I was born in Canada to Nigerian Muslim parents. When I was 2, we moved to Denmark, and then to the U.K. at 17. Growing up in Denmark and then the U.K. has made me painfully aware of what it means to be positioned as a black migrant in Europe. Although my family and I remember our first years in Denmark fondly, there are some moments that stand out painfully. One of my earliest memories is being on a bus with my mum and siblings, and an elderly woman slapping my baby sister for “crying too loud,” before telling us that we should hurry up and leave her country. As a child, I was reminded in schools and on the street that I was an oddity within a majority-white context. I was reminded that my skin and my religion would always mark me as an outsider, as not quite Danish.
I have family in the U.K. who saw signs saying “No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs.” My aunts grew up knowing that if you strolled down an unknown street and saw an English flag in a window, you ran in the other direction. When I moved here 11 years ago, I found connections with other black people who were home but not quite British. Some, like me, had migrated to this country later in life. Some were born into immigrant families. Others could trace their history in the U.K. back many generations. Regardless of how and when we came, the overwhelming narrative from the media and politicians was that immigration in the U.K. became “a problem” with the arrival of Caribbean migrants in 1948 on the SS Empire Windrush. This was supposedly the first significant wave of “migration” to the U.K., when people from colonies were brought in to make up for the labor shortage. They were told that this was the capital of “their” empire, a part of the “Commonwealth.”
Once here and attempting to build lives, these (post)colonial migrants were met with widespread racism, with the most famous example being British politician Enoch Powell’s controversial 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech, where the “growth of the immigrant descended population” led him to argue that the U.K. was “a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.”
It’s telling that members of the U.K. Independence Party, one of the more explicit right-wing parties over here, and its leader, Nigel Farage (one of the loudest Brexit voices), have long been connected to Powell. And yet, the national conversation about immigration is rarely connected to the U.K.’s history of imperialism. Instead, we keep feeding ourselves the myth that racism is only a problem “over there,” in the U.S., with its history of slavery (somehow distinct from the British government’s role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade) and, now, a politician like Donald Trump. Britain’s own long and violent relationship with former colonies gets swept under the rug, enabling 25% of the British public to say that colonialism was neither good nor bad, and a full 43% to see it as a positive thing.
This is the kind of climate that has made Black Lives Matter such an important rallying call to myself and other young black people in the U.K. The death of Michael Brown and ongoing cases of police brutality have been felt all the way over here, even though the issues we face are different. Like many young black people, I’ve spoken to my siblings and friends about what it means to come to the terrifying realization that black bodies could be seen as worth so little that we could be killed and no justice could be found. In 2014, three private security guards were acquitted of the 2010 murder of Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan deportee who was killed on board a British Airways flight. The treatment of black lives over here has always been intimately connected to the protection of borders.
To understand my fear as a black person living in the U.K. now, you need to hear the language that has been stoked in the lead-up to this referendum. Journalists have described people fleeing horrific circumstances as “a plague of feral human beings.” Farage posed in front of a poster claiming Britain had reached its “breaking point.” As many have already pointed out, its image could have been picked out from Nazi propaganda films. While image after image of capsized boats and refugees in the French immigration camp near Calais (nicknamed the “Calais Jungle”) are shown, the overwhelming response from British politicians has been to close doors, build walls, and blame the migrants.
When Farage and Brexit campaigners declared British independence from the EU on Friday, I was reminded that what was really being fought with the Brexit vote was the downfall of the British Empire. My British passport does not protect me from being among the bodies they want to expel from the British state, as one of the “feral,” as part of this “problem” of immigration that has led Britain to finally reach this “breaking point.”
So how do we reconcile the fact that the country we have made a home doesn’t see us as part of that home? How do we move forward knowing that 52% of the voting population saw the explicitly racist campaigning and, in spite of it, decided that our lives and homes in this country were the cause of all of their anger, disenfranchisement, and troubles?
Right now, I am reminded of the reason why the Black Lives Matter movement has called to me and so many others that I know. Fighting for black lives to matter means taking a hard look at the damage caused by this legacy of Empire and connecting our experiences of blackness to the wars, walls, and refugee and prison camps that devalue all of our lives. We need to see this for the loss that it is and take some time to process the hurt and anger that comes from being positioned as an alien to our “home” nation. And then we need to remember that the future that we are struggling for involves slow and difficult battles toward self-recognition, and that these forms of oppression are a source of connection to so many different people who are fighting similar battles in vastly different contexts.
So we’re going to take some time to process this referendum, to find a way to deal with the bitterness of this pill that has been served to us. And then we’re going to keep on working toward making sure that Black Lives Matter.
Azeezat Johnson is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield in the U.K. Her research includes work with black Muslim women in Britain.