There’s this sense of relief in their tone when white people tell you – when white middle-class people tell you – how poor and miserable the Brexit voters are. Or, in the US, Trump. Or, in Germany, the AfD. There’s a sense of relief, but also a certain satisfaction. Friends and family members will tell you, earnestly, at dinner parties: “These people are so poor, Jacinta, so poor, they’ve been ignored for years, for decades, for centuries, basically. You cannot physically comprehend how poor these people are. They’ve been working down pits for centuries and centuries, they’re barely human anymore. They’re this kind of sub-human homo-goblinus creature now. No light in their lives, no hope. You can’t even begin to imagine how hopeless their lives are.” Or sometimes, when they talk about Trump
voters, the stories are all like: “These white people, white trash, white bread, black teeth, tattooed necks, what have they seriously got to live for?” Germans romanticise their poor in a slightly less poetic way than Anglo-Saxons do, I guess, but the conclusion is the same: WE HAVE TO LISTEN TO THESE PEOPLE. WE MUST LISTEN TO THE WHITE WORKING-CLASS. After all, “not so Red UKIP”, according to Rachel Reeves, told us to.
We must listen even when they’re being racist. No, no. Especially when they’re being racist. We must listen. We must listen to their fears, their thoughts, their concerns. Even the racist ones. No, no. ESPECIALLY THE RACIST ONES. That’s how poor these people are, you know. They’re so poor, their lives are so dark, so dark and miserable, the only thing that lights up their dark lives is the joy they get out of being racist, so we better listen to them. Otherwise they might rise up like some kind of zombie proletarian army and start eating our babies and stuff.
I don’t mind people saying stuff like this, by the way. It does kind of annoy me how they always say it as if people’s fears about immigration are reasonable and the only reason you don’t want to listen to them is because you’re being a stubborn bitch. It does kind of annoy me how you’re not meant to admit that listening to people’s racist fears is in fact a bit scary too. It does kind of annoy me that people act like people hating brown people or Muslims isn’t absolutely petrifying. As if people scapegoating Polish workers for their economic misery isn’t frightening. As if non-white people don’t get scared too. As if the only fears that we need to listen to are white people’s fears. That does annoy me. But I don’t mind it that much. I just get vaguely annoyed.
What makes me scared and angry though is this: the idea that only white people can be working-class. Where does that come from? And in the case of Brexit Britain, only white British-born people, too. It never seems to matter how poor a black person is, how many hours in a factory a British Asian person works, how physically exhausting a Polish migrant in the UK’s job is. ONLY WHITE PEOPLE CAN BE WORKING-CLASS. Non-white people don’t count as workers.
Why do people need to erase people of colour and migrants from the working-class? It’s obviously a racist fantasy. A lot of the romanticism about white working-class people is racist too. The ideas about working, working hard, on the land, only being a noble or decent thing to do if you were born on that soil. It’s a romantic, racist idea. White working-class people are noble and brave, honest and true. They’re basically Tess of the bloody D’Urbervilles after Angel Clare dumps her, just a tiny bit more noble and more brave and more honest and more true. Meanwhile, non-white people or migrants should never be poor. Poor non-white people and migrants are not noble. They’re parasites. Or, to use the politically correct term more preferred in Brexit Britain: “drains on the infrastructure.”
When white people are poor or working-class, it is seen as a reason why they should be listened to more. If we look at the Brexit vote: do we really think the 52% were that much poorer than the 48% ? Some were. But some weren’t. However, a lot of the poor people in the 48% were not white or were migrants. For non-white people and migrants, being poor isn’t a reason to be more listened to or more respected. White people aren’t genetically meant to be poor, but brown people are. That’s why poor white people are scary. Because their poverty is a bit unnatural.
More than anything else, though, the white working-class are being scapegoated and exploited by educated white people as an excuse for racism existing in our society. Educated white people can get off the hook entirely, by pretending that all racists are uneducated and working-class, but also by pretending that they have to give into these people’s concerns, otherwise the real trouble will start. By pretending to be so worried about working-class white people’s immigration fears, the white middle-class gets all the fun of actually being racist without any of the guilty conscience or guilty feelings.
The truth is, not all poor people are racist, and not all racists are poor. This is just a middle-class fantasy, a paranoid fantasy which comforts middle-class white people. I come from Essex. We’re not exactly middle-class where I come from, although we think we are. But we’re not middle-class like the Middletons are middle-class. There’s never been anyone born in Essex who could trick Prince Harry into marrying them, let’s put it like that. Our area is as white trash as England gets, I guess: white stilletos, white socks. People don’t go skiing or to the opera. And people think people who do go skiing or to the opera are kind of c*nts, basically. But we’re not poor, either. We’re not the noble white working-class poor everyone wants to listen to. We’re not noble enough for that, I guess. AND I KNOW LOADS OF PEOPLE WHO VOTED LEAVE. Loads. I am friends with and related to lots and lots of people who voted Leave. Not one of them voted Leave out of genuine fear for their economic future. Not one. Not one of them is poor and hungry and desperate and miserable and thinks if we don’t leave the EU then a horde of hungry Polish plumbers will start invading like some kind of zombie army, plundering Britain and ripping food and money from their hungry children’s mouths. Nah. No. Nope. Most Leavers I know didn’t vote Leave out of a place of fear or insecurity. They did it, basically, because they think England (and maybe Britain, too) is the best country in the world and far, far better than all those piddling EU countries where people put mayonnaise on their chips instead of ketchup or vinegar. They did it because they thought the EU is a bit naff. They did it because they couldn’t bear the idea of fairly naff, nerdy Europeans telling the greatest country on Earth what to do with their bananas. They didn’t do it out of a place of fear. They didn’t have an inferiority complex. Every Leaver I know personally had a severe and almost delusional superiority complex.
The truth is: a lot of middle-class and fairly well-off people voted Leave. And a lot of middle-class and fairly well-off people are going to vote for Trump, too.
Now, I’m not saying there isn’t incredible income inequality in the UK – and in the US too. There is. There’s poverty in the UK and the US, child poverty. There are people who are hungry because they’re poor. And being societies which are so obsessed with class and consumerism – American and British societies are both societies where a person’s worth as an individual is measured in how much stuff they own – the income inequality sticks out like a sore thumb. Like a thousand sore thumbs. This isn’t what I am saying. What I am saying is: people of colour and/or migrants are poor, too, sometimes. But for some reason, their poverty doesn’t make them more worth listening to. And the reason for that is: there’s no advantage in listening to their fears. Their fears can’t be exploited to make more money faster. To build walls. To ban brown people from using the NHS. To stop Muslim immigration.
Let’s talk honestly about fear. Fear’s a horrible emotion. Before you go on stage, before you go on a rollercoaster, before you get stabbed in the neck. Fear. Your heart pumping like it’s gonna burst out your chest. Is fear an emotion only white people born in the country they live in are capable of experiencing? Let’s talk about brown people’s fear. Let’s talk about black people’s fear. Let’s talk about Muslim people’s fear. Let’s talk about Polish people in Harlow’s fear. Are they not scared? Is that not fear that emotion they feel when they walk down the street now, knowing any minute they could be stabbed, for daring to move to work in a country they weren’t born in. They moved to Britain to work. Does that not make them working-class? You can’t get more working-class than that in my eyes. Are they not working-class? What are they then? Does their fear not count? Why doesn’t their fear count? Doesn’t it count? Or is fear only something you have to listen to, when there’s something in it for you?
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Jacinta Nandi is a writer and journalist who lives in Neukölln with her twelve-year-old son. She’s written three books in German and has had articles and stories published in Jungle World, Neues Deutschland, Missy and taz. She blogs in English for the taz as Riotmama.