This is a guest post by Yasmin Baruchi
“You’re not the type of Muslim or immigrant the Brexit Leave or Trump Campaign targeted so why are you so upset?!”
This was the question my partner asked me, struggling to grasp why I would sitting in tears at 4.00am on Wednesday 9th November 2016 as “Brexit plus plus plus” became a reality and Trump was elected.
In the eight years we have been together, we have never needed to have a conversation about identity despite being an interracial couple. However, in the last week, it has never been clearer how as a South Asian Muslim heritage woman my experience of the world vastly differs from that of a White middle class man, despite how aligned and compatible we are in so many other ways. As my pain, despair and hopelessness grows on a daily basis, he became increasingly resigned. “It will be ok, it’s not that bad, you are being dramatic, don’t be so emotional” he said in exasperation reflecting the chosen attitude of our government that we must accept this, we need to give Trump a chance and this could be an excellent opportunity for a UK-US trade deal post Brexit.
What erupted as a result was a series of the most raw, passionate, and painful conversations we have ever had but also the most valuable. It allowed him to understand what few can unless they have experienced being part of a demonised minority and led me to overcome some anger and gain insight into why so many people are so resigned, even willing to accept what has happened and just get on with it.
I know people voted for Brexit as they did for Trump for a whole array of reasons, some complex and some simple. I still feel confident in saying that most did not vote for racist or xenophobic reasons. But the fact is that the extreme language, rhetoric and narrative employed by both campaigns was not enough to turn people away, that it was still acceptable, excusable or ignorable. If this same rhetoric was deployed against people we all personally cared about or we held in equal regard to ourselves, we would never have accepted it, no matter what great promises were on offer to compensate. It would have been condemned and rejected. And this has been at the root of my despair. When people are willing to accept these things being said about you at the very highest level in society, it devalues you as a human being and leaves you questioning your place in society.
“But that stuff wasn’t aimed at someone like you! People we know clearly identify you more as British as opposed to the immigrants in Farage’s poster or a Muslim” were my partner’s (failed) attempt to comfort me that I am wrong to question my sense of belonging. Besides the fact that as a society, we should never accept such scaremongering and scapegoating of an entire group of people simply based on their race or religion, no matter how unrelateable they are, I went on to explain why this is simply not enough.
Everything observable about how I act, speak, dress, and behave is what you would consider British. It’s how I have always identified. Yes, I am brown and obviously so but I am everything a “good immigrant” should be- integrated, educated, employed, not on benefits and I pay taxes. But that is not all I am. When my loving partner, friends, his wonderful family and even some of my own family look at the “breaking point” poster immigrants, or read the “Daily Mail” caricatures of “bad immigrants” and criminal refugees, they don’t see anything connected to them, and they certainly don’t see me.
But I’m reminded of my own history that makes up my identity and sense of self. Family members expelled from Burma with only the clothes on their backs, my grandfather who arrived in the UK, looking very much like those demonised, dehumanised young man in present-day tabloids, not knowing a word of English, wearing a karakul hat, and three pounds in his pocket. I’m reminded of my own father and uncles, similarly to an extent “good immigrants” if you ignore their choice of clothes on Friday that make them identifiable as Muslims- which due to blanket demonisation we know is not a desirable thing in the UK. They arrived, again not a word of English, their childhood interrupted to live in a country that was simultaneously welcoming and hostile to them in the 60’s and 70’s.
When I hear the rhetoric on Muslims and how it goes unchallenged, I think of my mother in her hijab and salwar kameez, her unconfident accented English and know full well that because we have let it get this far, there may be a thug on the street who could feel that she is a justified target of abuse. I asked my partner to consider how he would feel if the dress, and appearance of his own mother had been villifed to the extent that some individual could hurt her and the mainstream reaction was to rationalise it as a result of White extremism and carry on.
As we become immune and blind to the harm we are allowing to continue because it’s only directed to those that we feel we cannot relate to, it grows and it spreads. A case in point, is Steve Bannon’s comments in the US that there are too many Asian CEO’s in Silicon Valley. Suddenly the focus is no longer limited to what we have accepted to be dirty, poor, criminal, leeching immigrants, but “good immigrants”- the ones who are educated, talented, contributing to the economy, and why? Because they share characteristics in common with “bad immigrants”- their skin tone, their country of origin, the fact they are foreigners etc etc. How can this fail to alarm someone like me?
For those who perceive any of this as me making some sort of “bleeding heart” case for uncontrolled immigration, I want to be clear, this is not about immigration policy, or a denial of the issues that have arisen from immigration. This is about how we talk about human beings and the consequences of the language we gave a green light to by ignoring and not challenging. Not for a moment do I think everyone who voted for Brexit or Trump are bad, racist or xenophobic. Good, kind people were able to give their vote to a toxic divisive campaign because we’ve had a constant trickle of dehumanisation of certain groups of people that has not been challenged effectively and normalised.
What this normalisation has resulted in is a real panic in even people like me- who as a liberal secular, nominal Muslim has never before felt insecure or uncertain in her British identity. I now feel like my worth is not the same as my partner. Boris Johnson’s appeal for us to quit the “whingeorama”, the focus on how we can make Trump’s election a good thing for Britain’s economy, Theresa May just a week after Trump’s election, saying the “it is up to the United States what rules they put into place, in terms of entry across their borders, but we will be ensuring that “special relationship” continues…” without any comment or condemnation about Trump’s language on Muslims let alone the proposed Muslim ban itself has left me feeling hopeless. One wonders if May would be so pragmatic and willing to maintain the UK-US “special relationship” if Trump had spoken about a group she identifies with in the same way. It is difficult to draw a conclusion other than that to our government, some of us are worth standing up for more than others. How does this not devalue British Muslims- even the most secular, integrated, Muslims like myself.
And moving this away from myself and to the big picture, in this silence, this pragmatism, “business as usual” attitude we are pushing, things will get worse. For those that fear Islamist extremism, and for those like myself that counter and fight it, our work has become so much harder. The sense of isolation and alienation that is resulting amongst Muslims by turning a blind eye can easily be manipulated and turned in to anger, antipathy and violence. The victimhood complex Islamists have been peddling in our communities can now be presented as justified more and more by the day – they will say they warned Muslims that the “West” doesn’t truly care about us.
When will we start proving them wrong?