Racism bingo and respectability politics

I spent several hours today at the One Day Without Us stall in Bath. For those just tuning in, the basic idea behind this is that it’s a strike – immigrants withdrawing our labour in protest at the vile racism spewed at us constantly from the British government, opposition, press, and pretty much every other social institution in this country. What my morning actually turned into was a game of respectability politics and racism bingo. Here are some of the high(low?)lights…

The organisers of the Bath event seemed to all be white and British. A few other Western European migrants joined us later, but the core group was white and British. Not only that, but the message track they were going with was “Valuing the contribution of immigrants”. They even had templates for people to write “messages of support” and what they valued about immigrants in this country. Not so much a protest, then, as a neo-liberal love-fest.

(For the Migration Issues 101 crowd at the back, here’s what’s wrong with this message track. “Valuing” migrants for our “contribution” implies that those who are unable to contribute are worthless. Regardless of how nice you think you’re being by pointing to migrants’ work in the NHS or declaring that without us this place would be “boring” and “colourless”, the “contribution” discourse is a disposability discourse. My value – my humanity – should not be conditional on my work, or on you finding entertainment value in me.)

Then there was of course the popular “we are all immigrants” refrain. Sorry to break it to you guys, but no, we are not all immigrants. Frankly, even any Western Europeans under the age of 50 living in the UK don’t have half the lived experience of being immigrants that those of us who remember a time before free movement (let alone those to whom free movement doesn’t apply) have. For British people living in Britain to declare that “we are all immigrants” is insulting.

There were the attempts to make us more palatable to the Daily-Mail-reading public by dividing and conquering. “Oh, we’re not about refugees, we’re about immigrants.” Uh, guys, one is a subset of the other, I even brought a physicist who could teach you basic set theory. “Oh we’re not about opening the doors and having more immigration. We just want to celebrate the ones who are already here.” Yeah, thanks. With friends like you who needs enemies?

Backhanded compliments on my English are kinda par for the course for me, but there was also the fun of being exoticised by other (Western European) immigrants. “Oh you’re Bulgarian! I’ve always wanted to go there and see the rose harvest. I love the Eastern European flair, and the music, and…”

Several people also complained that there weren’t more migrants there. “Why won’t the Romanian workers at Primark come out? Why is the Polish sign holder from up the street not here?” You know why? Because they’re all working (sub)minimum-wage jobs. They can’t afford to lose a day’s pay to make your pet project more “colourful”. They can’t afford to lose their shitty jobs if their boss sees them at a protest. That’s why.

All of this was even before contact with the general public who kindly let me tick racist bingo squares ranging from dirty looks to “no mass immigration”, “radicalised refugees” and best of all of course “I’m not racist but”. Yeah hon, you are. I also approached a couple of Community Support Officers (oh come on, like you didn’t know that I’m a massive troll) who explained that they weren’t allowed to be “politically correct” on the job. That one gets the Freudian Slip of the Day award.

But the Worst Human Being of the Day award goes to a parent. Fairly early on in the day I approached a family who turned out to be a Spanish mother, a British father and their two daughters who looked about 11 or 12. The mother shared with me the frustrations of living as an immigrant in the UK right now and took one of my stickers. The father, when prompted to write a “message of support” looked at it blankly for about a minute before he decided he couldn’t do it. But by far the worst was when I offered the kids some stickers and he told me to not “politicise the children”.

Honey, I hate to break it to you, but your children’s mere existence is a political statement, and they know it. If you think those kids haven’t been on the receiving end of racism at the very least since Brexit but probably also before, you haven’t been paying attention. If you think they’re not worried about whether Mummy will be allowed to stay in the country, you are completely ignorant of the reality of your children’s lives. This officially qualifies you for Worst Human Being of the Day.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *