My family and I recently moved 140 miles out of London, a commutes distance from the next largest city- a commutes distance from multiculturalism. Minus the odd white person likening my children to cute commodities, or the enthusiastic demands for our individual ethnic breakdowns, things have been great. It had all been a day in a life until my partner was sent home from his first day at work. ‘We cannot have you on the premises.’ They said, ‘you have to leave.’
As is normal when starting a new job, HR asked my partner (his name is Marcelo) for identification. He presented his EU national identity card but he was still asked to leave and could only return if he provided his birth certificate. Around 500 million European citizens have a national identity card, and it can be used for much more than buying beers. European citizens can leave their passports at home and travel all 28 EU countries with just their identity cards. The cards are valid identification for anything that a Brit would normally use their passport for; opening bank/credit accounts, obtaining tenancies and working anywhere in the EEA.
Many people of colour know the skin prickling feeling of subtle white distrust. We recognise the feeling of being expected to ‘double prove’ our credibility. In this case, what additional assurance would a birth certificate provide? None. The glaring truth is, if Marcel were not black, he would not have been treated in this manner. (Despite having a black Angolan mother and a white German father, Marcel identifies as black. He understands that the lesser extent of his privileges defines him as such. He has found that socio-economically, ‘mixed raced’ means nothing. Please keep this in mind as you read on).
As the hours passed our disbelief and anger morphed into a strange kind of hysteria. We could not stop laughing. We laughed because MARCEL IS A EUROPEAN NATIONAL- protected by the blue background and yellow stars. A European national cannot be treated in such a way here in the UK and get away with it (yet), there were things we could, and would do about this discrimination. It was funny how HR could be so incompetent. Our laughing turned sour however, as we recognised our own growing dissonance. Laughing to escape the racism, excusing it as incompetence. Baptising Marcel, as it were, again and again in the fact that he is an EU national, validating him by standards brutally set by colonialism. Marcel is a person, born with the right to be respected. The size and power of the political entity that could be summoned in his defence, should never have been a point to gloat over.
What if he had not been born in Europe? What if he on an individual basis had been awarded the right to work in the UK, what ineffable right of passage, what privilege, would we have to comfort us then? Well, soon we may be in the position to find out. As a Brexit deal fast approaches, the worst case could mean that this huge political entity has no power to protect Marcel in the UK (and thus our family) at all. It could mean Marcel loses his automatic right to work, it could mean us spending thousands of pounds for work/stay visas. Marcel could be sent out of the country, he could be denied a right to stay due to any given restrictions and regulations; marital status, earnings, level of education, sector of profession, tax contributions, year of birth, place of birth, anything. Likewise, depending on Europe’s response, my British self, may not be permitted to follow him. Our family could be torn apart.
Shortly after this ordeal I received a message from a woman very close to me, let’s call her Amnesty. Amnesty had been moved to message me after catching word of what had happened to Marcel. She explained that she lives in perpetual anxiety, battling feelings of inadequacy and fear because of the social perception, and limitations of her visa status as an African person. Despite being an articulate, highly capable possessor of a law degree, her career opportunity is inhibited. Employers often express they prefer not to hire individuals who do not have indefinite leave to remain in the UK. She has also found that many employers have ‘incompetent’ HR departments that require her to go through the dehumanising process of explaining the parameters of her rights. There are other things, such as her having no access to public funds. This means her status as a person with a disability is widely overlooked, and so further she struggles. There is no irrefutable entity such as the circle of yellow stars to shout for her rights.
Amnesty does not have a passport of any kind. If one doesn’t have a passport they must have, ‘come off the boat’, snuck their way in, right? And such a person is lucky to be granted a visa at all let alone think about public funds, right? It is socially acceptable to see a visa as a grand favour of UK government, and those who are blessed enough to have one should carry themselves in a manner of servitude despite their significant social and economic contributions. Those like Amnesty should aspire to one day be naturalized, for the highest freedoms to work, access services and travel. They may then bypass some of the hurdles and questionability of their otherness. In this case, Africaness.
Do you feel any more compassion now that I tell you Amnesty was born in the UK? That her birth certificate says so, and that her father is British? ‘The problem,’ is that her mother is not British, her mother is African. The absurdity continues. Because Amnesty is ‘illegitimate’, she cannot gain citizenship through her father (despite being raised by him) due to the year of her birth. Years of strife and thousands of pounds later, she has now been informed of a light at the end of the tunnel, the home office may now naturalise her. Her baptism is nigh (maybe). Here it is worth noting that like Marcel, Amnesty also identifies as black despite having a mixed heritage.
There are layers of understanding in this contemplation, just as there are examples of layers of privilege. Firstly, often when people are given the opportunity to be dissonant to the trials of their blackness, they often will. Many of us internalise discrimination against ourselves subconsciously daily, and unconsciously seek comfort in honorary colonial givings, (any scrap of whiteness) that essentially invalidates our ancestry and rights to intrinsic respect. Secondly, we can easily become conceited. Have you ever flicked past the visa section of an application form and thought, ‘I’m lucky I don’t have to deal with that shit.’? Have you on another occasion laughed at jokes about marriage for a passport? Additionally, who doesn’t have a passport, a smuggled or unregistered baby, a raft maker, right? Us Brits can go anywhere and do anything, can’t we? But how much pride should there be in simply being an honorary member of a group that terrorised and oppressed the world into needing membership for optimum survival? Brutality derived of colonialism is still played out in the daily mistreatment of poc, and also specifically the prejudices towards people whose documents are lower in the hierarchy (disproportionately also affecting poc). Let’s face it, if Marcel looked like an ethnic European, no one would have been asking to see his birth certificate. Amnesty’s birth on British soil is invalid for naturalisation, because her mother is African. As a result, her quality of life is drastically affected, her rights reduced to ‘favours’.
As black people and poc, I believe we need to be very aware of the challenges people just like us suffer. Blindness to, or haughtily revelling in, privileges that buffer our heritages (only so far, might I add), is cognitive dissonance and supportive of oppressive systems. Our society is still massively unjust, and still has much evolving to do. Human cognitive evolution consistent with us modern day humans began 70,000 years ago, and yet we have only recently come to (almost) globally accept the concept of racism as wrong. We need to pay attention in order to aide our cognitive evolution and thus eradicate injustices.