So far, Brexit has been little more than guessing games and headlines. We watch the news, discuss the possibilities and collectively agree that until we make the cut and slice ourselves away from the European Union, nothing is certain. It is only in the aftermath that we can realistically begin to understand the impact it will have on us and the country, however, our imminent political future does not have to be concrete for the effects to seep through to the collective consciousness. If you tell a story often enough, people begin to believe it, or at least, tolerate it as a valid point of view and in the case of Brexit and the discriminating narrative that has surrounded it, we begin to notice a shift. Supported by headlines that punch out racist commentary on a daily basis, nascent sentiments that have previously been kept hidden are given a certain credence, or at least, some time to come out and play.
You could argue that this is just the other side, the rhetoric of a remain voter, but let me tell you a quick story. It’s Saturday morning and I meet my friend for lunch in her favourite spot in Sloane Square (a.k.a the whiter side of London). She is Palestinian and I’m Egyptian/Irish. We are both women of colour who have spent years working in the primarily white arena of corporate London, in which fancy restaurants where we pay for overpriced food with a flavour of pretentiousness have become a common experience. We are comfortable here. We don’t question our right to exist in these spaces. We work hard, depend on no one, pay our bills and like nice things.
Half way through our eggs royale an elderly woman is seated on the table next to us. We are catching up on the mundane but important facets of our lives when she leans over and tells us that “if we didn’t talk so loud the whole restaurant wouldn’t have to hear our conversation”. My friend and I have both been raised in Muslim communities in which respect to our elders is paramount so I’m suddenly battling with my desire to throw a sarcastic comment while knowing I should be patient and turn the other cheek. Culture wins, as it often does, and neither of us say anything, until she leans over again and informs us that “it’s not ladylike” to talk in loud voices anyway. At this point my feminism wins over any cultural teachings and I tell her that this is a public space and if she wants somewhere quieter she should leave. I’m part astounded that she’s asked us to be quiet but also baffled that someone wanting quiet chose to come out to brunch on a Saturday in London; the irony doesn’t escape me. At this point, she leans over and says, “this is my country not yours, and you’ll soon all be gone anyway”.
Suddenly, with this one sentence, my friend and I are unsure of our place, reminded of our colour and thrown back into the identity crisis of growing up as brown girls in Newcastle when there weren’t that many brown girls around; the further you get away from London the less diverse it becomes. We are acutely aware of our immigrant status in a way we haven’t been for years, unexpectedly at an impasse and questioning what to do. Our British citizenship, passports, education and right to be there suddenly doesn’t feel so right and we’re both caught between shock and horror, mumbling that this is 2018 and cannot be happening.
The manager is called over, I explain what happened with the naïve certainty that authority and businesses which have to work within the law will always back the wronged, only to be told that the woman is a ‘friend of the restaurant’ and they can’t ask her to leave. My friend is already crying and I’m trying to hold back my own tears and we both don’t even know why we’re crying at this point, just that something has gone terribly wrong and it isn’t supposed to be like this. The manager asks the offending woman if she’d like to be moved away from us to which she replies that she’s staying put and we’ll be the ones to move. She’s not wrong. We get up and leave. Before we do, the white husband and wife sitting on our other side with their two children stand up - and proceed to stand up for us. The husband tells the woman that she should be ashamed and that he’s embarrassed for her. The wife tells management it’s absurd that she gets to stay. We all fall out of the restaurant in collective shock and even amidst the confusion and misery that being unwanted brings on I am so grateful for their support. These strangers who I’ve never met have, in some small way, given me back an assurance that I am in fact, allowed to exist in these places, even in this country.
The restaurant manager calls me back an hour later to tell me that he’s thought about his decision, and regardless of the implications it has to his job, he asked the woman to leave the restaurant in the end. It’s welcome news and I’m glad, but at this point I’m wandering the streets of London with my friend, both of us dazed and upset, questioning our right to belong, while wondering why people of colour don’t get the backing they need when they need it. Somehow it feels like it’s getting worse.
This brings me back to Brexit and the essence of it that permeates our society, which is really all we have of it while the reality remains so cloudy and uncertain. It seems that all Brexit has produced is latent bigotry and an unspoken consent that it’s now okay to say unspeakable things. It has legitimised those struggling to transition from an old world into one of diversity and equality, just like the woman I encountered that day, giving them permission to stay exactly where they are.
While I am grateful that the restaurant eventually took action, it was too little too late. We had already been humiliated and subjected to racial hatred in a public place; in a restaurant that had a duty to trade without discrimination. In the same vein, Brexit, regardless of its logistical progress has already unearthed a problematic tumour that grows beneath our surface and perhaps it’s time to face the truth; even if Brexit disappears overnight, we still have an issue to deal with. The rise of the far right is more than just a phrase thrown around at dinner parties as academics battle it out, but rather the reality is happening on the streets of London, one of the most diverse and multicultural cities in the world. The reality of Brexit is; two brown women, on a casual Saturday, get asked to go back to where they came from.
A huge thanks to Zoe and Duncan for their allyship and for understanding that silence is not an option, not for any of us.