The Uncritical Whiteness of Edinburgh Activism

Sunday, 1 September 2019 7-minute read

Yesterday, I went to the protest against Boris Johnson’s proroguing of Parliament. Given such an egregious disregard for parliamentary democracy at a time that is — for the many immigrants whose livelihoods and enfranchisement hang in the balance — a catastrophic political and social upheaval, it was imperative that people made such a clear and unequivocal demonstration of their anger and indignation at the omnishambles of successive Tory governments’ attempts at delivering Brexit. Nevertheless, I cannot help feeling that the way in which activists and organisers have framed this conversation has neglected the voices of the very constituency of people whom they purport to support.

The protest itself did not feature any prominent keynote speakers, but instead had an open mic for members of the public to get on stage and speak about their experiences of Brexit and of activism. After listening for about half an hour to a number of different speakers (that were admittedly very mixed in how informed, informative and interesting they were), I noticed a rather worrying trend: all the speakers (with just a couple of exceptions) were white, and almost all of them were, by their own introductions, British (or, at best, of European extraction but settled in Britain). I admit that this is a very superficial assumption based on appearances, accents, and the content of people’s speeches, and I am desperately hoping to be proven wrong here. But the speakers on stage made little effort to consciously give a platform to the citizens from other European countries in the United Kingdom whose lives and rights hang in the balance.

There was woefully little attention to immigration and the lived experiences of immigrants. This omission is unconscionable, given how significant a part xenophobia has played not just in Brexit, but the decade-long hate campaign on part of British political culture that scapegoated immigrants for every conceivable ill in British society. This omission was evident in the content of what was said: immigrants only featured in abstract terms as ‘people working in hospitals’ or, more worryingly, spouses of British citizens. Any mention of their rights and dignities were absent. To most British people on stage, Brexit was about their access to insulin, their wealth and prosperity, their freedom to marry someone from Germany, France, et cetera. This is not to diminish the pain and hardship that people will face because of these issues: yes, it is a devastating injustice that people would not get the life-saving drugs that they need in the event of a no-deal Brexit, and it is a horrific structural violence on families to be rent apart by the Home Office. But the emphasis on this violence to British people in an imminent future neglects the fact that, for British residents from Europe and further abroad, these forms of violence are an urgent and present reality.

I am painfully aware of the spike in hate crimes in the weeks and months following the Referendum result, and that Brexit has emboldened racists, xenophobes and bigots to me more hostile and aggressive towards people who are visibly different. There are millions of people who have been failed by the mismanagement of the Government’s registration scheme for residents from other EU countries, and are in limbo with their application for settled status. The British government hopes to inflict on these people, who previously had the ‘right’ to live in the UK, one of the most xenophobic, extortionate and punitive citizenship and immigration regimes in the world. As an immigrant in the UK, my life here is also precarious, and the closer I get to the end of my PhD the more pressing that precarity becomes. Because I am from a privileged category of highly-qualified ‘good immigrants’ that this country pretends to like, I am less badly hit compared to millions of others who are actively being persecuted and dispossessed by this country’s Hostile Environment. None of their voices were represented on stage.

This is the fundamental problem at the heart of the conversation around immigration in the UK: the way the conversation has been framed has demeaned immigrants to purely instrumental objects for British people — foreigners for UK citizens to marry, nurses to work in the NHS, employees for corporations to hire, et cetera. In the way they have accepted the framing of these discussions, progressive commentators have capitulated to the neoliberal ideology that sees people as expendable and their as fungible. Any dignity accorded them is contingent upon their conformity to expectations of being ‘the best and brightest’, as if people need to prove themselves to be deemed worthy of basic dignities like housing, healthcare, and education for them and their families while they live and work here. There is a desperate need to drastically reframe the conversation to acknowledge the moral significance of these people, and unless we reach out and support these people, we cannot move forward in good conscience.

This is why I chose to go on stage at the open mic and speak about immigrants in the UK and draw attention to the specific kinds of precarity that migrants in the UK face. I wanted to raise the statistics about racially-motivated hate crime in the UK following the Brexit referendum, and to echo some of the work that many eminent activists like Zoe Gardner and Alexandra Bulat, members of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, and the3million and Stop Hate UK campaigns have done. Most of what I said was in fact drawing from what greater minds have produced. There was one other speaker before me who was, from my possibly limited glimpse of the speakers, the only other non-white speaker, who drew attention to Johnson’s history of islamophobic and racist remarks. Likewise, I was hoping to insist that the people whose lives hang in the balance are not treated like an abstraction or an afterthought, and that their rights are considered not because they are useful immigrants whose labour can be exploited, but because they are people.

It is difficult for me to say this because of our current climate where superficial criticisms about the cross-section of socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities amongst the protestors are tactically seized upon by reactionary Brexiteers in order to call into question the integrity of this movement. But I feel there are profound political and ethical questions about the meaning of democracy, the structural violence of the state, the systemic inequalities of global capitalism, the disillusionment within British political culture, and the moral bankruptcy at the heart of the political establishment, and the spaces in which we discuss these issues are far too white, to the exclusion of the lives and experiences of people deeply affected by this. There are several groups in Edinburgh of activists of colour who are campaigning for the better representation of intersectional issues of race and gender within issues around social and climate justice, and I feel it is incumbent upon organisers of such large and public platforms to reach out to these groups.

This is what I wish the compere at the rally would have done: make a gesture to show that they are listening to the lives and experiences of the people who are being disenfranchised, rather than just having academic discussions about the history of parliamentary sovereignty. It would be as simple as the compere asking residents from other EU countries to come forward and speak in the open mic if they felt comfortable doing so. We cannot advance solutions to these problems in good conscience unless we empower the people most severely affected by this to driving the conversation.

My undying gratitude to all the many other activists I know in Edinburgh and the UK for their incessant fight, whom I have not named above because drawing attention to them by name would only attract greater risk. Solidarity, comrades.