On Friday I woke up to chaos in social media. After months of campaigns, debates, articles and nothing but claims, United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union (EU). Even though this decision affects me severely, since legally I’m an EU migrant living in UK, I would be lying if I said that I was very concerned about the referendum. Not because I didn’t care, but because I have learnt to not panic about things I can’t control or have a say in. Moreover, there wasn’t (still isn’t) any factual information on what was (is) going to happen to EU migrants in UK if Leave was chosen by the majority, and I’m not a fan of baseless assumptions.
I moved to United Kingdom from Spain in summer 2012 due to family circumstances. From the beginning, my plan was to settle here indefinitely. Although my time in college was far from great, I adapted to English life and I ended up liking it more than my old Spanish one. For the first time , going to university was a real option for me. I became involved in many volunteering and social action opportunities (NCS, Team v Leader, Red Cross), something I never had the chance to do before but I enjoy doing it a lot. I met inspirational people, widened my professional networks, and while not many, I made great friendships I want to keep forever. At present, I’m studying in a university I love, living independently, doing a great course, with a nice job and having opportunities to do things such as attending summer schools in South East Asia (I will be off to Singapore on Wednesday if my current poor health allows it!).
Of course, life in UK isn’t perfect, and since last year, it has been harder. I would say it all began with the general election campaigning although it was probably there before. As many already know, there has been an increase in nationalist and far right parties/groups across UK. Anti-immigration discourse dominated the political sphere before the elections, and it revived with the EU referendum. While I didn’t follow the campaigning for the EU referendum thoroughly, I noticed that the Leave side used nationalist and xenophobic rhetoric while the Remain side wrapped themselves in classicism and fear mongering. I also read complaints regarding the poor quality of TV debates and the use of this decision to further personal interests inside British political parties.
Long story short: the campaigning for the EU referendum was messy. To be honest, I can’t blame anyone for this, since it was and still is uncertain what could happen if (when) UK leaves the EU. Making claims and promises is fine, as long as you have evidence, facts and willingness to back them up. Anyways: UK voted to leave the EU. And my first thought after finding this out was, “So, now what?”. As a development undergraduate, I’m concerned about what will happen to the poorest and most disadvantaged in UK and the EU. As legally an EU migrant, I’m concerned about what will happen to EU migrants in UK. And as an individual, I’m concerned about my academic, professional and personal plans, which seem ruined and uncertain right now.
I have never liked politics. Due to my career aspirations, I have been more involved in them since last year. But it has rarely been a pleasurable activity for me. I hate politics. I hate parliaments. I hate governments. I hate political parties. Not only at an ideological level, but at a personal too. I’m from a low (sometimes zero) income background. I’m a daughter of immigrants, granddaughter of immigrants. I’m black, a minority in Europe. I’m a care leaver, I was under social services care from when I was seven years old to when I was nearly sixteen. Due to all this, I’m quite socially disadvantaged, and the reason has a lot to do with politics.
As a poor child in care who didn’t choose to be born or having a dysfunctional family, hearing people talk so carelessly about destroying the welfare state that ensured my survival isn’t nice. As a black child who is not to blame for the horror of colonialism and slavery, hearing stories about family members not being hired because of their skin colour isn’t nice. As a Spanish child born in a country that she considered her home, being told “go back to your country! You are ruining our culture and values!” isn’t nice. I always try to respect political ideologies across the spectrum. Freedom of speech and all that. But when my identity becomes dehumanised, limits with my tolerance and patience are reached. And this happens constantly within political spheres in Europe, from Spain to UK.
Last year, I tried to get involved in politics a lot. I followed the general election campaigning in UK and researched policy proposals. At some points, I felt motivated and even thought about joining a party. I felt like a democratic citizen. However, this changed drastically on summer, when the refugee/migrant crisis in the Mediterranean Sea erupted. While sections of European society and some states tried to help and follow international law, the reaction by many politicians, media outlets and the public was more than disheartening. European fascism and racism rose dramatically. Or better said: Europe showed its true colours.
You may think this shouldn’t affect me personally. After all, I was born in Spain, Europe. I have Spanish nationality and an EU passport. But it does. Because I’m black. When someone looks at you dirty or directs racist abuse at you on the streets, they do it because of your physical appearance (sometimes accent/language) and they don’t ask for your documentation. And despite of where I was born, I’m African (mainly West African, too many countries to mention). I can’t pretend that xenophobia towards African migrants doesn’t hurt me. The majority of adults in my family are migrants who moved to Europe to study, live and/or work. And I don’t feel good when people hint or pretend that “I’m okay” but African migrants demonised 24/7 aren’t, just because of a piece of paper and an accent. I’m not even proud of being assimilated into European culture and I wish I grew up in an environment in which I learnt about my roots.
For months, I have struggled to say “I’m Spanish” when people ask about my accent. I just say “I was born in Spain”. At the same time, I’m not close at all to my African ethnicities, so I can’t claim them much. My parents are from a variety of countries in the continent. It is difficult to pick one or two for my cultural identity since I don’t know much about any of them. Fortunately, I can always learn, yet I feel uneasy claiming cultures I wasn’t born or raised into. I’m just an outsider wherever I am and wherever I go: a cultureless outsider. I don’t want to join the Spanish society in my university, but I don’t feel comfortable joining the African-Caribbean one, in which everyone seems so confident and strong about their cultural heritage.
UK voting to leave the EU has led to many reflections about “shared European identity and culture”. While reading them, I have been wondering many things. What do people mean when they say “European”? What is being European? Who is considered European? I have always felt indifferent about my nationality and European citizenship, I’m everything but patriotic and more taking into account the not-so-great relationship between Europe, my race and Africa. Now I can certainly say I don’t feel culturally Spanish or European anymore, whatever that means. I know that these essays talking about European identity and culture have racial implications, both intentionally and unintentionally. And I don’t care enough to reclaim my nationality and continental citizenship. I’m ~fine~ not having a cultural identity and identifying ethnically as just black African.
However, there are real implications for my life when comes to Brexit and trouble within the EU. My right to work and live in this country is uncertain. While I think no one is going to be forced to leave, working rights, welfare, healthcare and education are likely to worsen for EU migrants (some of these were already becoming worsening). I feel privileged and shallow for complaining about this, after all that’s what non-EU migrants go through, as well as many others around the globe. I believe that it is unfair that people have more privilege than others just for being born in a country when both contribute to it. I’m firmly against the mistreatment of asylum seekers and refugees also, together several of the new policies introduced by the Home Office to restrict the rights of non-EU migrants in UK.
However, I still complain about Brexit because as a normal human in this world, I had plans. I like my university, and it ranked first in the world for my subject when I started my course last year (second now). I wanted to stay and do a masters, but the fees for non-EU migrants (which probably EU migrants will get unless agreements with the EU states are made) are too high and I don’t even know if I could get a postgraduate loan. The scholarships that my university offer are not enough. I have currently no financial support from my family or anyone other than the university, the student finance company and my job. And I don’t know if I will be willing to stay in a country in which working and living could become a hassle.
Now, here comes my biggest problem: I can’t go back to Spain. For me, it is not easy as packing and going back to “my country”, as some are suggesting. What I dislike most about politics is that the consequences of decisions and policies are always analysed at a macro-level, without looking at the individual. Not all EU migrants will be affected in the same way by this decision. I don’t have a home anymore in Spain. I don’t have family there anymore with whom I have a good close relationship (to be fair I don’t have a good close relationship with 95% of my relatives). I have friends, but our relationship is not the same as when I left four years ago. And the most important part: I don’t have a future there. It isn’t because of the recession or because of the high unemployment rates. I never did.
While moving to England was a shock in my life, it was for the best. When I was young, I always knew that I couldn’t stay in Spain forever. I always saw it as a country in which non-white immigrants and their descendants couldn’t progress. Casual racism in Spain is very high, I never realised till I went back for the summer after living in England two years. However, systematic racism is even worse. I was raised in a country in which I never or very rarely saw non-white people in the media or adverts, except for foreign celebrities and TV shows. Always saw non-white people working in just low-skilled / service sector jobs. Noticed how non-white people in my city were marginalised into the most isolated/poor neighbourhoods.
Many of my adult family members have talked to me about their experiences with racism and employment in Spain. From my graduate uncle not being hired in a bank because he would be a “bad image”, to one aunt ringing up for a job, showing up for interview an hours later and being told there was never a job available there (my relatives with Spanish names and Spanish accents have had this type of issue as lot). My dad has worked in the same factory since I was born, and he has endured a lot of racist taunts just to provide for his family and survive. There is a reason why the majority of my adult relatives have ended up leaving Spain for other European countries or their home countries in Africa. Employment as black person is extremely limited. And this becomes frustrating. My dad has admitted a lot of times that if he didn’t have kids in Spain, he would have gone back to his home country long ago.
I know that UK is far from perfect when comes to racial equality and discrimination, but it is better than Spain. Much better. This can be something hard to understand if you have lived all your life in Britain and endured racism here. However, I have lived in both places and experienced both realities. I didn’t even move to multicultural London when I came to this country, but the differences were still big when comes to media, legislation and politics, as well as employment and education. There is a reason for it: when UK was receiving its big wave of migration from Asia and Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, Spain was in a fascist dictatorship that didn’t end till 1975. Immigration to the country only became significant after the 1990s, mainly during the 2000s and now.
Basically, Spain has a lot of progress to do regarding racial equality. A lot. And I’m not sure if it will ever happen, and less now, when fascism and nationalism are on the rise again across Europe. I’m not interested in finding it out neither: I know that many things have changed in Spain since I left in 2012, but as I mentioned above, I have no nostalgic connection towards the country. My most significant personal and emotional growth happened after I arrived to England: I feel more connected to British society than the Spanish one. I even know more about its legislation, politics, and history.
Another big reason why going back to Spain is not an option for me is that I can’t pursue my desired career there. Things such as volunteering, social action and international development are not as prevalent in Spanish society and academic institutions as in English ones, and in most cases, this type of work is carried out by religious organisations. In addition, grants, scholarships, opportunities and affordable programmes to study, work and volunteer abroad are not common neither (ERASMUS being one of the few).
My future right now is very uncertain and as a realistic person, I see it grey. Dark dark grey. At some point, I believed that I would break the low-income/low-skilled employment cycle in my close family. I believed that I would finish my degree, do a master, get experience and maybe do a PhD to be a researcher. I believed that I would have a comfortable life and finally be happier. Now, I’m not so sure about it. In this neoliberal and meritocratic world, people always say that hard-work pays off. Yet, the recipe for success isn’t so easy for those at bottom of the power and supremacy pyramid. I don’t think that social mobility is a myth, but for a black girl from a care leaver, immigrant and working class background it is a big challenge.
I don’t want to suffer so much all my life: I don’t want to be forced into marrying someone to survive and I don’t want to be forced to get a permanent job I won’t like. I have seen too many people living with that sort of life and turning into bitter, hurting and depressed humans. That’s why I’m not conforming to the expectations society has about me. Nonetheless, the only big step I have made is attending university and this wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have the privilege of being an EU migrant in UK (which is about to vanish). Of course, I can always move to mainland Europe and do a master in a country like Sweden or Norway. Yet, UK is the country with the best opportunities for me and my career in Europe.
However, I must admit that since the refugee/migrant crisis in the Mediterranean erupted and European fascism “reappeared”, I have been thinking about leaving the continent once I finish my studies. Racism and xenophobia have become normalised, and life in this continent is becoming scary. And this goes beyond my own identity. I have been very concerned as well about the treatment of Asian migrants and asylum seekers, growing Islamophobia and the attacks towards brown communities in Europe. This is not the type of environment in which I want to live, it is very toxic and my mental health is too fragile to become a full-time activist and challenge it. I know that other regions and continents in the world aren’t any or much better, but feeling this unwelcome and being so hated in the place in which I was born and which should be my home is not great.
In addition, going to Africa, reconnecting with my roots, and contributing with my skills and knowledge while cooperating with others is something I’m becoming fonder of doing with time, although it is a hard process. Even if I have African background, I’m still Western and my presence there can be patronising/more damaging than good. I also want to travel and live in other countries to enrich my knowledge and education regarding development, environmental and social issues, because I don’t want to have an Eurocentric perspective on them. I have discovered many South Asian, Arab, Caribbean and Latin American theorists and non-fiction authors whilst in my first year of university (African as well), and I would like to explore the context in which they wrote their works more deeply. I hoped I could do this whilst being primarily based in United Kingdom, but now I don’t know what will happen.
Before finishing this post, I would like to clarify a few things that have been bothering me about the post-Brexit climate in social media.
First, contrary to current popular belief, racism and fascism aren’t exclusive to the working class. A brief look into British history and politics is more than enough to understand this.
Second, being working class is not an excuse or reason to hold racist and fascist views. Also, stop erasing the non-white British working class. They exist.
Third, it seems as if rising fascism and racism was fine as long as it only affected non-white and non-Christian people. Little complaints I have seen before in my Facebook timeline about the awful treatment of asylum seekers, refugees and non-white migrants.
Fourth, (white) EU migrants are far from just the victims of the current climate. Fascism and neo-nazism have been raising across Europe as a whole, from Hungary to Germany. Not enough has been done to stop it, and again, few cared when refugee receptions centres were burned down and Nazi demonstrations targeting non-whites, Muslims and Jews happened.
Fifth, the Vote Leave campaign and supporters are not the only ones to blame for xenophobia and fascism. I know people who voted Leave due to economic reasons or personal interests. I personally think that getting behind a campaign that enables and empowers the far right is not good, nevertheless politics work like that. Also, Remain supporters aren’t free of responsibility when comes to racism and nationalism. There were Remainers who wanted to stay for economic and personal reasons and showed discontent about immigration.
And sixth, stop forcing a fake mask of solidarity and criticising others for ruminating. I respect the decision of the UK, but I have never felt more alienated in my life and I will react as I want. Besides, it doesn’t help if you pretend that “uniting to fight racism” will help while privilege, supremacies and power inequalities remain unaddressed. It won’t.
On conclusion: Brexit has shaken the lives of many people in and outside Britain. Mine is of them. While I’m not a fan of the EU, I think that its existence is key to moderate the rising far right nationalistic climate. Nevertheless, British people and Europeans have a right to choose what they want, and I’m not in a position to challenge it. I recently decided to remove myself from political spheres in this continent as I don’t think I belong to them and my voice isn’t valid/heard (except for inclusive grassroots efforts).
Also, I apologise if the content of this blog post makes it seem as if I’m only worried about myself when comes to Brexit: I’m not. However, I’m certain that no one else is worried about me and someone has to care. Even if there is panic about EU migrants, I don’t fit the narrative since Europe isn’t my region of origin. Current conversations and debates about nationalism and fascism are being whitewashed. I’m not here for (white) British right wingers dismissing racism as patriotism, and I’m not here for (white) lefties reducing racism to fear and calling for an unrealistic unity within the working class.
I hope that with time, uncertainty paves the way to facts and agreements, so I can make plans for my future. At the moment, all I can do is keep working and studying, try my best to succeed and achieve at least some of my goals. If I have to leave UK and/or Europe, I will. At the end of the day, migration is in my DNA. I’m a direct and not so direct descendant of migrants, even my African roots are highly mixed. If my ancestors and relatives struggled and survived, I will struggle and survive as well. I don’t know if everything will be fine and I’m not a hopeful person anymore, but I’m somehow determined. Having a name that means “hard-working” is a blessing with a life like mine one, and I’m glad it translated into my attitude and personality.
(P.S: Writing about this topic is difficult, I apologise if some of my ideas aren’t expressed clearly enough. I’m planning to write a blog post on migration and xenophobia on the future, which will be less focused on myself. Please, feel free to send your comments or messages, but abuse of any kind won’t be tolerated or approved under this post. And remember that this is my perspective and while you may have another one, you aren’t me and it might be hard to comprehend my feelings.)