As an African American woman living in Texas, every morning I hold my breath reading the news, bracing myself for what terrible violence against black women and girls might confront me. Last Friday, I was relieved to scan news sources and find no pictures of black women or girls beside headlines about beatings, arrests, or shootings. Instead, the news was filled with Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. When I let these stories sink in, though--I realized this, too, was bad news for black women.
No one was saying it, but the reverberations of Brexit may be harshest for black women and other women of color living in continental Britain and its overseas territories.
Led by conservatives, the “Vote Leave” campaign was built on racist, xenophobic rhetoric that blamed an influx of immigrants—including formerly colonized Africans and Caribbeans—for overtaxing the health care and school systems. “Absolutely devastated. Under the racist, anti-immigration stance that has been put forward by leave, British people have decided our fate,” black London activist Amina Gichinga tweeted after the vote. Brexit will directly the impact the “fate” not only of the 1 million black women of African and Caribbean descent who currently reside in England, Scotland, and Ireland, but of millions of women in predominantly black overseas territories of Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, and Turks and Caicos.
Premised on racism, “Vote Leave” was fueled by sexism. Campaigns were heavily male-dominated, leaving Caroline Lucas of the Green Party to bemoan the preponderance of “men in grey suits” and Labour Party’s Mary Creagh to warn of the dominance of the “old boy’s club.” Now, the effects of “Vote Leave” success will be not merely racist or sexist but patently misogynoir.
Here are 3 effects on black women being too easily overlooked:
1. Britain’s exit from the EU will cut programs available to working-class women of color. Black intellectuals and politicians Aisha Gill, Jacqui Dyer, Florence Nosegbe, and Adeola Fadipe were among women who authored the public letter “For women of colour, the EU equals hope.” As the authors pointed out, exiting the EU means the exit of European integration and structural funds which supported anti-racist projects and regional services the British government refuses to back. “For that we are grateful,” letter writers acknowledge, “for it allows creativity to blossom in the inner-city deserts where many of our communities live.” Cuts in inner-city services will disproportionately effect people of color in general and women of color in particular, who are most often responsible for providing education, health care, and housing for their families.
2. The xenophobic “Leave” campaign reinvigorates racist fears of black women’s uncontrollable heterosexuality. Answering charges of xenophobia in the “Leave” campaign, one man wrote: “So called ‘migrants’ have over taken Europe and the USA is going down also. Statistical facts document the declines in every area of these cultures.” The statistical declines he refers to are likely in white British natality. While overall birth rates rose in Britain over the last decade, black activist Nina Steele contends: “All the figures show that people born in or raised in the UK aren’t having many children, if at all. Immigrants are really the ones behind this birth rate.” Common to both the US and the UK, the stereotype of the black woman breeder lurks behind the “Leave” campaign’s tirade against immigrant population explosion. Researcher Annecka Marshall explains: “Within social policies stereotype exists of women who migrate to Britain and are then too lazy to work. It is claimed that instead of contributing to the British economy we have too many children and are social scroungers.” In building frenzy around exploding populations of color, Brexit gives credence to misogynoir myths that not only solidify prejudice against black women but encourage policing our bodies and fertility.
3. Brexit leaves black transwomen and lesbians with fewer legal protections. Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, Director of UK Black Pride, expressed she was “concerned” the morning after the vote and queried: “The trajectory of the future, what does it look like now UK vote to leave the EU?” As in the US, transphobic and homophobic violence is on the rise in the UK—up 22% in the past year. While statistics on anti-LGBT violence aren’t broken down by race, the steepest rises came in urban areas with large black populations. Jonathan Cooper, Britain’s leading expert on international LGBT human rights law, notes that at this precarious moment, the only recent LGBT equality legislation in Britain comes from EU laws and regulations. Moreover, laws that protect queer migration—that is, that allow LGBT folk to seek asylum or join partners in the UK—will be nullified. So black transwomen and lesbians will be increasingly kept out of the UK, then left vulnerable to violence and discrimination when they find their way into the imperial center.
I wish I could end with a bit of hopeful distancing: but England is so far away from us black folks here in the US! Sadly, we know it’s not. Brexit is a sign of the same xenophobic, misogynoir backlash that’s bolstering the Trump campaign in my home state. Unfortunately but not unrealisitically, Brexit has me prepared for more troubling headlines of violence against black women in this year of history-making elections.