Often enough I’ve been told that race isn’t an issue here and that a focus on the racial aspect of Brexit itself is somehow racist towards white people. Of course the whole issue is incredibly complex but facts cannot be ignored. What the British media often miss is that the ‘other’ biggest divide other than age was race: 53% of White voters wanted out and 73% of Black voters wanted to stay in the EU.
Myself, I voted to stay in the EU, but was my vote really about the EU? Not really. I’m no expert on the EU though I recognise that there are many benefits to membership and that Britain is in no position to leave. I recognise that a lot of funding my area gets is through EU money which should be a big push towards staying, though I also recognise there are a lot of problems with the EU also. The benefits I recognise the most from the EU are with regards to policy (such as worker’s rights), freedom of movement and economics (funding for projects in my area). A lot of my decision to remain came from the fact that racism and xenophobia was a huge driver for people round here to vote leave.
Often enough I will refer to myself as from ‘the black community’, but what is this ‘black community’ in areas such as mine in Doncaster, South Yorkshire? How does it differ from the ‘black community’ in areas such as London, Manchester and Leeds?
Currently the north is split into two in my opinion. You have two types of places –
- 1) Economic powerhouses and university towns that have managed to survive the recession – places such as Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool.
- 2) Towns and cities that have suffered due to decline of industry and have struggled to recover – places such as Hartlepool, Barnsley, Burnley, Doncaster, Sunderland, Worksop and Rotherham.
What really confirmed this split to me are recent depictions of Manchester as some sort of Northern London and the face of a new prosperous north; a city that is experiencing a fast paced regeneration (which I would argue is actually gentrification). Watch a lot of TV and you will see Manchester City and wider Greater Manchester as an area that is highly represented on TV after London. After all with the decentralisation of some BBC operations from London to Manchester other media and broadcasting organisations have been attracted to the city, meaning that we have seen an increased representation of areas ‘up north’ (meaning only Greater Manchester) outside of the economic capital (London).
Meanwhile you have places such as Barnsley depicted as being declining industrial wastelands that still look like they could be settings for a remake of Brassed Off or The Full Monty. The kinds of areas depicted as being still full of backwards thinking bitter and lager sipping working class (white) people without further and higher education and are still bitter about the Miner’s Strike of 1984-1985.
The depiction of areas that are just full of white people who never ever interact with other ethnic minorities in my experience is even pushed by people from ethnic minorities. Often in my interactions with other black individuals from London, Manchester, Birmingham and other big cities there is often a sense of disbelief that I live in the location I do – an ex-mining village.
“There are no black people here”
The media only speak in extremes. The message mainstream outlets want the masses to get is that in those towns and cities that have suffered due to decline of industry only white people live; the words “working class” often meaning “poor white males”. Often in reports there has often been an absolute failure to give representation to ethnic minorities in these places because of course – black people and Asians only live in inner cities in large regional centres like Leeds and Manchester. The alleged ‘all white’ population of these insular towns up north are simply screaming at clouds because they are just poor angry white people who do not know any better. They are angry because they have no jobs and because… well… Polish people are taking all their warehousing jobs and there are too many Polski Skleps established by those ‘pesky entrepreneurial Poles’ in the neighbourhood for their liking.
Of course all of that is bullshit, though what cannot be ignored is that compared to the economic centres of Leeds and Manchester, areas especially with a history of mining such as Barnsley, Doncaster and many areas in Wakefield have historically being relatively more homogeneous. Even though there were black people and Asian people working in mining (who have had their contributions ignored), much of the immigration to these areas has been domestic, for example – the immigration of Scottish and Welsh miners to areas of Doncaster due to collieries in their area closing, thus leaving them with no jobs.
Often enough in my own experience two areas often come up when mentioning the ‘black community’ in Northern England – Moss Side in Manchester and Chapeltown in Leeds. These are two places historically where a high number of the Afro-Caribbean people in these areas decided to settle between Wold War Two and the 60s (My Grandparent’s generation).
I do feel the need to say however that there however has never ever really been a ‘black community’ in Britain… well not like the Americans would define it. The Americans would see a black community as an area which is exclusively black people; areas which you will rarely see ‘whitey’ for miles. This has never been the case in the UK. Though there are some areas like Moss Side and Chapeltown which have relatively higher numbers of black people, the areas remain relatively mixed (white British, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Eastern European, etc).
In comparison the ‘black community’ in declining towns and smaller areas is much more spread out and smaller. There is no real area which can be defined as being a centre for the ‘black community’. You’d just have families dotted around the town and your odd event here and there. For a large chunk of my life I felt as though I was one of the very very few black boys in the whole village. I would look at images of London on the TV and romanticise the place as being a better place to live as a black male (when the reality is that it is just as, if not even more tough to survive in). There was a constant feeling that I was missing out. Especially during the late 90s and early 2000s when I started getting into hip-hop and started listening to reggae, funk, soul and learning more about my own history; realising I wasn’t like the other kids.
Even though I did feel pretty much isolated at times there was a sense of support though the understanding shared experiences across different groups. In my area there was and still is terrible discrimination towards Irish Travellers and Gypsies. At times I would experience the odd bit of racism and ignorance from those communities in particular but for the most part I got on with a lot of them. At times I would feel a sense of that that they know we have some things in common (mainly that we’re both from groups that are discriminated against) and that we’re both in the same boat, therefore I wouldn’t get much bother from them.
There is a huge disadvantage of being a black man in a place outside the big economic centres – a lack of a social circle to share similar experiences and there is a massive lack of culturally sensitive and appropriate support services and facilities. Even where these exist (usually provided by social enterprises, the third sector or churches – a huge problem for another day) they are relatively more spread out or based centrally (as in town centres) due to the geography of these areas, as a result making these services very inconvenient for a lot of people. A lot of these services post-economic crisis due to austerity measures have gone under and as a result have left many without support. This is something I really feel as though I can relate to. During a tough time where my mental health took a sharp decline and I found mental health services provided by the NHS in my area not very useful in supporting me. Differences in race and culture always felt like the elephant in the room; a result of the ignorance or lack of knowledge of the person delivering the service. It was only because I was a university student in another location I could access a service that were knowledgeable and discussed issues related to my cultural background and race. They made me feel comfortable.
It’s important that black people outside of established and larger black communities in the “Economic Powerhouses” are not left out when discussing race in Britain Post-Referendum and in the future as in a lot of cases black people in these areas are the most vulnerable to racism, feel more isolated and have less access to culturally appropriate support services. Things are very very slowly improving with regards to media representation and culturally appropriate and sensitive services in these areas, but there still exists a perpetuation of the myth that black people only live in certain areas of Northern England such as Chapeltown and Moss Side and could not possibly have been born in *insert declining northern town here*.
The simplistic and regressive depiction of the northern white working class as the main face of ‘working class Northern Britain’; a salt-of-the-earth, oppressed group that has been left behind only exacerbates racism, white exceptionalism, obscures ways that can actually help them (as in understanding the complex factors as to how racist attitudes develop) and also ignores poor whites in large urban areas such as London and Manchester. It ignores the privileges that the white working class have over ethnic minorities of the same and lower economic status. Of course there are problems in these communities but racist and xenophobic attitudes should not be left unchallenged, excused (“oh, these people are racist because there are no jobs and foreigners are taking them”) and should always be condemned. A “not on my doorstep” mentality with regards to diversity, change and ethnic minorities has been allowed to fester for years and years in these areas ( the “maybe in Manchester but not round here” mentality).
What I fear is that with no opportunities to receive funding from the EU there will be a decline in funding opportunities. This has the potential to hit everyone hard though has the potential to exacerbate the problems ethnic minorities have in these areas with regards to bringing culturally appropriate support and projects to these areas; services that are usually provided at community level. In my experience as a youth and community worker the first services to usually experience cuts and reductions in services are services targeted at marginalised groups; service providers usually cutting these and providing more ‘general’ services to cut costs by lumping all ethnic minorities in the same category. Of course it is much cheaper and convenient for the powers that be to focus on general equalities in a centralised location, than commission work to investigate and improve services for specific groups, especially in areas that are much more ‘white’. The experiences of a Bangladeshi woman, Afro-Caribbean man, Nigerian woman and Pakistani man would all be vastly different.