This was the week that, for the first time, I felt a bit British. And strangely, Brexit made it happen. I voted Remain. My overriding sentiment being that of a Nigerian mother: “Leaving to where? My friend, will you sit down!”
I live in Bristol, a city that voted in. I work in a university and I think my colleagues were in as much shock as I was. An internal poll taken in March had shown that over 80% of the University were in support of remain.
I kept oscillating between anger and sadness. Xenophobia had won out. The Leave campaign’s story of immigrants being the root of all British problems had triumphed. But not in Bristol and not with 48% of the population.
I’ve never felt like I belonged in the UK. I was born in Hammersmith but had lived and schooled in Nigeria for nearly 21 years. Technically I‘m not an immigrant but I know I’m one. In my first job with a mobile network provider, callers would tell me they wanted to speak with someone British or someone who could speak English. Nevermind that my being able to understand their request to be transferred indicated that…just maybe I could speak English?! I hadn’t quite mastered that accent that made me sound like I remotely belonged. And of course, my first experience being called the N word didn’t help.
This was in Liverpool in the early 2000s. It was late evening but still bright. I was walking home from work and just as I was about to turn off the main road into my street I heard the sound of a car, the word N — — -r and a crack. They had thrown eggs after their word, the shells hitting the front of the pub I was walking past and the yolk spilling on the ground in front of me. I turned towards them as they sped away, raised my arm and gave them the finger. And I continued walking. At home, I told my older brother what had just happened.
Despite my defiance, I was in mild shock. It felt liike someone had boinked me over the head and I had the swirlies in my eyes. These days, I joke that it was a drive by N*ggggeerrrrr because the car never even stopped, their word trailing off as they sped away. But that experience lingered.
In 2005, Anthony Walker got killed in Huyton.
He was 18.
His crime? Just waiting for a bus with his white girlfriend and his cousin. Two white men shouted racial abuse at them. The three of them tried to get to another bus stop. They were ambushed on their way and Anthony ended up with an ice axe in the back of his skull, deeply embedded in his brain.
The following work day, I kept looking warily at my colleague who lived in Huyton. Is this what they do? Smile in your face and behind your back they think the worst of you? Enough to kill you?
It’s the little things. You begin to get paranoid. Did she sit elsewhere because I’m black? Will they understand my accent during my IELTS test? Are they not speaking to me because I’m Nigerian?
I suppose after my experiences, I shouldn’t have been so surprised about people voting to leave. I’ve always known, we’ve always known about this hidden river of xenophobia running beneath Britain. A xenophobia so strong that people who benefit the most from the EU and who immigration affects the least would vote to shut themselves off and gain back control of their little island.
When I first came to the UK in 2003, I was open to possibilities. I was eager to eat strawberries, a fruit I’d never tasted. But when I bit into one, it was sour, gritty and disappointing. By the end of my first year, after phone calls where I would argue with callers that I was actually in Liverpool and not in India, I was ready to move back home. I packed all my things intending that the Christmas visit would turn into my homecoming. My mum persuaded me to return to a place I felt didn’t want me.
I’m a pessimist and so I expected that that river which was always hidden will soon break the surface and turn into a spring. It has started happening in droplets — people becoming emboldened enough to tell foreigners to go back where they came from.
On the BBC referendum results programme, the running ticker displayed the areas which voted to leave and I mentally noted them down. No go areas for me. But still, I feel like I do belong in some places in the UK.
It didn’t feel like back in 2005 when I got to the office after Anthony’s death. My siblings and I had been discussing it over the weekend, horrified over the implications, but in the office absolutely no one discussed or even mentioned it. Something that had shaken me so deeply did not even solicit a passing comment from them. With Brexit it’s different. My work colleagues stood together sipping their coffees discussing their disappointment. A colleague, a women close to retirement, a demographic which majorly voted to leave, said she shared the same feelings I had — sadness and anger.
Other people have said that they don’t feel welcome anymore and I understand that feeling. But despite my shock about Brexit, this is the closest I have felt to belonging. And that’s more than I’ve felt since I first stepped foot on this little island.