In her contribution to our 12 days of Brexit Brits Abroad feature, Chantelle Lewis reflects on her initial conversations with Britons of colour who have made their homes and lives in the EU27. As she describes, their lives and migration challenge assumptions of the British who have made other European countries their homes. And as Brexit reframes the question of who is British along racial lines, they express their enhanced anxieties about where they belong.
Unlearning depictions of Britons in Europe
At the beginning of November, I joined the project team to increase the representation of people of colour on the Citizens’ Panel. It’s been an interesting four weeks with insightful conversations, in-depth interviews and further revelations about the diverse nature of the British living within the EU27. These conversations have taken place via skype, facetime and telephone.
One of the aims of this project is to challenge the myths surrounding the demographic of Brits living in the EU27. What better way to do this than to begin to deconstruct the common assumption that those British citizens who permanently reside in the EU27 are all white?
I’ve been speaking with British people of colour living in Berlin, Milan, rural France and Amsterdam. Employed as artists, creatives, writers and journalists, they represent the ordinary working populations that are so frequently forgotten when terms such as ‘expat’ and ‘lifestyle migrants’ are used in the media and by the government.
I was surprised by how many British people of colour in Europe I was able to find through my networks. These voices are so often unnoticed. This is why representation matters, particularly in sociological research, as it can afford us the valuable opportunity to dismantle presupposed characteristics about certain populations. The most effective way to challenge fixed stereotypes is simply to engage with real people and discuss their real experiences.
Whilst conducting unstructured interviews and some informal conversations, it became clear that my initial shock was fuelled by the whiteness which embeds our collective understanding of who we think ‘expats’ are. I needed to unlearn depictions of the British in Europe.
Privilege, whiteness and ‘expats’
The role of whiteness proved central to my conversations. The people I’ve spoken with do not feel their physical characteristics satisfy the term ‘expat’. Some people have expressed to me that because they’re not white, they aren’t expats. They’ve said that when we discuss citizens’ rights, their experiences are missing from the conversation. This is because they feel positioned as ‘racially’ different and for them this means they are excluded from the privileges of whiteness. This is another indication that the term is outdated and reinforces an imagined hierarchy influenced by social class, race and economic status.
For some people of colour, the term ‘expat’ also isn’t inclusive of the unavoidable considerations they must take when choosing to live abroad. Masani highlighted how it was important for him to assess the potentially hostile reception his blackness might provoke:
Look I’m a dark-skinned black man, look, if you’re a dark-skinned black man you pick your racism, you basically, it’s like if you, if a dark-skinned black man moving anywhere in the world you decide to yourself do I want to catch flu, do I want to catch the common cold, do I want to get rubella, do I want to get measles, because you’re going to get some kind of illness from your race, you’re going to get some kind of, I call it like black gravity, there’s different levels of atmospheric pressure that, you know, different levels of atmospheric pressure of racism, and there’s places you can endure and places you can’t right. So I’m not going to go to certain countries because I’ll get the bends, I get the nitrogen in my blood and I get sick, I can’t go to certain parts of eastern Europe, certain parts of Russia, places I just don’t go, I’ve been to those places they’re hostile.
As well as the uncertainty surrounding their continued residence in the EU27, for the British people of colour I’ve spoken with race and racism are at the forefront of their experience of Brexit. Many mentioned that they expected the Leave decision because they had seen racist hostilities rising in Britain prior to the vote. Others cited these increasing racial tensions in the United Kingdom as the key reason for them leaving the UK originally.
It was not just examples of racism in Britain which emerged in these discussions. The rise of far right political parties such as the AFD in Germany and the Front National in France featured in our disucssions. For some, Brexit and its aftermath is a continuation of the racisms they felt growing up and in adult life.
Recognising the diversity in ordinary experiences
All of the people I have spoken to mention the role of racism in the Brexit debate. That said, some of the individuals I’ve talked to do not recognise being particularly affected by the Brexit outcome. The younger adults of colour don’t necessarily see their residency as long term and expect to move back to the UK within a few years. Brexit is still a concern, but at this stage in their life, they are comfortable that decisions about their permanent residency remain undecided.
There are also those who didn’t predict the result of the referendum and are therefore still feeling shocked. Similar to other members of the research team, I’ve had difficult conversations with people who feel frustrated by the result and genuinely very sad. There is still that sense of disbelief that we’ve seen consistently reoccurring within this project.
Speaking to British people of colour living in the EU27 raises another layer of considerations when assessing the impact and meaning of Brexit. There must be a commitment to exploring and understanding how political decisions affect those who don’t necessarily fit the imagined British or even European ideal. Their perceptions and feelings – the ultimate impact of Brexit on them – will inevitably include some alternative experiences, since they have always been positioned as different.
The inseparability of racism and Brexit
As well as the uncertainties faced by all British citizens residing in the EU27, people of colour face further anxiety about their position after Brexit. How tolerant will Britain be in future? For some, Brexit represents racism winning, and this means saying goodbye to their British citizenship regardless of the negotiation outcome. Some have already decided that they will opt for a new citizenship status outside of Britain, whilst others are undecided.
Importantly, for the British people of colour I’m speaking to, the question of identity is key. A dual sense of uncertainty exists; both over their ‘Britishness’ and ultimately whether they ever truly ‘belonged’. Brexit is unearthing uncomfortable viewpoints which are now being openly discussed in Britain, and living in another country is making those I’m talking to feel not just physically distant, but also ideologically disconnected.