My British immigrant family was painfully split over Brexit, and I know we weren't alone


Amid the rubble of Brexit, everyone is talking about the divisions that Britain’s vote to leave the European Union has exposed. There’s Scotland versus England, young versus old, London versus Little England, and the white working class versus everyone else. None of that was a shock. But that’s not the whole picture.

One thing that hasn’t gotten as much attention is the fact that huge numbers of immigrant families—long seen as a group likely to automatically favor the EU—found themselves just as badly split over Brexit as anyone else.

I know this because I’m a black immigrant who grew up in London, and I’ve seen this happen in my own family. I saw it with friends who were voting Leave because their parents were. And it is chilling and infuriating to me that this could be the case. So I have a few things to say to pro-Brexit immigrants.

First: why?!

Second: I can see why it happened—but I’m still mad at you.

I grew up in Tottenham. It’s one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country. In the early 1990s, it was troubled, and pretty poor. When something flared up, people usually blamed the immigrants. But at the same time, people took a kind of pride in the neighborhood. There would be a riot, and then there would be rumors that the rioters went go out of their way not to lay a finger on the really good Jamaican restaurant on the High Road. (It’s called Brown Eagle. Great oxtail.)

Tottenham wasn’t the most idyllic place to grow up. But if you knew how to navigate the system, living in a neighborhood like mine, you could find good jobs, decent schools, opportunity. People didn’t like to admit they lived in Tottenham. We didn’t. People would assume that you lived off of welfare benefits. In fact, we were your standard immigrant family trying to work their way into middle class stability pretty quickly. We arrived with nothing, and within ten years my mother had qualified to work as a doctor in Britain, and was obsessed with schools and tutors and church and music lessons and learning to make proper British Christmas dinners—being a good citizen. Part of that meant working really hard at some form of integration within the wider culture, which for my mother consisted of keeping Radio 4 on in the kitchen all day every day.

So, Brexit-backing immigrants, I get that you were all pissed off when these new people started showing up from the European Union. Old immigrants often look down on new immigrants. They think they’re going to ruin it for everyone by marking us all as less than productive members of society. By coming here to live off benefits in that six bedroom house in a prime neighborhood the Daily Mail says we all have. And I get that you think that many of the new immigrants didn’t come here with advanced degrees like you. And they didn’t all get decent jobs like you – or even jobs at all.

Sometimes, it seemed to you like they weren’t working as hard to assimilate. And they were still reaping the benefits of living here, and in the process, overwhelming the National Health Service, overcrowding schools and competing for housing. And you really couldn’t believe they’d come to Tottenham from some backwater and spew hardcore Eastern European racist abuse at you like you hadn’t been here 20 years, paying taxes and building the neighborhood up. I get that.

But when Leave campaign leader Nigel Farage talks about saving Britain for “decent people,” he doesn’t mean you. He really doesn’t. And when he said more people from India and Africa would be allowed into the UK after Brexit, he was just spouting disingenuous bullshit. You really think the guy who defended a parliamentary candidate using the word “Chinky” is going to let you bring your nephew over just because he has a masters in engineering? Did you really come this far to vote for that sort of racism?

I know that you’ve stared down your fair share of hate. I know you survived the worst of the fascist British National Party when you first arrived. You survived thugs chasing down immigrants and setting them on fire on north London high streets. And maybe you think you can survive it again, if it comes to that.

But the truth is, these aren’t your problems anymore. You’re fine. You’re sorted. You have savings and property. And this is all stuff you worked incredibly hard for. Nobody’s questioning that. But we, your children—we’re out here in the world trying to function. And you screwed it up for us. Thanks to the way the economy’s set up right now, most of us don’t have pensions or savings or property. By pushing our country out of the EU, not only have you probably made this harder for us to achieve—in the short term at least—you’ve also made it so we might have to fight those street battles all over again.

You’re already tougher than us. You survived wars, coups, famines and grinding poverty in the old country. And your fancy parenting techniques, where we had to talk stuff out instead of having fights, and learn to collaborate instead of just brawling like we might have done back home, mean that we are ill prepared for heavily armed skinheads. But you’re going to make us stare them down all over again? Thanks.

I’m not saying that the European Union was a perfect institution, or necessarily very good at addressing these problems. But you appear to have been under the impression that the day after you voted Leave, they’d send all the Polish plumbers home, and Reginald the old Jamaican plumber from down the street would suddenly have a ton of trade. That’s not going to happen. In the short term at least, none of this will change. The National Health Service, schools, government services, housing, literally any benefit that doesn’t go to old people – all of them are still fucked. Government cuts and the global economy fucked them, not Mariska the Barista. The neighborhood is still fucked. All you did was hand the country over to some fascists, and take us back in the general direction of  “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs.” As a black Briton, I still can’t believe that you threw your lot in with the worst elements of British politics and in the process jeopardized a great deal of what you worked so hard for.

Yepoka Yeebo is a writer and photojournalist living in Brighton, UK and Accra, Ghana.

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