A conversation that has stayed with me came after the Brexit vote in 2016, when a French friend, who is white, told me of her anxiety at the outcome. There were already signs of the mounting xenophobia against foreigners of all descriptions that was to come in the aftermath of the referendum. “It’s like people are seeing us as immigrants!” she said with disgust. “As if we don’t belong here.”
My immediate thought was, “welcome”. I’m not an immigrant but I have always been seen as one. The response to any perceived transgression I make towards a public person or policy is frequently: “If you don’t like it here, then leave.” White immigrants, and especially those from western Europe, had on the whole never before felt as if this prejudice applied to them, because “immigration” – as a contentious political issue – has never been about people coming from other countries, and it’s never been about the movement required to get here. “Immigration” has always been a byword for the problem of people who are racialised as undesirable, whether they were born here or not.
The hypocrisy is embedded in the history. I often wonder how it was that the arrival of the SS Windrush in 1948, carrying fewer than 500 West Indians specifically invited to come and work in the UK, was and remains such a symbol of profound soul searching for the national identity. That event stands in stark contrast to the more than 200,000 eastern Europeans and 100,000 Irish immigrants who came to Britain during the same period. The former is regarded as a turning point in the fabric of the nation’s identity, the latter is barely remembered at all.