Breaking Out of the Brexit Binary

Photo by Alex (Creative Commons)

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After the shocking results of last month’s referendum, New Yorker writer Andy Borowitz announced, “The British have officially lost the right to say Americans are dumber.” It was the quip I’m sure the New Yorker was waiting for, a line expressing the not-so-secret feelings of London’s liberal “Remainers”: poor, uneducated racists ruined the dream of a prosperous Europe.

Observers have offered many reasons to explain why over 50 percent of Brits voted to leave the EU: globalization, Islamophobia, anti-immigration sentiments, austerity, and even a theory that correlates leave votes to authoritarian values. But the lasting impression in the media and around London is that enlightened elites voted “in” and uneducated racists voted “out.”      

As I walked around London in the days after Brexit, I wondered if any budding fascist was going to throw a bottle at me because I was just brown enough to be part of the immigration problem.  If someone approached me, should I give them the peace sign and get out of there? Should I argue? Would they stop if they heard my American accent?  If Juan Jasso’s experience was anything to go by, it is best to keep rehearsing; On Tuesday last week, three young men on a train told Jasso, a US army veteran and university lecturer, to “go back to Africa.” A video of the incident went viral. In a TV interview, Jasso said that Brexit “maybe has pushed people to somehow justify that they think it’s OK now to act out in this way.” His experience was one of the 331 hate crimes reported around the UK in the last week alone (up from a weekly average of 63). Sara Thornton, the head of England’s National Police Chiefs Council, said, “In a number of forces, migrants are reporting verbal abuse, negative social media commentary including xenophobic language, anti-migrant leafleting and, in very limited numbers, physical assaults. All of these incidents are under active investigation.”

In my two years as an American citizen living in the UK, I’ve never been harassed for being a foreigner. That’s because within the city limits of London, I’m treated like the “right” type of immigrant: one who speaks fluent English, is college-educated, has a job and disposable income, and is from the city with the best publicity campaign in the world, New York.  

       Read This Next: How Will the Brexit Affect Immigrants and Refugees? 
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Like many young people in the creative industries, I live in one of the poorest boroughs in East London. My neighborhood had a 12 percent unemployment rate in 2011, higher than the national and regional average. When you look at Black and ethnic minority rates unemployment specifically, that rate skyrockets to 19 percent. There are council estates (public housing) all around my flat.

But just a few minutes walk from the council estates, there’s a futuristic co-working space, art galleries, bookstores, luxury apartments and also street art that’s desperate to prove there’s still some rebel spirit left in East London.    

Like the “Remain” campaign narrative, my neighborhood is designed for young, educated people to embrace diversity and feel enlightened (and politely ignore the effects of poverty around them). In this way, London feels progressive—and the Brexit vote feels like a choice between progress and a step back. “Voting in” seemed obvious. What feels less obvious in our conversations, however, are the negative impact of free trade. The people who haven’t benefited from free trade or global integration, the looming threat of the TTIP, and the massive outsourcing of UK jobs to “low-cost economies” by companies like HSBC, O2, Lloyds, NPower, Morrison’s and Carlsberg (just to name a few) have been largely overlooked by progressives.

Photo by Diamond Geezer (Creative Commons)

Though the Leave campaign hinged on xenophobic propaganda, ignoring those who have not been the beneficiaries of globalization will not help us realize a vision of global kumbaya. If we really want to build that inclusive, diverse world we talk so much, then we need to find a way to include the world’s poorest people in that goal—or re-evaluate that goal entirely.   

The alternative is we watch ourselves be overtaken by the meme-ification of politics: where recurring images and shareable quotes obliterate our capacity for analytical thought and self-reflection. Trump-ism and Brexit have already demonstrated the power of paranoia, xenophobia, and despair, exacerbated by the frenetic pace of digital media.

Journalist John Cassidy concluded in “Why The Remain Campaign Lost, “it’s not enough to attack populist demagoguery, to get people to turn out and vote in your favor, you also have to give them something positive to rally behind.” If the Brexit proved anything, it’s that antagonizing the enemy is a powerful campaign strategy, but without providing viable alternatives for answering individual concerns, we may be left with a very different vision of the future than we imagined.

The distinct impression this leaves is that progress is a zero-sum game: It’s Brexiters versus Remainers, Trump Versus Clinton, Globalization Versus Tradition. Each side believes they are the heroes the world needs and neither is capable of admitting they might be part of the problem. But the “us” versus “them” mentality is an illusion; a powerful political narrative that we’ve swallowed in the lead up to every civil war, world war, cold war,  and war on terror we wage everyday on people we can label “other.”  It trains us to ignore empathy and suffering—and place ourselves in comfortable ideological boxes.

       Read This Next: How Will the Brexit Affect Immigrants and Refugees? 
       Read This Next: Trump's Racism Could Backfire as He Inspired Latinas to Go Vote Against Him

by Felicia L. Montalvo
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Felicia L. Montalvo is the 2016 Bitch Media Writing Fellow in Technology. Her interests include the impact of tech on society and lecturing Londoners on the merits of New York bagels. Follow her on twitter and see what happens when she tries to shoehorn her thoughts into 140 characters.  

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