By now it's sunk in. We voted to leave the EU, staking our claim as a western European country that believes it can turn back the clock to untangle itself from the effects of globalization. We may be about to learn that choosing isolationism over regionalism could prove tricky—especially since there doesn't yet seem to be any sort of plan for what to do post-Brexit. But here we are.
As the ripple effect of last Thursday's referendum result spread across the country, you may have noticed a sudden uptick in stories about alleged racist and/or xenophobic incidents. There was that one in west London, where the police were called to a Polish cultural center to investigate "allegedly racially motivated criminal damage"—graffiti a spokesperson for the center described as "really unpleasant."
In Cambridgeshire, the police responded to reports of signs being posted through letterboxes that read "Leave the EU; No more Polish vermin" in English on one side, and "Go home Polish scum" in Polish on the other. A Polish consultant and researcher called Max Fras, who's been quoted in a Guardian article on reported racist incidents since the Brexit, said he heard a fellow customer in a Gloucester Tesco say: "This is England now, foreigners have 48 hours to fuck right off. Who is foreign here? Anyone foreign?" while waiting in the line on Friday. People have been making claims about being discriminated against for being brown, being brown while wearing a suit, and speaking with non-English accents. The Muslim Council of Britain has said it collected more than 100 self-reported incidents of abuse on social media by Monday.
This all may be true; it makes sense that racists and xenophobes will be buoyed by the victory of what was a largely racist and xenophobic campaign—that they will feel more comfortable voicing their prejudices. However, as any non-white British person who has lived in the UK will already know, these kind of incidents are sadly nothing new. On any day of the week at any given time, someone who knows nothing about you may stop and demand your ethnic credentials. They might ask about your background, your "people," where you're "really from." Or they might ask to touch your hair, follow you around a shop, or, as I had the pleasure of experiencing in December last year, spit on you in the street and call you a black bitch.
A part of living in a country with a historical legacy of assuming the inferiority of people of other ethnicities—so much so as to endeavor to "civilize" them by arriving in their countries and offering Christianity, the English language, and a dismantling of their community borders and previous economic systems—is to understand that racism comes along with that, too. Frankly, a lot of the sorts of incidents we've heard about over the past three days sound like things that have happened in the UK since people from former colonies first arrived, perhaps eager to have a look around the country that they'd been told was so great; that was responsible for dragging them from savagery to modernity.
Back in the 50s, there weren't laws and practices—or maybe just enough good old-fashioned decency—to protect new arrivals from being discriminated against in the realms of housing, job-hunting, and education. Though we can't compare the UK's council estates to the US' racially ghettoized communities, Trevor Phillips and his brother Mike Phillips argued in their 1998 book on Windrush migration that poverty and hostility tended to push black and Asian arrivals "into poor private rental accommodation and the worst of owner-occupied housing in the declining inner cities." The arrival of post-Soviet Europeans after the eastern enlargement of the EU follows similarly, creating enclaves where people from a certain country suddenly appear to be "invading" Britain.
An Ipsos Mori poll found that over 50 percent of Leave voters wanted to exit the EU because of immigration from member states. And yes, some of those voters will have based their decision on an innate dislike or mistrust of the Other, and a small number of that block may well be the ones now feeling emboldened enough, because of Brexit, to publicly air their bigotry.
But we can't let them win; we must find a way to coax some positives out of this situation. One way of doing that is finding the right way to react. Responding to these displays of blatant racism with cries of "not in my name" or "they're just a stupid minority" doesn't help us learn how to talk about ethnicity in a meaningful way. It doesn't help people uncover the roots of their prejudices to know how to push back against the kind of systemic racism that doesn't scream "Paki," but silently assumes black teenagers will be violent, that veiled Muslim women are all timid victims of oppression, that all Syrian male refugees are potential rapists of white women.
Putting vocally racist people "back in the box" won't work. This is a time when we in the UK need to have a frank and honest discussion about race and ethnicity, in which we actually listen to each other. People are scared—they're worried about job security, school places, waiting times at hospitals—and will continue to scapegoat others based on ethnicity until we unpack both the roots of prejudice and the real reasons life has been getting harder for so many of us, starting with the impacts of Thatcherism on British manufacturing and moving on to ensuing welfare cuts.
The fear-based bigotry has always been there. Now, it's up to us to grab it while it's being pushed to the fore post-Brexit, and dismantle its race-based reasoning behind the country's economic decline.
Follow Tshepo Mokoena on Twitter.