Mixed (race) couples through the Brexit looking glass

Mixed (race) couples through the Brexit looking glass1

by Elena Zambelli, Euromix Post-doctoral Researcher, 21 September 2020

Does race2 affect how people perceive the impact of Brexit on their everyday lives? And if does, where is this difference discernible, and what does it say about perceptions of belonging to the place which is, or becomes, home? Briefly, my research shows that race does indeed shape how people perceive the impact of this political decision on their lives, and their narratives reveal the workings of political affectivities sedimented through centuries of European and British colonial and imperial history.

Over the past three years, I’ve been conducting ethnographic research on the role of law in reproducing racialized hierarchies of power between and amongst citizens and migrants in Europe, and specifically in different urban sites across the Netherlands, Italy and the UK. Each of these countries shares a history of colonial domination of different parts of the globe, and involvement in the trade of enslaved people (albeit across different routes); in recent years, they’ve all adopted increasingly restrictive migration policies, within a political context largely dominated by right-wing political formations holding hostile views towards migrants and asylum seekers. Against these shared historical traits, each country’s colonial and imperial history is specific, inasmuch as specific are the forms in which race gets to be politicized (or not) in public debates.

Brixton Road, London, April 2019.

In the UK, the decision to withdraw its membership from the EU (i.e. ‘Brexit’) has been deeply influenced by the wish to ‘take back control’ of the country’s frontiers – a desire that some scholars have interpreted as an expression of a peculiar, ‘postcolonial melancholia’3 for Britain’s lost imperial prestige and power. At the institutional level, this popular decision has been particularly thorny to deal with, opening a long period of political uncertainty which, at the time of writing, has not been entirely solved yet.4 Amidst massive street and online protests against the departure from the EU, and reports of intimidation, abuse and violence against MPs over their handling of Brexit,5 violence against EU citizens, and British and migrant people who are classified and/or identify as Black or as People of Colour (PoC) escalated.6 It is during this time that I undertook fieldwork in England, mostly in the South East and London regions, and in some major cities in the South West (Bristol) and North (Liverpool, Manchester).

In my research, I’ve been exploring the racialised workings of the law by looking at the everyday experiences of ‘mixed (race) couples’ – i.e. couples constituted by partners whose bodies, heritage and/or nationality are socially ascribed to supposedly distinct ‘racial’ categories. More narrowly, I’ve focused on mixed (race) couples consisting of a partner ascribed to ‘whiteness’ and one to ‘blackness’. Interviews with them have always begun with questions on whether and how they related to the ‘mixed’ and ‘interracial’ couple labels. Subsequently, they’ve been invited to share their couple experiences in different domains – relations with kin and friends, pathways to living together (particularly if this entailed the migration of one of them), neighbourhood and school choice, mobility and safety; and to reflect on whether and how they considered that race had affected these experiences in some ways. I’ve also always included context-specific questions; in England, these concerned the impact of Brexit on their lives. To my surprise, few talked at length about the latter issue. Possibly, such brief commentaries reflected what journalists epitomized as ‘Brexit fatigue’ – a form of saturation with the dragging political debate over how to deal with the poll’s results. However, when partners did speak about it, they did so in diverging ways, expressing – as I contend – their differently racialized socialization and positionality.

White British and EU nationals associated Brexit with the anticipated loss of the freedom of movement ensuing from possession of EU citizenship. For the first, this amounted to losing the possibility to move in and across the EU at will; for the latter, it constituted a challenge to their permanence in the UK. For both, Brexit appeared to represent a radical rupture with the unrestrained mobility in space and permanence in place which they had been enjoying in virtue of their race and nationality. For British and migrant Black and mixed-race partners, however, Brexit was in itself a largely ordinary event; a cyclical manifestation of the structural racism permeating the UK state and society. Hence, even if at the core of the xenophobic rhetoric underpinning part of the pro-Brexit camp stood a largely white group of European immigrants, they recounted feeling challenged again in their right to feel at home in the UK.

In couples constituted by at least a first-generation migrant, this different perception of the meaning and impact of Brexit mapped onto attitudes towards the reliability of the documents supposedly enshrining their right to stay in the UK after Brexit (e.g. British citizenship; Permanent Residence Certificate). Whereas white partners largely looked at these papers as a property which, once acquired, would be inalienable, Black and mixed-race partners were far more uncertain about their long-term validity – a perception that the ramming ‘Windrush scandal’7 could not but exacerbate.

Finally, for partners in same sex mixed (race) couples, post-Brexit UK was associated with the risk of exacerbating homophobia and misogyny typically characterizing ethno-nationalist political projects. For Black and mixed-race partners, however, this anticipated danger was compounded by the racisms they had been, and still were, incessantly exposed to.

These observations do not have the ambition to portray an average mixed (race) couple’s perception of the effects of Brexit neither on its present life, nor on its orientation towards the future. What they can provide, is rather a glimpse of how partners’ differently racialized socialization and positionality can be revealed by looking at how they engage with contemporary political events, in the relentless shadow of colonial and imperial relations of power sedimented in history. Future research will possibly explore whether the differences here foregrounded will bear an impact on couples’ more or less constrained choice of where to make, and feel at home.

  1. This blog is based on original research published in: Elena Zambelli, “Racialized Affectivities of (Un)Belonging: Mixed (Race) Couples in the Shadow of Brexit,” Genealogy 4, no. 3 (September 2020): 83, https://doi.org/10.3390/genealogy4030083.
  2.  ‘Race’ in my research indicates a socially constructed category which has been used for centuries to hierarchically organize humanity into supposedly distinctive social groups. Notwithstanding its fictitiousness, race continues to bear material effects in the world, affecting subjects’ ‘sense of self, experiences, and life changes.’ Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness (London: Routledge, 1993), 12.
  3. Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 82.
  4.  The referendum was held on 23 June 2016. The UK left the EU on 31 January 2020, entering a period of transition ending on 31 December 2020 during which EU law still applies.
  5. See for example: https://edition.cnn.com/2019/03/21/uk/brexit-related-attacks-mps-taxi-intl-gbr/index.html Accessed on 5 May 2020.
  6.  Jon Burnett, “Racial Violence and the Brexit State,” Race & Class 58, no. 4 (2017): 85–97, https://doi.org/10.1177/0306396816686283.
  7. Alexander Finch, “Understanding ‘Windrush’: Legal Background and Practical Issues” (Fragomen LLP, 2018).

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