I’ve been told to fuck off lots of times, but two stick out particularly:
1. I was around 12 years old, just out of an Irish Catholic primary school which, though diverse, treated all its students as though they were white and Irish Catholic. Walking down the high street, I heard a muffled, angry voice. A middle-aged man, hunched over and clearly homeless, was telling me to Fuck off back home. In that disorientating moment, I saw myself (probably for the first time) as others must have seen me, shorn of any identifying feature other than my foreignness. I looked him in the eyes for a second, said nothing and quickly walked on.
2. In 2014, I was visiting a friend in Paris who took me on a night walk down to Canal St-Martin and along the river, bristling with people sitting in riverside bars (most new-looking) or playing boules and chatting on benches. Things quietened down as we approached a darker, tree-lined area where two guys were sat by themselves, not drinking, not talking, just staring at the river. One saw me: You speak English? FUCK OFF. He stood up, puffing out his chest. You understand that? FUCK OFF. My friend and I looked ahead, pretended we hadn’t heard anything, walked on.
The guy in Paris was (I think) West African which, aside from the violence of what he said, troubled me afterwards. Why was he so angry at me? Was it something to do with my looking Chinese or my speaking English? Had I just been in the wrong place at the wrong time, the random target of his arbitrary spleen?
In some ways it would be more comforting to think of it as random. But there was clearly more to it. He would’ve heard us speaking before he saw us – maybe he wanted to show us that he understood English. We were tourists; we acted as if we owned the place. Perhaps, in that moment, in a low-lit corner of gentrified Paris, he wanted fight back, to show us what it felt like to be treated as alien and unwanted.
The first fuck off was more obviously racially motivated than the second, though the second might easily have been a reaction to prior racial abuse. Either way, I think a similar impulse lay behind each; the way they stared at me, the way they wanted to make me feel. Each fuck off now reminds me of – and reinforces – the other.
I also can’t help but look back on those two men as, in their different ways, helpless. One was homeless, the other probably a recent immigrant. I was free to walk the streets as I pleased; they had nowhere else they could be. To them I wasn’t a person but a symbol of everything that had gone wrong – was wrong – in their lives. I was passing through and about to leave a place they were stuck in.
Didn’t it make sense for them to hate me? I had a freedom so basic I didn’t even notice it. I had the freedom that comes from not being helpless.
Obviously people hate others – and express that hatred – in all sorts of different ways and for all sorts of reasons. I know that racism doesn’t just result from helplessness, and, in fact, those in positions of power, with the kind of wealth and education that should allow them to see through – if not conquer – their prejudice, can often be the worst offenders.
I know that racism also happens at an unconscious level every day, its roots lying deep in the three-hundred-year project of European colonial expansion and exploitation. In Franz Fanon’s famous words, bred into generation after generation is the same creed: “you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.” How can we even begin to disentangle whiteness and blackness from the painful grip of colonialism? Not least when a majority of the country still believes that the Empire was a “good thing” and that we need to be making Britain Great again.
According to post-referendum polls, 80% of those who voted Leave were angry at multiculturalism and immigration. Does that make those 80% racist? How do we explain the fact that a third of Asians voted for Leave – including some of my parents’ first-generation immigrant friends? Can this be put down to the machinations of “false consciousness” (a desire for certain immigrants to mark themselves out as good, to win acceptance among their white peers), or should we simply take their claims that immigration and multiculturalism weren’t working for them at face-value?
I can’t speak for those who fear and hate immigrants, or explain why that might be the case. All I can do is think about my own response and consider what people who hate racism should be thinking and doing right now. Based on conversations I’ve had over the last few days, I’ve noticed two broad explanations emerge as to why a majority of the country voted to leave the EU:
(a) Look at the economic factors, the geographical spread of Leave-Remain voters. Those with fewer formal qualifications, a lower median annual income and a lower social grade were more likely to vote Leave. Leave should be seen as a vote against the politics of austerity, as a middle-finger aimed at an out-of-touch Westminster elite.
(b) Look at why people have said they wanted to leave: the belief that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK, that we need to regain control over immigration and borders. This reflects broad cultural differences which outweigh economic considerations. We need to take Leave voters at their word, racist and small-minded as it may be.
Option (a) is plausible-seeming but too neat. If Leave voters were really protesting against the combined ravages of neoliberalism, austerity and globalisation, why didn’t they turn up in these numbers in either of the last two general elections? As for option (b), I think it is important to listen to voters’ actually-stated opinions – and it’s interesting the extent to which these sometimes cut across conventional socio-economic boundaries – but this is of limited help in understanding where these attitudes come from (unless you happen to think that racism is just some sort of inherited trait). And there’s a more fundamental issue at stake. Both responses work with a false binary: the idea that social attitudes and socio-economic factors can ever be treated as entirely separate.
This piece, published by the Fabian Society in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, is a good example of that kind of flawed thinking. Its author, Tim Kaufmann, argues that it’s wrong to see Leave voters as the “left behind”, asserting that “culture and personality, not material circumstances, separate Leave and Remain voters”. We should think, he says, more in terms of a national split between authoritarianism (a desire for a “more stable, ordered world”) and libertarianism (an openness to change). As evidence, he presents a graph showing a correlation between those who think “sex criminals ought to be publicly whipped” and those who are more anti-EU.
Later, however, he also claims that his argument “doesn’t mean age, education, class and gender don’t count” but that they “largely matter because they affect people’s level of authoritarianism.” It’s telling that he doesn’t start with this assertion, but weasels it in as a late caveat. Why build your argument on the premise that Leave voters are NOT the “left behind” only to admit later that authoritarian feeling does actually increase in proportion to your social and economic exclusion – in other words, in proportion to how far “left behind” you are?
The content of what Kaufmann’s arguing isn’t what’s at fault (I agree with him that it would be wrong to see all who voted Leave as the “left behind”). The problem is that he presents it in such a way as to suggest we can divide cultural (authoritarian vs. libertarian feeling) from economic factors. We can’t, and we shouldn’t. Implicit in his phrasing is also a latent desire for moral clarity, for there to be a clear group – not divided by class or education (he doesn’t want to start a class war!) but by values. Values like implied-abhorrent beliefs in the EU as bad and public floggings as good. But the evidence doesn’t support it. Instead, it points to a more obvious – and less click-baity – argument: the more helpless you feel socially, the more precarious your situation, the more likely you are to crave stability.
Just before delivering his line about the inextricability of wealth and whiteness, Fanon comments on the way in which colonialism turns “cause into effect”. What he’s saying is that in colonial and post-colonial societies, wealth and power (or the lack thereof) don’t simply arise from racial difference; they’re inscribed into it. In such a way, cause and effect begin to lose all meaning. And in this cause-less, effect-less world, any hope of change – even before that hope flickers into life – is extinguished.
Some people think it’s offensive even to suggest that racism has its causes or contexts, believing this might justify abuse or absolve blame. But the opposite is true. To say something has no cause is another way of saying it can never end. As someone who’s experienced racism – albeit in minor ways – I’d rather not go down that road.
I can hate the two men who told me to fuck off while also trying to understand why they said it. In the coming weeks, maybe I’ll get told to fuck off a whole lot more. Maybe sometimes I’ll say fuck off back. Maybe I’ll call them ignorant and small-minded. But the discourse – and repertoire – of abuse is pretty limited. And, anyway, I’d rather think that in theory there might be some way out of this, something more. Understanding may not be the same as doing but, as far as I’m concerned, it is a form of action – and a necessary one. It requires effort. And that effort is about the only thing that distinguishes cause from effect, or that makes us briefly more than a bunch of people shouting fuck off at each other.