Staying Alive Through Brexit: Racism, Mental Health & Emotional Labour

On Brexit, for Black Girl Dangerous.

It’s the night of the EU referendum. I am three thousand, four hundred and fifty-nine miles from London, my home town, and I am scrolling. The UK is sleeping but New York is five hours behind and I am here, trying to pet the dog and have a nice time at a BBQ, while watching the votes get counted. I report the result of each area to my American friends like one of those text message services you didn’t sign up for, and we talk about it even though none of us know what it means. I text my mum to tell her what has happened while she was sleeping and in the morning she replies, “whatever happens, happens” which I momentarily mistake for apathy.

A few days later I am at New York PRIDE’s Dyke March celebration. The music is good, the weather is good, I look good in the photos, my friends are nice and I am the most comfortably gay I have ever been. This should be a good or at least average day but I realize I am uncomfortable. My eyes are darting, focusing on everything and nothing and my chest is getting tighter with every step, until it almost feels solid. I recognize this as the beginning of a panic attack and excuse myself. As I leave, an intuitive friend asks me how I feel about Brexit. On a quiet corner I cry and gasp and try not to piss myself. Brexit. I have never felt so far from Home.

I am still awake at 5am, the tightness in my chest now a watermelon. It is hard to breathe. A dear friend from London has called and I struggle to speak loud enough for her to hear me. I am searching for hope like lost keys, it’s here somewhere, I just had it. She tells me a story to try and cheer me up, a story in which all is not lost and London, in all its super-diverse glory, in all its tolerance, prospers. In this story, my friend witnesses a drunk English man in London tell a group of Eastern European women he does not know that he is so glad they are there. I tell her that is not a happy story.

And the unhappy stories keep coming.

“Haven’t you gone home yet?”

“Paki”

“Would you like a banana with that?”

I think about my mother as a child in 70s Britain, quiet, skinny, hairy, brilliant. The oldest of four, she was tasked with protecting both her immigrant parents and her younger siblings from the constant threat of physical and psychic white violence. I think about my grandmother who kept a bucket of water underneath her letter-box just in case a burning rag or a firework visited in the night. I think about my sister, my cousins, their brown skin, their Muslim names. I try to stop thinking. Eventually I fall asleep with my fists clenched.

The leave voters are not the problem. They are the product of hundreds of years of colonial divide and rule, most recently implemented via a vicious austerity program that has nothing to do with migration, and everything to do with keeping the elite rich. I am most fearful of the white middle class liberals who voted to stay, who think they are Good White People but are actually People With Power Who Never Listen Because They Don’t Have To. These are the people who see themselves as separate from the leave voters and the black and brown people being attacked on the street; distinct, commentators with so much to say. I have spent hours, days and years in conversation with people like this, discussing structural inequality in the UK, isolation, fetishization, why I had to escape—and still they seem to think racism started a week ago.

They are the people who really scare me, because after this recent spike of hate crime normalizes, and we are left with the constant, low-key, micro-aggressive, soul-destroying racism that has always characterized life in the UK for people of colour, they will forget. They will continue to talk over us, to tell us we are “moderate Muslims”, to get paid to write and speak about things they know absolutely nothing about and to doubt us every time we try to talk about racism. To truly consider what life as a black or brown person of colour might feel like takes work – hard work, a rupture in a free existence and then inevitably, culpability. I have yet to meet a white person prepared to do that work, to step into that vulnerability. There are cheese and crackers that need to be eaten after all.

We can talk to the leave voters all we want, and we can blame old people if it makes us feel good, but they are not the people in charge now or in the future. They did not create this and this does not serve them. I am lucky enough to have experienced higher education among the elite, the artistic and political leaders of tomorrow. They are scary. They think their white liberalism is ***Flawless, they pretend to listen but they do not hear a thing, they use our bodies and our stories, they put our faces on their websites and they pretend they can’t see us when we finally collapse, just like their daddies did. They put our heads on sticks and call it multiculturalism.

As the days continue, well-meaning Americans make conversation with me about Brexit. Every time, I feel a wave of sickness, pain in my chest and a scramble of thoughts, flashbacks, half-words, reveries. I hold my stomach and speak through long, measured breaths. Despite moving to New York on a scholarship to study the mental health effects of oppression, I am finding it so, so hard to admit to myself that a news story is making me feel like I’m dying so many times a day. I wish the white people telling me that I need to be gentle, that I should talk to those who are different from me, had any idea what it feels like to be this tired.

We will talk. Right after we have dragged the UK’s legacy of violence from under its ugly, expensive carpet, after we have learned it, taught it, remembered it, accepted it as an explanation for everything we see. We can talk after we have taught our children mental and physical self defense. We can talk after we have spoken to each other, about mental health, survival, and the anti-blackness we perpetuate within our own communities of colour, oppressing black people in a space they should be safe. We have lots to talk about. If only middle class white people would stop talking.

In 1980 my mum, a first generation Pakistani living in North London, won a writing competition aged 16, using the prompt, An Event of Importance to my Community. In it she writes:

Today it is unsafe for any Asian person to walk down the street without his colour, speech, or dress being made fun of. You, the readers, may think that I am exaggerating, but the truth of the matter is, that no-one has yet realized the seriousness of racial prejudice… I fear that by the time we grow up, we will be too full of bitterness simply to sit down and talk things over. If anything isn’t done, we are going to explode and you will explode with us.

We explode every day and we piece ourselves together again. We explode for our ancestors, when we don’t expect it, and then again when we remember. We explode every time our trust is abused, every time it becomes obvious no-one heard us, every time we have to retreat, thicken our walls that keep us locked in, angry, safe. We explode.