. Something has changed. I wonder what the reaction would have been had three-thousand Labradors been attacked? We would be knee-deep in national healing by now.
Hearing the stories from my parents about their childhood experiences as new migrants in Britain, and how they just coped, demonstrates that it takes a lot for someone to go to the police; it is not hysteria or victim-status-hunting if they do: its fear. For every reported crime there are several unreported. Over the years, even I've had idiots push me about in the street. Once, my Waitrose bag ripped and my hummus splattered all over the pavement. I thought about scooping it up, but it was too badly spread. It was lost forever. Only quick thinking saved the olives. I contemplated reporting the incident, but only as a crime against chickpeas. It was nothing to be scared about; it's not a 'national' thing I thought, it's just a few fools who need to grow up and get with modern Britain.
Aside from rubber-soled footwear and nylon, very little scares me. But what is making me rattle in my brogues is not the attacks, but that Britain sort of isn't bothered. The national conciseness has not been wounded. Why are we not throwing our heads back in horror; why aren't we discussing it as we bag-up tomatoes in Sainsbury's? Its either British stoicism gone mad, or it's the start of something more sinister: an attitude change. I'm just hoping it is a severe case of rigor mortis-grade 'stiff-upper-lip'
As well as exposing Britain as desensitised to prejudice, the consequences of the national silence could be long-lasting and harmful: immigrant communities already suspect of integration will burrow deeper into their cocoons. As Britain show's apathy, so will they. Their disenfranchisement won't just mean more faith-based free schools, it could breed anger - and worse - vengeance, too. The aftereffects of Brexit sent shockwaves into the immigrant community. For the already-insecure it led to a lengthy barrage of 'I told you so' - for many, the backlash was just a matter of time. For others, like me, whose only association with an immigrant heritage was the shade of their skin, it was an almighty thump to the gut. I just did not think that my country -the place I thought to be a worldly nation hard-wired for acceptance - feared immigrants as much as they did, and worse still, care little about attacks on them.
According to an ONS report released this Wednesday, there has been 'no major effect from Brexit'. Economically we may be saving-face (for now), but socially we are altered, scarred and disfigured.
I wrestle with whether Brexit changed Britain or just revealed it. Did the referendum let true Britain breathe after years of being smothered by politicians? I am now wary of my country, hunched, whereas once I stood tall. But though a lot of people have been horribly racist, Britain is not a racist country. I do feel less comfortable here, now, not because I fear attack, but because I fear the reaction of my compatriots if I were to be attacked. It will take me a while to wave my flag again but I hope I can. I really want to, it's the only one I have.Suggest a correction