This post can also be read on my Medium page here.
Xeno-racism is a form of racism. Xeno-racism is not only, “directed at those with darker skins, from the former colonial countries, but at the newer categories of the displaced and dispossessed whites … It is a racism that is meted out to impoverished strangers even if they are white” (Fekete, 2001). In recent years, xeno-racists have become more visible thanks to two things — social media and Brexit. Digital forms of xeno-racism have had a huge impact on my self-identity. After all, I’m a Polish immigrant in the UK, whose identity and economic value have been in the spotlight of the Brexit debate. In this post, I’m trying to take a closer look at these changes and dig into the online xeno-racists narratives on Eastern Europans, Brexit, and my messy sense-of-self.
The mainstream media and their ongoing(and often conflicting) Brexit narratives of what it means to be a deserving human being have a huge impact on my sense of self.
In recent years, my identity construction (and deconstruction) has been heavily influenced by the information posted online. I’ve been defined, re-defined and then re-defined again by various people, institutions and media narratives. Digital traces of disregard towards Eastern Europan migrants can be found on social media, online news, and comments sections. For your entertainment, I’m using some of the most horrifying ones in this post.
When I first came to the UK in 2005, I was viewed as the hard-working Polish migrant. This popular view was linked to the phenomena of a “good [migrant] workers” — celebrated for their work ethics and most importantly, compliance (MacKenzie & Forde, 2009). Compliant, grateful and invisible — the perfect qualities of the working underclass. In fact, the label of a hard-working Pole also became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The process of creating and maintaining a ‘good Polish woman’ identity at the workplace ( Lee-Treweek, 2014) has also become an important element of my immigrant’s story (and led me to a burn-out, but that’s another story).
The problem with the Eastern European workers began when we became visible and heard (do not confuse with seen and listened to) in British society.
Within several years of Poland joining the EU in 2004, many of us began to search for new opportunities. For some of my friends, this meant leaving their initial workplaces (e.g. factories, hotels) and taking our Eastern Europeanness outside the “dirty work” realm. Often this meant getting a new job, going to university or starting up a business. As you’d expect, many decided to buy a property, start a family and/or climb the career ladder. All of a sudden, we became less-compliant and more visible — our otherness became less-compliant and more visible — our otherness became problematic. As a result of our increased visibility, the mainstream narrative on migration became increasingly negative.
In this new, xeno-racist reality, I was no longer only perceived as a representative of the hard-working Eastern European mass but also as one of the ‘Polish chancers’ who continue to steal jobs, jump queues and claim benefits (all at the same time, of course).
The anti-Polish migrant moral panic in the UK leads to nearly everyone having a view on immigration. Taxi drivers often tell me that Brexit it is not about me personally (I’m the good one) — “it’s about the others, who come here and don’t work”, they’d say. To my surprise, I’d also learn from some Polish folk that Brexit is not really about Eastern Europan migrants—” it’s about the refugees”, they’d say. It sometimes felt, during Brexit discussions, as if people around me could not decide who to blame for their sense of unworthiness.
Navigating the digital xeno-racist reality — who am I again?
The outburst of digital xeno-racism (and loads of other forms of discrimination which I won’t be able to cover here) sparked during the Brexit debate. My leftist social media echo-chamber did not protect me from seeing the anti-EU and anti-Polish content. Over the last few years, I have faced quite a bit of online abuse. This is in line with the Guardian’s recent article, which reports that, “online racism has more than doubled since before the referendum, to 51%, and there were rises of about 50% in the number of people reporting hearing people ranting or making negative comments about immigration or making racist comments made to sound like jokes”.
However, I also got online messages of support — some of which were well-meaning, but also a bit patronising. People would invite me to migration focused events, describing me as an example of a good migrant.
“Your migration story is so nice, you came here as a young person and look at you know, a university lecturer!” — they’d say.
Others would ask me to provide a comment (no longer than 100 words) on how I feel about “100 days to Brexit”, “50 days to Brexit”, “10 days to Brexit”, “no-deal Brexit”, “People's Vote Brexit” and so on. Most of these opportunities would provide me with a platform to share my story, but these hardly ever resulted in a real positive impact on migrants rights.
As these polarised digital debates on Brexit and migration continue, I keep trying to understand my current status in this country and my identity as a human being overall. In a sense, in the context [digital] xeno-racism, I’m unable to control or meaningfully challenge stories online.
So here is the question — who controls and defines my migrant’s identity? The producers of sensational news stories? The politicians who build their careers by spreading fear and hatred towards migrants? Or perhaps, the oppressive algorithm which knows exactly how to tap into people’s fears with regards to migration?
This quotation found in Lyndsey Stonebridge’s book “Placeless People — Writing, Rights and Refugees” perfectly sums up my uncertainty:
“I have not felt that I entirely belong to myself any more. Something of my natural identity has been destroyed forever with my original, real self. I have become less outgoing than really suits me and today I — the former cosmopolitan — keep feeling as if I had to offer special thanks for every breath of air that I take in a foreign country, thus depriving its own people of it’s benefit…”
(Stefan Zweig, “The World of Yeasterday”)
I strongly believe that Brexit anxiety is a form of bereavement of “core elements of self-identity and fundamental values” (Browning, 2018). For me, being an Eastern Europan migrant in the UK is an ongoing and complex process of ‘identity in search of itself’ — both offline and online.
Digital xeno-racism and hundreds of other forms of injustice keep me on my toes. It is possible that in amongst the Brexit fear and uncertainty, my new identity is slowly emerging.
Browning, C. S. (2018). Brexit, existential anxiety and ontological (in) security. European security, 27(3), 336–355.
Fekete, L. (2001). The emergence of xeno-racism. Race & Class, 43(2), 23–40.
Lee-Treweek, G. (2012). Managing ‘dirty’ migrant identities: Migrant labour and the neutralisation of dirty work through ‘moral’ group identity. In Dirty Work (pp. 203–222). Palgrave Macmillan, London.
MacKenzie, R., & Forde, C. (2009). The rhetoric of the good worker’ versus the realities of employers’ use and the experiences of migrant workers. Work, employment and society, 23(1), 142–159.
Stonebridge, L. (2018). Placeless People: Writings, Rights, and Refugees. Oxford University Press, USA.