The unspoken whiteness of Brexit

A couple of days after British referendum on exiting the EU I witnessed a disturbing altercation between two hard working Indian sub-continent migrant owners of a Dublin city centre Spar shop and a bunch of white Irish drunks who were kicking the shop’s door and harassing the owners in an attempt to steal booze. Without being there I was sure that the confrontation had racist undertones (as confirmed to me by the shop owners the following day). It lasted some twenty minutes and was only resolved when the gardai arrived, but it left me wondering whether the racism of the white marauders – like the Nazi graffiti sprayed in the last few days in Northern Ireland – had anything to do with the Brexit vote.

Social media have been abuzz with posts on the Brexit repercussions with much written about David Cameron’s resignation, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn failure to prevent the exit vote, UKIP leader Nigel Farage and his fascist followers and the implications for Ireland. However, much more significant is the permission the vote has given to racists in Britain and elsewhere in Europe to express their anti-immigrant and anti-minorities toxic views.

As University of Edinburgh academic Akwugo Emejulu has written, despite arguments to the contrary, Brexit was mostly about race and about whiteness that, as a power relation, casts itself as victim. As the unstated aim of the Leave campaign was to re-claim British (or rather English) whiteness, Emejulu claims that its key argument was that the (white) ‘working class’ were suffering as result of ‘mass migration’, which supposedly put extra burdens on public services. Whiteness thus operates as victim as English people regularly complain about being over-run by ‘immigrants’ and ‘Muslims’. The people arguing this do not admit to being racist, but rather claim ‘common sense’ in suggesting that there is a limit to how many people Britain can allow in.

Thus, in the best tradition of what the French sociologist Etienne Balibar called ‘crisis racism’, migrants, rather than the government, are blamed for austerity. But austerity measures have been the British (and yes, also the Irish) government response to the 2008 economic crisis, rather than an imposition by the EU or the fault of migrants. The housing crisis, unemployment in certain sectors, the depletion of the education and health systems have all been caused neither by the EU or by immigrants, who, as I have said many times here, are net contributors to the economy when allowed to do so.

And, Emejulu adds, whiteness as victimhood is also deployed in a much more insidious fashion. Both before and after the Brexit vote, ‘invisible’ and privileged white EU migrants (including Irish ones) began to report feeling unwelcomed and unsafe. These reports combine with social media accounts of a 57% increase in racial harassment cases since the referendum. Yet, feeling unsafe in Britain where many have lived for years and the racist and xenophobic nature of the harassment cases we have witnessed on social media are minimised by whiteness, which, even in discussions of racism and antiracism, prefers to present itself as victimhood, whilst at the same time erasing the experiences of immigrants and people of colour.

I doubt whether the drunk white Irish youngsters who harassed the immigrant shop keepers in Dublin’s city centre were even conscious of Brexit. But the worrying emergence of an Irish variant of UKIP, Pegida and other European proto-fascist groups augurs badly for racism in this country. We need to watch out, protect immigrants and people of colour, and report racist attacks to the gardai before things get much much uglier.