Brexit for Brown Brits: Does It Matter?


The vote for Brexit may seem like a long time ago. But does a lack of concern equal a lack of need for concern?

 Illustration by  Aurora Campbell.

 Illustration by Aurora Campbell.


The vote for Brexit seems like a very long time ago. Although constant updates slip in at the end of every news night, sneak across the middle pages of newspapers, or loiter on the sidebar of a few news websites, it doesn’t necessarily feel like ‘news’. Our interest and indeed concern for the outcome is slowly slipping away.

In a way, this feels illogical. After such a fiercely fought campaign, the anger and shock at the outcome, and even more anger and shock at Gina Miller’s attempts to block Article 50, we have subsided into a communal lethargy, a neutral and defeated resignation. Groups I had enthusiastically joined on Facebook the day of the results, entitled ‘Fight Brexit!’ ‘RemaIN’ and other energetic counter movements, dwindled in members and all but halted in momentum.

So are we to assume that a lack of concern is equal to a lack of need for concern? That the decreasing interest is validated by the decreasing necessity of interest? I would argue no: that, in reality, the latent and subtle politics of Brexit are still brewing just below the surface, and the web of tension on which we all rest occasionally breaks, offering a glimpse of what is actually happening.

 The days after Brexit, racist abuse went up by over 40% in and around England. And suddenly, it was not African or Caribbean people of colour that were the primary target, but Muslims, or those who ‘looked like Muslims’ — essentially ‘Brown people’. The British Indian population has never been under threat in the same way as other ethnic minorities. We integrated fairly well into the community as doctors, financial experts, business men and women, lawyers; as service providers, we maintain a level of respect from society.

Brexit rally in London. Image courtesy of BBC News. 

Brexit rally in London. Image courtesy of BBC News. 

 So, it came as a surprise when we were targeted by Islamophobic ‘Brexiteers’ –  partly because some of us weren’t even Muslim –  but in many ways also because we were shocked to realise that we were, even mistakenly so, a target in this new xenophobic war. The issue is further complicated by the historic tensions between Hindus and Muslims in India itself; to be grouped with, and abused as a group of people that you - and your ancestors- might have spent your lifetime dividing from and discriminating against, creates a much more interesting balance. A stark reminder, perhaps, that in predominantly white countries, non-white individuals are grouped firstly by their colour, and only then by the classification of their own choice. Religion, profession, tribe, state: all tinged with the nuance of colour.

So are we to assume that a lack of concern is equal to a lack of need for concern?

This is  where Brexit should matter to Brown Brits, because whilst it might be human nature to categorise, our freedom lies in categorising ourselves. I can be an Indian woman or a South Indian woman or a Person of Colour or a Londoner, but when that agency is removed – when one is categorised first and foremost by someone else, rather than the  one chosen by us, that is when problems arise. One could argue that we have not had agency over our identity in Britain ever since the Empire, and thus perceptions of Indians are preconceived regardless. But not only was this an identity we could reclaim, but it was one that we rewrote.  This new, anti immigrant, anti-Muslim prejudice harms us because we cannot rewrite or deny the truth: we are immigrants. And we cannot reclaim something that was never ours: Islam.

 So where do we fit in? We are not ‘Muslim enough’ to call ourselves victims of Islamophobia, but we are Brown enough to be victimised. We cannot detract agency from Muslims to fight this battle as a community, because in reality, Muslims remain the direct targets of this hatred. But we cannot ignore the racism that serves to qualify ‘Brown’ as ‘Muslim’. Not just because it harms us, but more so, because it harms the entire Brown community — Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Sri Lankan, Pakistani. It draws religion, nationality and language together on one canvas, and paints us all with the same prejudice of colour, cementing stereotypes as definitions. We fit in as a collective Brown unit, and, paradoxically, we need to challenge this generalisation as a group. Division and segregation, attempts to differentiate yourself from ‘that Muslim over there’, will only result in fracture. So, as cliche as it may sound, bridging the gaps and joining forces to fight this toxic narrative is the most powerful way to erase it. Events, articles, short films and social media. I think it’s time to start celebrating what it means to be Brown.

Celebrating “Brownness” doesn’t feel like an easy task. The word itself sounds like a soggy dosa, lacking the defiant fricative of “Blackness” and drowning any crisp resonance in wet nasal subtones.
Brexit protest in London. Image courtesy of CNN. 

Brexit protest in London. Image courtesy of CNN. 

 When I was growing up, I tried, as most second generation immigrants do, to distance myself from my parents’ culture. I rejected daal for danish pastries and switched out Karnatic music for Katy Perry in a bizarre attempt to “whiten” myself. The more my parents tried, the more I turned away, and the more I descended from celebrating my colour and difference to berating it. It seems like this cognitive dissonance — which I know resonates with so many of us half-in-half-out, not-quite-here-or-there young people — is a factor of what we see today. Celebrating “Brownness” doesn’t feel like an easy task. The word itself sounds like a soggy dosa, lacking the defiant fricative of “Blackness” and drowning any crisp resonance in wet nasal subtones.  As a Brown woman, I know too well that racial abuse hits home because it feels like a part of me already thinks it. And it is this internal struggle that needs to be challenged first — whether we are Muslim or Indian or Christian or Pakistani, the collective internalisation is a collective battle. I don’t see this as a final solution to racial abuse or Islamophobia, but it feels like a good place to start.

 I have always felt welcome in London, amongst the cross cultural melting pot that churns out a cosmopolitan vibrance. My neighbours are Iranian, Swedish, British, Pakistani, and my local shops are Polish, Somali, and Syrian. There is a place for everyone in this city; it’s hard to feel ‘abnormal’ when difference is so prevalent. Yet the results of Brexit reflect a prejudice that runs deep where the spectrum of ethnicities and colours becomes binary: civilian or threat. It is time we met division with unity, and came together as a community tarnished by Western prejudice. Brexit may seem like a very long time ago, but the ideas that created it need challenging. Now.

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Leela Jadhav