On 23rd June 2016, all of the British, Northern Irish, and Commonwealth citizens residing in the UK voted on whether or not the UK should leave the European Union. I remember getting off my bus that evening and entering the polling station. As I put my ballot paper, marked with a single tick mark next to the word ‘Remain’, into the box, I happened to catch a glimpse of another ballot paper with a tick next to the word ‘Leave’. Living, as I did, in a bubble surrounded almost entirely by other definite ‘Remain’ voters, I was confident that the ballot paper I had just seen was a rarity – an outlier among the majority. There was no doubt in my mind that the UK would choose to stay in the EU.
I am sure you all know what happened next. Although the result was close (alarmingly close, in my opinion), in the end it was the leavers who managed to pull in front with 52% of the votes. Brexit had won.
When I first read the results on the morning of the 24th, I was surprised. Not quite as surprised as I was on the 9th November, when the words ‘President Donald Trump’ flashed on my news feed, but surprised all the same. How could I, a person living in the UK, have read the collective attitude of the country in which I reside so incorrectly?
I will never claim to be an expert on institutions as complex and all-encompassing as the EU, but I am quite certain I am correct when I say that the EU is, by and large, a good thing. It has its problems, of course, but it also allows for things like easy trade between members, stringent workplace safety regulations, and ample opportunity to travel and improve intercultural relations. Surely those massive advantages outweighed any problems? As somebody who has lived as a non-EU immigrant in the UK for the better part of a decade, I had certainly wished, more than once, that I was an EU citizen. It seemed like a pretty great deal to me.
But really, with the amount of white supremacy that still manages to exist in this country, I should not have been surprised about this election result at all. Looking at it from the benefit of hindsight, the vote for Brexit was an opportunity for white supremacists to let us know that they still exist, and they will not be going down without a fight.
We Are Winning
One of the great things about being involved in social activism and fighting for social equality, is that I get to bask in the knowledge that my ‘side’ is winning. As time goes on and society progresses, I have noticed more and more instances of minority groups being heard and represented in mainstream society. Relatively recent events such as the casting of Idris Elba as Norse god Heimdall in the Thor movies, toy company Mattel’s release of ‘realistic’ Barbie dolls in different heights, widths, and skin tones, and fashion company Heist’s recent efforts to create a diverse palate of skin tones for their ‘nude’ tights; show me that the efforts being made by all of us activists are not in vain. Whether we can always see it or not, the world is, slowly but surely, becoming more equal.
And do you know who is really not happy about that? White supremacists.
The Only People Who Matter
Look at the situation from their point of view and it starts to make a small amount of sense. Until recently, white people in the UK (and in other, predominantly white, countries), existed in a world that told them they were the only people who mattered. They were the only people who saw themselves represented on television or in magazines, the only people who had any opportunities to progress in education and employment, and the only people who could conceivably see themselves in positions of power. Although non-white people have existed in the UK for hundreds, if not thousands of years, they had so few opportunities, and were seen and heard from so infrequently, they might as well have not been there for all that the white people would have noticed them.
But now the times have changed, and although non-white people in the UK are still underrepresented and have far fewer opportunities than their white counterparts, the fact is that they are more represented, and therefore more visible, than they have ever been. And the further the UK progresses towards true equality, the angrier the white supremacists become.
More Radical Reads: White Supremacy: A Toxic Culture of Criminal Conspiracy
These foreigners are everywhere now! They cry, their hatred fuelled by the lies and propaganda told by right-wing political parties and the tabloid newspapers that support them. This isn’t the Britain of the past that I know and love. I want to live in a place where everybody looks and sounds the same. I want these immigrants gone!
That might sound like an exaggeration, and believe me, I wish it was. Although not all white supremacists are as forthright in their hatred as, say, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage (whose pure, unadulterated racism is exemplified in such quotes as “Any normal and fair-minded person would have a perfect right to be concerned if a group of Romanian people suddenly moved in next door”; “I am tired of my kids coming home from school being taught about every other religion in the world”; and “Our real friends in the world speak English”), it is still abundantly clear that they do wish for non-white people to not exist anymore. Not in ‘their’ country, at least.
“Take Back Control”
And so, when former Prime Minister David Cameron announced that a referendum would be held to decide whether the UK should remain part of the EU, the Brexit campaigners noted the anger and bitterness of the country’s white supremacists and targeted it in their campaign brochures.
Adorned with the slogan ‘Take Back Control’, these pages of propaganda heavily emphasised that the UK’s membership in the EU forces the UK to allow people from places like Romania, Bulgaria, and Croatia to live here. And, as if having people that foreign residing on British soil was not bad enough, the brochure then went on to say that one of the countries currently in the process of joining the UK is Turkey, and that once Turkey is in, Turkish people would have the same rights as UK citizens. This was probably the most potent scare tactic the Brexit campaigners could have used, because surely nothing could be more frightening to a white supremacist than the idea that citizens of a predominantly Muslim country could have the same rights as them.
More Radical Reads: “No More Room for Deference:” Reclaiming My Power From White Supremacy
As a final nail in the coffin, the brochure concludes that a successful Brexit vote will enable the UK to control who comes into the country, as well as who can be removed. To the UK’s white supremacists, that reads as: you know all of those non-white people poisoning your country and taking everything away from you? If you vote Brexit, we’ll be able to get rid of them. And surely, if you dislike non-white people that much, few things are going to sound so good.
And so it was with that anger, that misguided belief that non-white people are ‘taking away’ from white people, and that desire for the UK to return to its more racist, less representative past; that the white supremacists all checked ‘Leave’ on their ballot papers.
The day after the referendum, a Channel 4 news reporter went to the town of Barnsley, in Yorkshire, to ask some of the people who voted for Brexit how they felt about the result. One gentleman said that the vote was all about immigration. I did not agree about anything else he said, but on that point I was with him 100%. This referendum was all about immigration, and everything that comes with it, including diversity, multiculturalism, opportunity, and representation. When the white supremacists checked their ballot papers, their message was clear: They would rather exist in a world where they are the only people who matter, than to work towards a world where everybody matters. The fact that Brexit won shows me that those of us who work in social activism still have a long way to go.
But I have no doubt that we will get there someday. With or without Brexit.
Feature Image: A photo of a person’s hazel colored eye. They have gold glitter underneath their eye.]