Race, Heritage and Epistemic Violence: What Brexit is for Africa and British-Africans

By Dr Foluke Ifejola Ipinyomi, Teaching Associate (University of Bristol Law School).

black_britain400In my personal blog, I examined in detail why many British-African voted Leave. It is my contention that the campaign failed to address the concerns of African citizens of the Commonwealth and those of African descent living in the UK. This was quite a considerable section of the electorate whose concerns were ignored or presumed. In fact some members of the Leave campaign petitioned to have this section removed from eligibility to vote, presuming that they would vote to Remain in the EU. Personally, I had an interesting time trying to counter presumptions made by various African friends about why they wanted the UK to leave the EU. I do wish I had said more when there was still time, but no one expects the unexpected. Ultimately, Africans voting to leave the EU was the result of badly run campaign, an enormous amount of misinformation and a glaring disregard of the history of Africa-Europe relations. The two primary issues that should have been addressed with regard to British-Africans were immigration and financial concerns.

Every African I spoke to who voted to Leave, expected and still expects that exiting the EU would improve immigration policies for Africans. This was not addressed in the referendum campaign. There is absolutely no evidence to show that this belief is rightly held. It should be noted however, that the free movement of people from Europe into the UK occurred alongside increased restrictions on people from outside Europe. These are points of concern for many Africans or people with African heritage with family in Africa. We must not forget the ‘migrant crisis.’ In a different blog I lament the EU’s reaction to the migrant crisis, especially in relation to African migrants. At Valletta, Malta, between the 11th and the 12th of November 2015, European and African Heads of State and Government held a summit on migration in an effort to strengthen cooperation and address the current challenges. There seemed to be within the political declaration from the summit, a presumption of what Africa wants/needs. This presumption was settled without dialogue with Africans or their leaders.

Another concern for British Africans is the volume of illiberal trade practices between Europe and African countries. At the EU/African summit in Valletta on migration Senegal’s President Macky Sall, accused multinational firms of tax avoidance and conniving at corrupt transfers of Africa’s resources costing countries many times what they receive in aid. This is coupled with the remittance [money sent ‘home’] to Africa from the diaspora [legal and irregular]. Africans use irregular means of remittance, sometimes due to the high charges imposed by Europe’s finance houses. However, it is believed that the remittances from the diaspora to Africa could amount to nearly €150 billion per year. These points were not addressed by the referendum campaign. They definitely weighed heavily on the minds of those who have to save a large part of their meagre UK salaries to send home.

As a result of the foregoing, I suspect there were a sufficient number of Africans who voted to Leave who could have swung the vote to Remain. Some voted out of hope, some, spite. As someone said to me ‘Let the Europeans go through the same things we go through.’ After the results there have been an alarming rise in racist events reported. Many Africans do not seem very bothered about this. Akwugo Emejulu, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, illustrates why that is in her excellent blog post about Brexit called ‘On the Hideous Whiteness of Brexit‘). I will return to her points.

Brexit and Africa

With the freefall of the pound and instability in the global marketplace, I cannot bring myself to believe that Leave was the best result for Africa or anyone. According to Alex De Waal, Brexit is a terrible result for Africa because it will result in security and financial worries. Ian Scoones believes that Brexit means that some African countries will encounter some limits on their trading, aid and diplomacy opportunities with Europe.

However, there are a considerable amount of people who think Brexit will have a good or insignificant effect on Africa. Grieve Chelwa believes that recession in the UK will have little impact on Africa, as he humorously states ‘If the UK sneezes Africa will … well Africa will say “bless you” and move on.’ Richard Dowden believes that Brexit is a political suicide that will have a limited effect on Africa. Levi Kabwato links Brexit to coloniality; he believes Brexit is an opportunity for African countries to renegotiate with the UK and Europe.

 Brexit and British-Africans: What next?

Prof Emejulu in her blog (mentioned above) explores the place of race in Brexit. She argues that the visibility of racism following the Brexit vote must not obscure the conditions for its possibility. She maintains that racism has always been a fact of life in the UK, but becomes more visible when, non-BAME citizens have been drawn into its net. Because the past affects the present and the future, we need to be honest about race and its discomfort. As another excellent blog post – ‘Being White and Reading African Studies at Oxford’ – has demonstrated, engaging with race as a fact and a construct is uncomfortable, but necessary. However, I suggest that ignoring the history of racial relationships amounts to epistemic violence. Epistemic violence was defined by Foucault and utilised heavily by Spivak to explain the muteness of the subaltern. Spivak suggests that epistemic violence damages a group’s ability to speak or be heard. For her the subaltern is the ‘lowest strata of the urban proletariat.’ In that sense by not addressing the concerns of British-African pre-EU Ref, the subaltern was silenced. By not engaging with the issues of race, and heritage and remittances, the subaltern’s voice is not heard. So that the subaltern can speak I suggest the following:

  • That we put discussions of race and heritage on the table and leave it there, talk about them, until we can move past the discomfort. Then keep talking.
  • Epistemic violence has to be de-escalated. The violence of epistemology is often not overt, however its constancy ensures that actual violence is inevitable. As we have seen with post-referendum racial violence. The Other becomes the enemy.
  • We need to acknowledge the fact that epistemic violence hurts both the brutalized and the brutalizer. It seems that in a bid to disavow the existence or legitimacy of the Other, a decision has been made that hurts us all. Silence brutalises as effectively as actual words.
  • Because epistemic violence speaks to power and knowledge and back to power, its cure lies equally in the hands of the state and academia, however, I believe academia needs to take a strong lead on this, especially due to the political fallout.
  • Finally, I suggest that academia needs to be actively engaging with all classes and races of people, as much as is possible, all of the time. While many of the ‘answers’ to Brexit may lie within constitutional law, we cannot ignore the socio-political causes and effects of Brexit. When we give voice to the concerns of all people, then the subaltern will speak.

Why does the subaltern not speak? Because we are not listening.

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