I’m aware that I’ve been sharing a lot on Facebook and Twitter (and with anyone who’ll listen) about Brexit. Although I don’t wish to upset anyone (no really I don’t, although I’m aware I have), I plan to keep talking about it because, as many have already pointed out, it’s vitally important that we do. Here’s why.
Putting aside the practical implications on my own life and that of my peers (which are huge) my biggest heartbreak is a sense of disillusionment and a loss of identity. My whole life I’ve had relatives, ancestors, friends, students and colleagues from every different background imaginable; I’ve been to as much of the world (particularly Europe) as I could manage and been welcomed. I’ve always known the world was wider and richer than my own experiences, and sadly, often a lot crueller. I’ve felt a connectedness to something bigger, privileged to access its opportunities and a responsibility and compassion towards others less fortunate. I know I’m not alone in this.
That’s why, for me, the referendum result was so gutting, but it didn't entirely surprise me. I saw and felt it coming when I was back home: the rise in casual racism in everyday conversation; the unchecked xenophobia in mainstream media; the frankly disgustingly bigoted memes of Britain First being shared widely.
Then there were subtler things, such as political agendas that those of us in the public sector were asked [forced] to press at work. One in particular was promoting ‘British Values’, namely: tolerance, respect for law, democracy and civil liberty. Yes they are tenets we were proud to grow up with, but labelling them as purely 'British' and making them part of a 'counter terrorism' (Prevent) strategy was a polarising move which implied that they were something 'other' people had to be taught. What’s worse is that it felt like these agendas, like the referendum itself, were intended to win back votes of those who would otherwise have voted for UKIP or the BNP. (Vote for me! Look I’m doing something about those scary foreigners too; but to placate the lefties we’re calling it some form of therapy.) In the end, all it did was play into the Brexiters hands, by watering the already-sown seeds of xenophobia.
Meanwhile, the fields in which we operated became more fractured and contradictory in other ways. As an example, on the day our Prime Minister gave a speech which said achieving certain level of English would be mandatory for people that wanted to move to the UK, the Skills Funding Agency stopped ESOL Mandation Funding in further education.
Ironically this was all happening against the backdrop of having grown up being taught about how Britain had fought and won the fight against fascism and that this was some part of our heritage to be proud of. (The narrative of our national curriculum conveniently left out how many places we colonised before that, or at least how brutal the colonisation often was; singing 'Rule Brittania' only gave a sense of entitlement without consequences.) We wrote essays in GCSE History about the causes of WW2 and the dangers of dehumanising other races and blaming them for the problems of society. We studied the formation of the EU and learnt that, in its purest form, it was set up to safeguard against that ever happening again.
I always took those safeguards for granted. That’s why, while I'm not denying that aspects of mass migration and integration of different cultures can bring challenges, this has to be one of the biggest steps backwards of the last century. At best it feels like a collective choice to say, ‘let’s just opt out of trying’; while at its worst it’s been taken as an opportunity to stick two fingers up to tolerance and respect, in favour of downright cruelty. I'm not just mourning the uncertain future that the younger generation has been lumbered with; I'm grieving how quickly we have forgotten what the sacrifices of the past were really made for.
Having moved overseas three times I’ve known next to nothing but warmth and welcome every time (and I was moving out of choice and for adventure – I wasn’t forced to, as some are) and it’s made what could have been isolating and difficult experiences wonderful. Now I’m now watching in horror as the UK becomes a place where people from other countries (or indeed, from the UK, who just don’t happen to be white) cannot feel safe because it's ok to openly abuse people from different origins. There are already thousands of examples of the rise in racial abuse in the UK since the result was announced on Friday. Anyone on Facebook or Twitter will have seen Sarah Child’s Album , ‘Worrying Signs’ or the hashtag #PostRefRacism, and I hope that far more than 48% of those who read some of the anecdotes were disgusted. I’m aware that not all 17 million leave voters endorse this behaviour, much less enact it, but such bigotry doesn’t exist in a vacuum; there has been a direct correlation between the EU Referendum (both the lead up and the result) and these instances. The perpetrators feel legitimised, even if it wasn’t the intention of every voter, and these victims are people, not just collateral damage.
I have for years identified myself as both British and European. Today I am ashamed to be British and, apparently, soon to be no longer European.
The outpouring of hurt and heartbreak from the younger generation about this is a beacon of light. I just truly hope that the pain and anger doesn't become despondency. Please let’s keep talking, keep questioning and keep sticking up for those whom the referendum has made a lot more vulnerable; words and kindness are our most powerful tools against hate and division.