by Jacinta Nandi

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

Rachel Reeves: Not a UKIP MP
Rachel Reeves: Not a UKIP MP

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.

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9 thoughts on “Why we have to take white working class people’s fears seriously

  1. Okay, you’ve gone way past holding racists responsible for their racism into stereotyped contempt for an entire group whether they’re racist or not, and denial that centuries of systemic labour exploitation matter at all. Yeah these people’s ancestors WERE suffering hardship at the hands of a colonial ruling class whose actions they’re now equally blamed for. The decent wages their ancestors FOUGHT for are being undercut by employers who’ll exploit the people who’ll do it for cheaper. You can hardly blame immigrants for that, but what do you expect under an exploitative capitalist system that RELIES on and ENCOURAGES competition for limited resources? People with insecure incomes are going to first look after their own. The far right are a minority here.

    Not defending racism at all but you’re clearly comfortably off and sneering at the very idea that white people can be poor at all. You need to get off your high horse and visit a proper underclass sink estate.

    You’re right that it’s partly middle class deflection, but we do need to take these anxieties seriously in that we should look at the competitive system that gave rise to them instead of sneering from our degree educated high horse and getting caught up in individualist identity politics that do not address the actual economic structure at all.

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  2. The idea that Brexit was mainly voted for by desperately poor and deprived white people is just not that likely, considering the demographic for the average UKIPper. UKIP succeeded as a far right party where the BNP failed because there is a very large middle class middle England population who wanted the far right policies without the taint of thuggery, and yes, working class ‘values’ that the BNP largely represented – or at least claimed to represent.

    Of course the old BNP voters did mostly go to UKIP, but there was never the extent of support to garner the nearly 4 million votes that UKIP got in 2015. But I do have to point out that the only place where UKIP got a seat was Clacton, and Jaywick is part of that constituency. Jaywick is actually the most deprived area in England. It is also 99% white.

    I am white and on paper working class – brought up 2 kids on my own on a council estate blah blah blah. Those working class people of which you speak – an underclass really – are not people I know or ever come into contact with.

    They are the substance abusers, women whose kids are taken into care, men go in and out of prison, violence is rife, education is shunned, petty criminality is the norm. I know I have no stats or studies, but I don’t think they ARE that racist, and I do agree that the media points to this group and says ‘but you can’t blame THEM for being racist’.

    I think it is always going to be difficult for anyone to look at that group and NOT think that there are internal reasons for their continued deprivation, unless you want to use that group to make a point of course. But just deciding that they are a thoroughly racist lot, and that that is somehow OK because they are deprived – maybe it is something Katie Hopkins would like to make an argument for, but I’m not buying it.

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  3. Reblogged this on Declaration Of Opinion and commented:
    I saw Liz Kendall talking about this on BBC This Week, where she said regarding working class views over immigration and brexit we shouldn’t sneer at their culture, well I’m sorry Liz I’m always going to sneer at racists, no matter what their concerns or financial situation.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Paul Gilroy calls this postcolonial melancholia, doesn’t he? It’s like a desiccated version of US exceptionalism. I think it has always poisoned our relationship with the EU and would agree it was as strong a factor in Brexit as anything else – although other factors count too.

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  5. Also, when we talk about fears: I’m frightened like mad because of the prospect of rising fascism in Europe. I know I’m not the first in line of their hatred but I come from a family that was always shaped not only by who was there, but also by who wasn’t there because they’d been murdered in the concentration camps. As a teen I got special permission to spend recess inside because Neonazis were searching the school grounds for me.
    Yes, I’m afraid, I’m very afraid, but I’m constantly asked to soothe the unfounded fears of racists.

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  6. This is one of the most biased and divisive articles I think I’ve read in a long time. The hypocrisy is rampant and foul. But I’ve seen it all before from the Remain camp. I hope you feel you have ticked your boxes to alleviate your historical guilt because you have done nothing to help integration or change misconstructions or mindsets.

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  7. 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.

    This. It’s a convenient smoke screen to make people forget who the actual leaders of racism and xenophobia are. von Storch, Petry, etc., they’re not poor people of working class background. Von Storch is as old elite as old elite gets, pretending we still had nobility and titles in Germany. The whole f*cking AfD was a project of middle class snobs who thought the FDP was too common for their taste.
    And if we’re talking about “poor white people’s fears”: We have record lows of unemployment in Germany now. Because one million people need goods and services, they increased demand. Especially blue collar working class people profited from this as there’s an extra demand on housing which leads to more jobs in construction.
    Oh, and for white middle class people’s deflection: The best I’ve seen was a CDU politician claiming that the traumatised children in Saxony are to be held to a higher standard because “they survived so much, they’re strong, but the German youths had a good childhood so they cannot be expected to behave themselves”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “they survived so much, they’re strong, but the German youths had a good childhood so they cannot be expected to behave themselves”. – This is pretty much the argument used by the wealthy and middle class in the past to justify child labour in poor communities, while their children got an education, plenty to eat, etc etc.

      Poor people have always HAD to endure more hardship, so are better placed to endure FURTHER hardship! Yes, I am sure the poor appreciated being seen as so tough and resilient, as they buried their children and died exhausted by 55.

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