A week after the Brexit vote, I attempted to corral my thoughts, rein in my emotions and say something about what had happened, and what it might mean. I talked in particular about what was already being reported as a spike in racist abuse and attacks, just in those first few days, often explicitly linked to Brexit – ‘we won, why are you still here?’ and so on.
At that point, this was something I was reading about in the press. But as I’ve talked to friends and colleagues since then, it’s become apparent that it’s happening right here. Of course, why wouldn’t it? How could we imagine that we would be immune? That’s what prompted this sign, in the window of the Hicks Building, home to the Physics & Astronomy department at the University of Sheffield, a place which celebrates the global nature of science and academic study.
This is just one incident. It happened to someone I know, someone who spoke with passionate articulacy about what it meant, personally and for his colleagues and fellow citizens. It happened yards away from the sign pictured above, it happened whilst I was revelling in music at the start of Tramlines, which seems to me to sum up everything I love about this city, it happened close at hand, in my city, at my University.
Matthew Malek had a near miss with a driver going at an unsafe speed. There were minor remonstrations, as one might expect. But when the driver shouted ‘“Learn how we walk in this country, immigrant bastard!”, the nature of the encounter changed radically. Matthew is a British citizen – irrelevant, apparently, because he has a New York accent, and his features show his Egyptian (Coptic) heritage. What struck Matthew most was the use of the word ‘immigrant’ as an unequivocal term of abuse. ‘He spat the word in precisely the same tone that I have heard others use the slurs “nigger”, “faggot” and, on occasion, “Jew”. It is a tone adopted for the express purpose of degrading and demeaning.’
The driver seemed ready to translate verbal abuse into a physical attack. Had this happened in a less public place, at a less busy time, with fewer CCTV cameras to record the encounter, he might well have done so.
Matthew has lived in the UK for over a decade and this is the first time anything of the sort has happened to him. He shared his account because he felt it was important that people know that ‘the rising tide of racism’ is on our doorstep:
We have all seen the news reports of a rise in racial violence over the past month… but it is not just happening somewhere “out there”. It is happening right here, in Sheffield, in a Northern city that celebrates its friendliness and its strong ties to community. It is happening right here, on our university campus.
We celebrate our internationalism, we draw students and staff from all over the world. And having welcomed them here we want them to be safe, we want them not to feel afraid, not to feel alone. We can and must be witnesses, we can and must speak out, we can and must stand with each other. We have far more in common than that which divides us.
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