The UK's Xenophobia Problem

24/06/2016 16:50

Sayeeda Warsi has recently left the leave campaign over xenophobic tactics citing her reasons to the BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Monday: "Because day after day what are we hearing? The refugees are coming, the rapists are coming, the Turks are coming." Warsi continued, "This kind of nudge-nudge, wink-wink xenophobic racist campaign may be politically savvy or useful in the short term but it causes long-term damage to communities."

But the fact of Warsi's treatment should come as no surprise to anyone who is an immigrant to the United Kingdom.  The EU referendum is indicative of this divide which takes to heart some of the perennial myths about who is taking and who is really giving to the UK economy.

The reality is that many immigrants to the UK have experienced xenophobia in any of its mild through extreme forms and the conditions through which such attacks occur are mind-boggling, especially to the victims.  I recall, when I came to the UK years before having immigrated to give guest lectures at various universities, seeing immigrants treated and regarded immigrants. Once inside a train platform café, a man stood shook his money yelling at this poor barista to hurry up and learn English.  Her English was fine.  I recall being on a train to Dorsett while an occupant of my table leaned over to discuss how immigrants were coming "in droves" to the UK to take up benefits.  I spoke out on this occasion to remind these two individuals that if it were not for the immigrants of this country, there would be few contributing to the tax system from which benefits are paid.   Such comments and arrogant postures held towards foreigners were just not uncommon. They still are not.

Sadly, while in a central London bus just a few months ago, my children and I were victimised by a man who took it upon himself to lash out at me.  I entered a bus to find a man with his white dog blocking the pushchair area. He was grumpy and clearly had no intention to move his dog to make way for my buggy. I said, "Excuse me," politely asking him to move his dog over so I could put the pushchair into position, and this in addition to my entering the bus resulted in a tirade of offences.  His comments were not only xenophobic, they were racist, and they were positively violent, telling me how I should learn "how things are done here," he informed me that I was "in Britain," that I should "shut up and learn how things are done here," with his temper tantrum lasting the entire ride. I was not only frightened, so was my daughter as were the rest of the passengers sitting behind him--none of them white, none of them able to open their mouths for fear of someone they clearly regarded as dangerous.  While this event was shocking, it was simply not surprising. Not given the recent political climate in this country. And this man walks about freely with his white dog, very emblematic of the ethos he represents.

Indeed, xenophobia has become an unspoken lynch pin of sorts for the EU referendum and it is not as if these issues will go away, no matter how this vote turns out.  The underlying fears of those who want out is that others will want in. What those who use the leave narrative as a means to produce cultural harmony fail to address, however, is that the narrative of a national unity cannot be found upon narratives of self-empowerment, nationalistic pride, or through the creation of the immigrant as boogeyman who, like Nigel Farage's poster, reveals dark faces of the hordes of Syrian refugees threatening "our borders."  National unity is every bit a myth today as it has always been. The slow drum beat which has for centuries over ushered forth a generation of boys and young men who are quick to put on uniforms to defend the homeland from the latest enemy, whilst our NGOs go abroad to relieve the refugee crisis that our bombs have largely created, and an endless re-arranging of furniture takes place such that back home a white man with a white dog can actually believe that he deserves his racially and nationally inscribed place in this country whilst bullying complete strangers on a bus, all because of where he happened to have been born. National identity is very much a myth of the means by which we exploit and abuse the other.

Benedict Anderson cogently encapsulates this narrative of national identity here, by stating that:

[The nation] is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.These deaths bring us abruptly face to face with the central problem posed by nationalism: what makes the shrunken imaginings of recent history (scarcely more than two centuries) generate such colossal sacrifices? I believe that the beginnings of an answer lie in the cultural roots of nationalism.

The irony is that whatever this vote results for those of us in the UK, the meanings for those who have been "welcomed," in theory, to this country, know that deep down nothing will change until the domestic problems are addressed in the framework of their occurrence, without bringing into the discussion or even mentioning the liminal space that immigrants hold in society as they hammer out their work daily, only to realise that they are most unwelcome in this new country which they call home.