It’s been a bad couple of weeks for ethnic minorities on the Internet. Scarlett Johansson claimed she should be allowed to represent anyone or anything she wants on screen, from a black person to a palm tree to a fish - in the ultimate blind-sighted attack on political correctness and tokenism. It seems that understanding what people of colour have gone through isn’t a priority.
That's what came across when feminist, activist and journalist Caroline Criado-Perez OBE tweeted the following:
‘My brother just got stopped for the first time at the UK border. Asked “when did you first move to the UK”. He has a British passport. Can only assume it’s because his name is foreign and his is who we are now. #Brexit.’
Remove ‘first time’ and the final sentence, and this could’ve been tweeted by any British person of colour. The tweet reflects increasing unawareness from white, liberal, left leaning activists, often feminists, that the UK is becoming rapidly more intolerant as it tries to secure a way to close Britain’s borders. To them, this is a new phenomena - a result of Brexit giving right wing sentiment the right to come to the forefront and define what it means to be British.
Except that it isn’t.
The meaning of Britishness has always been limited and restricted by those in control. Yet it is only remarked upon with horror when that very definition no longer includes those who once wrote it. Criado-Perez, author of the book ‘Invisible Women’ and renowned for her campaigns to get more female figures on UK banknotes, was on the backend of massive social media rebuttal for her feminism.
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race author Reni Eddo-Lodge shows how on the 2013 New Years’ Eve Radio 4 Women’s Hour, Criado-Perez directly denies Eddo-Lodge’s explanation of the importance of addressing racism within feminism. The 2013 debate shows Criado-Perez disavow the idea of intersectionality and shuts down the discussion of race in feminism. She argues that people say her 'middle class whiteness' does not equate to a claim of suffering or victimisation.
Nikesh Shukla, author of multiple books on British identity, most notably The Good Immigrant, responded in a way that summed up the sheer weight of her privilege:
‘Brown people with British passports have been asked this for decades. This is who we have always been.’
It is that feeling of blindness - the kind we all have (I often forget my privilege and ease of existence over disabled people, or those living in poverty in this country) and we must interrogate and address it within ourselves. The backlash against Criado-Perez’s words were quick to come, yet she responded by blocking her opponents and tweeting:
‘Not sure why posting about this happening to my brother means I wasn’t aware/didn’t care about this already happening to BAME people’
But the message is clear; it’s only worth remarking upon when it happens to a white person. It’s profoundly scary to have your claim to safety and privilege brought into question.
So, for them, this is a nation in a new crisis.
But Brexit is the result of this having been the reality for decades, building up, bubbling under the surface. The definitions of race, citizenship, belonging to the nation - are always in flux, always changing. Different qualifiers are always required to have a stake in this nation: a certain skin colour, a certain name, a certain passport, a certain set of qualifications and language skills.
As people of colour, we wear our passports on our faces.
According to 2011 figures, the demographics of airport stops were largely disproportionate. Where white people made up 91% of the population and Asians 4%, 25% of people held for under an hour were Asian whilst only 45% were white. Later figures in 2013 estimated that Asians were eleven times more likely to be stopped and held at UK airports under counter-terrorism powers. Figures vary, but the problem is, though Europeans may be treated with greater snobbery and distaste since Brexit, they are not suspected to be dangerous simply because of the way they look, sound or where they hail from.
Besides, this issue is systemic, it’s not just taking place at the border anymore. As Nira Yuval-Davis writes in her book Everyday Bordering - the biopolitical demarcations of who is included in the nation are diffused in the whole of society. Through racism, ranging from violent crime to microaggression, the policing of brown and black bodies in Britain is ever present.
Eddo-Lodge graciously quotes Criado-Perez’s apology for her comments in her book, but six years later you can see the superficiality of it. Criado-Perez’s indignant, well-meaning outing of post-Brexit horror, the invalidation of one’s very being, is revealing, and an insult to people of colour across Britain. To use that infamous phrase, checking our own privileges would be a good place to start in punching a hole through white feminism.