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How do the Brexit debates relate to nationalism, xenophobia, and racism?

June 29, 2016

This blog post originates as a Facebook status update from a colleague at Leeds this morning, and its tone reflects that original audience – it is a mode of thinking systematically out loud about something that concerns so many of us about the social landscape after the Brexit vote. We have modified it a little, but post it here with its author’s consent as part of a crucial dialogue we need to be having.


I’ve been frustrated with the quality of discussion regarding nationalism, xenophobia, racism, and Brexit on my Facebook feed over the last few days. Some decent journalism seems now to be appearing, so maybe this post will be superceded. I’m sure most of the people I know do know everything that follows, either intuitively or intellectually; but I haven’t seen much evidence of people applying this knowledge… (Me included!) So I wanted to think through some of the basics, for my own benefit as much as anyone else’s.

There’s no question that the Brexit campaign involved lots of racism and xenophobia, harnessing but also stoking these sentiments. But I see a lot of double standards among friends who (like me) genuinely feel gutted to feel their European identity being taken away from them, while not sympathising with people who feel that their English/British identity is being taken from them. I see a lot of gloriously un-nuanced arguments where someone points out the racism in the Brexit campaign and then someone else says that not all Brexiteers are racist, and then meaningful discussion ceases. And there isn’t much journalism that I’ve noticed trying to join the dots between Brexit, nationalism, xenophobia, and racism.

Talking about racism is partly hard because people innately want to have and preserve a positive self-image. If someone tells me that I’m doing something racist, or misogynistic, or that some key part of my personal identity (like being English or being white) has negative consequences for someone else, my blood pressure starts to rise, and my palms feel a bit sweaty—I get angry. This is my psychological immune system kicking in, trying to preserve my positive self-image: it would rather shoot the messenger than rationally consider the message. This is one reason why using the r-word is usually game over for any rational discussion.

Talking about racism is also hard because racism is complex and woolly, not a simple, in-or-out phenomenon. Common decency is pretty inuitive really; but unfortunately so is common prejudice: both get woven into our world-views from the moment we’re born. Because racism is complex, British institutions (parents, schools, companies, governments) tend to take a short cut, and work a bit like the annoying IT security guys at work who give you a long and ever-growing list of things you’re not allowed to do: don’t use less than three non-alphanumeric characters in your password, don’t install i-tunes on your work laptop, don’t make a wifi hotspot with your phone. The list is fiddly and gets in the way of doing what we want (including our jobs), making the IT security team look like pompous busybodies. So we tend to ignore or subvert their lists. Still, we all know, really, that we shouldn’t be putting our company’s IT security at risk: we only do it because when we think we can get away with making our lives easy at someone else’s expense, we do.

The way to *actually* make IT security work is to make sure everyone understands the underlying cyber-threats so they are empowered to make sensible decisions for themselves. Same with racism: too many people are given/allow themselves to settle for a checklist model of racism, rather than thinking through the underlying principles. This is a personal failing, but also an institutional one.

This is why I want to think through the links between nationalism, xenophobia, racism, and Brexit.


This isn’t hard: a nation’s something like a large bunch of people, enough of whom believe that they are one nation for this belief to have real effects in the world. The key thing here is that nations are cultural constructs. There’s nothing physical or innate or permanent that makes English people English: just cultural phenomena like laws, accents, or styles of clothing. Nations are fuzzy: is Britain a nation? Or is it three nations (England, Wales, and Scotland)? Surely Britain and Scotland can’t both be nations at the same time? But, yes, they can. It just depends who’s talking and how they happen to feel.

Nations aren’t binary categories (‘either you’re English or you’re not’). They’re fuzzy categories (some people are very English, some quite English, some not very English at all). The prototypical English person is male, white, has a British passport, born in England, monoglot, eats roast beef, etc. A more marginal English person might be a woman of dual Anglo-Mexican citizenship who grew up in America but came to the UK for university study. So nations are fuzzy, complex categories. If we imagine them as simple and binary, we can’t understand them.

Laws, accents, fashions, etc. are always changing, so nationhood has to be continually reiterated, second by second, to persist. That doesn’t mean nations aren’t real. Many English people feel genuine sadness when (say) the English football team is defeated by Iceland. Despite the fact that they weren’t on the pitch, their positive self-image is still dented, because they identify so strongly with this symbol of the nation. I feel genuine sadness at the prospect of having my EU citizenship taken away, because part of my positive self-image as a groovy, cosmopolitan, twenty-first-century intellectual comes from thinking of myself as European. Even so, the key point is that nations aren’t innate, and we can’t understand how nations work without getting that they have to be continually produced through culture.


In everyday usage, I guess ‘nationalism’ usually means a scary kind of violent, chauvinistic ideology. People generally don’t want to be called ‘nationalists’. Though recently, people advocating Scottish independence might also use the label in more positive ways. That’s what language is like: ever-shifting.

In academic usage, ‘nationalism’ is used more broadly, and this is very useful to understanding Brexit. Broadly understood, ‘nationalism’ just means ‘the idea that one nation is exceptional, better and/or more deserving than others’. This ‘small-n nationalism’, if you like, far from being an extreme or unusual phenomenon, is all-pervasive in the UK. It makes us happy when one football team wins instead of another. It makes most telly be focused on ‘us’ in the UK. It makes almost all media discussion of Brexit be about whether Brexit is or is not good ‘for us’, i.e. for the UK, rather than for the good of all Europeans, or all humans, or all species.

You can make an argument that nationalism is a good thing in moderation (making people more willing to pay taxes for the common good of the nation, for example). But you can always have too much of a good thing. Rationally, I’m not keen on nationalism of any kind, but it’s important to recognise that that doesn’t stop me participating in nationalist thinking by accident. We all do.


Again, we tend to use ‘xenophobia’ to talk about extreme behaviours: putting dog crap through German neighbours’ letter-boxes for example. But as with nationalism, we can also talk of ‘weak’ forms of xenophobia.

If ‘small-n nationalism’ involves thinking that one nation is somehow better or more deserving than others, then xenophobia is a logical consequence: other nations are necessarily less good or deserving than ‘us’. This means that xenophobia is as pervasive as nationalism. There’s a scale of xenophobia running from feeling cheerful when Germany loses in the football, through making jokes about Irish people, to not really caring if lots of Libyans drown escaping a war, to being willing to invade and destroy other countries for the profit or glorification of our own, right up to premeditated genocide. One end of this scale is banal, perhaps harmless, perhaps even useful for inspiring a bit of productive competitiveness or enabling the positive outcomes of weak nationalism. The other end is horrific. But it’s crucial to grasp that there’s no neat cut-off between the banal and the monstrous: they are on the same continuum. Indeed, it’s easy for the monstrous to come to seem banal.

Every time a debate about Brexit invokes nationalist ideas (whether for Leave or Remain), as virtually all of them do, a corresponding xenophobia is implied. If we say we should remain in the EU because its subsidies support UK farmers, we imply that their wellbeing is more important than the wellbeing of far poorer African farmers whose produce is kept from entering Fortress Europe. Every time people talk about diverting the UK’s EU contributions to the National Health Service (note the name), we’re planning to take those contributions away from much poorer EU regions. The bottom line here is that we care more about ‘us’ (a culturally constructed group of people who identify as a nation) than ‘them’.

Rationally, I struggle to see this attitude as moral: how is a baby born in Britain empirically more deserving of good fortune than one born in Romania or Angola? But although I rationally abjure xenophobia, I unconsciously behave xenophobically. To be my best self, I need to identify these behaviours and find ways to unpick or defuse these tendencies. Either way, ‘weak xenophobia’ is everywhere.


The principle that everything is fuzzy and complex is now getting familiar… Same with racism. The term ‘racism’ sounds like it’s about prejudice against people with particular phenotypical features, like eye-folds or a particular skin-tone. Sometimes it’s that simple, and sometimes it makes sense to distinguish between xenophobia, racism, religion-based hatred, etc. Americans’ prejudice towards black Americans isn’t xenophobic because black Americans aren’t seen as foreigners.

But mostly, prejudice does not abide by these neat categories. Regional trends in human phenotypes lead cultures to associate phenotypes with particular nations: xenophobia and racism often overlap. British people of colour get told to ‘go home’ as if they were foreign. Very few people in the world choose their religion: they’re born into it. (I have lots of friends from a Christian cultural background who think they have chosen to be atheists, but mostly they’re just adjusting to the fact that they grew up in a fundamentally atheistic society.) Lots of people claim that they disapprove of Islam because they have rational, theological objections to it, and that they harbour no racism towards people of colour nor xenophobia towards people from majority-Islamic countries. Among a few scholars of religious studies, this might actually be true, but for the most part, it’s a rationalisation that attempts to legitimise xenophobia and racism.

For many people, a vote for Brexit was also vote against people of colour. Understanding that xenophobia and racism are often indistinguishable is crucial to this.


Is it possible for black people to be racist about white people? I think the answer is clearly ‘yes’. Is a black person being racist about white people equal and opposite to a white person being racist about black people? The answer is clearly ‘no’.

Gender provides a good analogy. If a woman says to me ‘all men are stupid, the country should be run by women!’, that’s chauvinistic. But as women have never come close to dominance in government, I can just laugh, scratch my chin, and say ‘hmm, interesting thought experiment!’ It doesn’t threaten my sense of security as man. But if I say ‘all women are stupid, the country should be run by men!’, I am repeating a long-reiterated idea that has genuinely been used for centuries to oppress women. It’s a really horrible thing to say.

Same with racism: what might be a banal joke at the expense of my whiteness would instantly become a brutal insult if made at the expense of someone’s blackness.


Hopefully it’s obvious by now that the answer to this is necessarily fuzzy. For a start, it’s not generally helpful to label people as racists: rather particular behaviour is racist. So the question is ‘did 52% of Britain make a racist choice?’

In one sense, less. Far less than 52% of British people will shout racist/xenophobic things at people in the street, though a much larger proportion will say them when they think they’re in like-minded company.

Perhaps in some sense 52%. 52% of people voted for a campaign that put xenophobic/racist ideas (many of them lies) at its centre. Cameron tried to win the racist vote by dehumanising refugees in Calais by calling them a ‘swarm’. Farage offered a picture of Middle Eastern refugees and declared ‘breaking point’ (as if leaving the EU would make any difference to the UK’s obligations to refugees in international law, which it had a key role in writing). Johnson and Gove lied that the UK would be unable to prevent Turkey joining the EU. So although a few people might have decided that the gains to African farmers would outweigh the harm to people of colour or foreigners in Britain, the vast majority passively endorsed the racism of the campaign.

In another sense, which may seem banal but that I still think is important, the vast majority. Almost any British people that took part in debate about the EU were in a debate that was fundamentally nationalist, and so implicitly xenophobic in its framing. I certainly lapsed into thinking about things Anglocentrically more than I’d have wished. Arguments for Britain staying in the EU for the greater good can easily be made, but were thin on the ground.

I like to think that young people tended to support remaining in significant part because they have grown up in more of a post-nationalist, globalised context, and therefore intuitively support a more humanistic than nationalistic approach to the world.


Dreadfully long though that post was, I think it sets up the baseline for understanding the emerging commentary on the racism exposed and inflamed by the Brexit debacle. It’s also a baseline for working out what to do about it: for working out how to talk about the anger of people in the intersecting catgories of white and working-class without viewing these people as uniquely racist on the one hand, or giving their racism a free ride on the other. It’s a baseline for discussions which situate Brexit in relation to Britain’s failure to come to terms with its deeply racist history.

These are the articles I’ve noticed so far that I think are fairly useful on racism and Brexit:

* Subtlest piece I’ve seen, with good coverage of Trumpism, and white-and-working-class need for a sense of agency:…/thoughts-on-the-sociology-of-brex…/

* Mostly but not entirely plausible demolition of the argument that white-and-working-class people have *actually* lost out materially to immigration:…/brexit-uk-eu-immigration-x…/in/11741053

* No-nonsense sketch of the Brexit campaign’s racism and racist consequences:…/campaign-bigotry-racist-brita…

* Of the many stories of rising hate-crimes of the last few days, the one that arrested me the most:…/4757039-german-immigrant-s-heartbre…
5 Comments leave one →
  1. One of the 52% permalink
    June 29, 2016 3:10 PM

    A series of further questions not asked in this article arise, e.g.:

    Are people of colour who voted for Brexit self-hating racists? Are well-meaning white people entitled to make that judgment of them – or would that be a form of unacknowledged racism itself?

    Is it only possible to think of the debate in terms of immigration? Could it be possible that people exist for whom racism is abhorrent but for whom the innately undemocratic nature of the EU was an overwhelmingly strong and legitimate reason to vote “Leave”? Gisela Stuart does not strike me as a racist or a xenophobe.

    Is it wrong to be disgusted with how the working people of Greece and others have been dealt with by the EU? Is it wrong to think that, left unchallenged, the EU will continue blithely on wreaking similar harm in future?

    Have the 48% fully come to terms with the level of contempt some of their number hold for the working class (frequently now referred to in the media as “these people”) who haven’t enjoyed the EU dream? Is this the last acceptable form of bigotry?

    Still a few questions “remaining” …

  2. June 29, 2016 9:41 PM

    To one of the 52%. To address your questions, though I am not the author of the blog. The issue of non-parallel racism is addressed in the post. The blog is not fundamentally about the vote, so doesn’t address the reasons for voting beyond its concern to consider the recent rise of racism on the back of there result. The issue of Greece is not relevant to the article, and we are not intending here to open a discussion on the pros and cons of Leave or Remain. The issue of class that you bring up at the end might be a useful subject for a different post.

  3. One of the 52% permalink
    June 29, 2016 11:10 PM

    I respectfully disagree that the blog is not fundamentally about the vote, or its pros and cons – I don’t think the various associated issues can be so easily separated out.
    The relevance of Greece – if the author refers to the motivation of young Remain voters being, in his view, more post-nationalist and humanitarian (which therefore means the article does indeed “address the reasons for voting”) then isn’t it legitimate to question that hypothesis by mentioning the equally humanitarian and post-nationalist concerns of some Leave voters for the overseas victims of EU-facilitated social vandalism?

  4. June 30, 2016 10:18 AM

    The blog is clearly not fundamentally about the vote or why people voted one way or the other. It is about how Brexit debates relate to nationalism, xenophobia and racism. The author’s reference to the potential motivation of Remain voters is strongly evidenced statistically (see image) but that assertion is a.) about the context within which the young grew, not about their attitudes, and clearly positioned within the discussion as a personal belief. Now, yes, you can assert that a minority of Remainers held other attitudes, and that is not untrue, but it does not make the blog about anything other than what it is about. There’s nothing stopping you using the comments section to make your own points on a different and related matter, of course.

    attitudes of voters


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