‘It’s full of all them bloody foreigners, innit!’ exclaimed my travelling companion on the U1A. At the time, I couldn’t decide which was more ironic: the fact that she said this in response to discovering that my apartment complex was populated entirely with international students, or that our initial conversation began because she’d instantly clocked my American accent.
It’s something I’ve noticed a lot in British people and it’s evolved into a game I like to play when I’m out; determining whether someone will notice my accent after a few minutes of light conversation and casually ask where I’m from, or if—2.5 seconds after I say hello— they’ll exclaim, ‘You’re not from around here!’ as though their own British-ness depends on their ability to pick out foreigners like some sort of accent bloodhound. (In case you’re wondering, this particular passenger fell into the latter category).
That’s why, still struck by the irony of her earlier comment, I threw her a bit of a funny look because, well… I’m a foreigner. Not only did she instantly grasp the meaning behind my look, she visibly recoiled and exclaimed, ‘No, not foreigners like you, love! You’re not really one of them immigrants.’ And that’s why I’m still writing about this exchange a full three months after it happened. I’ve never, in person, encountered a better example of the racism behind Britain’s immigration debate. She’s right—by the ‘typical’ standards we use to categorise people who have immigrated to this country, I’m not an immigrant. I’m not seeking asylum, and, though I’m no fan of the political climate in America, I’m not living in fear of being deported to a home country that might kill me for my gender identity or sexuality. My country isn’t on a hot-list that necessitates my registering with the police upon arrival in the UK (as a number of my classmates from predominantly Muslim countries have had to do). I haven’t fled a developing country in the hopes of making a new life for myself, or risked my life in my desperation to cross the UK border.
In those terms, I’m not a ‘real’ immigrant because I certainly don’t lay claim to any form of the struggles people in the above categories have experienced. But, if we define an immigrant simply in terms of one who has left their own country for another, who comes to England seeking a new home, and if these are the parameters through which we characterise the overwhelming post-Brexit spike in racial prejudice and fear of immigration, then surely I, as a white, cis, American female coming to this country for education, should likewise be discriminated against. Except I’m not. What my exchange on the bus so brilliantly illustrates is the fact that it’s often not about that simple definition of immigration. It’s not even about fear of losing British jobs or losing British culture, both of which are frequently claimed. Instead, it seems it’s most often about race, that the immigrants who are feared are the ones who don’t look like you, who have different cultures and ways of life than you. In many cases people fear, and even hate, what is foreign to them.
The passenger in this case may not have realised that’s what she was openly admitting to, but I think that’s precisely why we need to call attention to it. If your definition of an immigrant, and subsequent opinion of them, is based on the colour of someone’s skin or the culture from which they come, it’s time to take a good, hard look at your own prejudice.