Racism. Work. Brexit. Empire

Racism. Work. Brexit. Empire

Stephen Ashe

In recent years, Business in the Community (BITC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) have commissioned two of the largest surveys ever conducted in relation to workplace racism in this country. Some 24,457 people took part in BITC’s 2015 Race at Work survey, with more than 5,000 participants providing personal statements. 5,191 people took the TUC’s 2016/2017 Racism at Work survey. No fewer than 4,833 participants used the open-ended questions in the survey to share their experiences of workplace racism.

In effect, both surveys archive the nature and scale of workplace racism in Britain during the hegemonic crisis that is Brexit (see Virdee and McGeever, 2016). What is more, thousands of workers have used these surveys to catalogue the extent to which the legacy of colonialism, imperialism and scientific racism continues to shape their everyday working lives.

Quantitative analysis of the 2015 BITC survey found 30% of participants had witnessed or experienced racist harassment or bullying from managers, colleagues, customers or suppliers in the past year. This was an increase in the levels of racist harassment and bullying reported 1-2 years ago and 3-5 years ago. Quantitative analysis of the 2016/2017 TUC survey found that over 70% of Asian and Black workers had experienced racial harassment at work in the last five years. Moreover, around 60% of Asian and Black workers, and almost 40% of employees from a Mixed heritage background, reported that they had been treated unfairly by their employer because of their ‘race’.

One of the things that immediately strikes you when you start to read the testimonies gathered by the BITC and TUC surveys is that many participants situated their personal experiences in the broader context of EU Referendum, Brexit and, to a lesser extent, Donald Trump taking office in the White House. Indeed, this is the political backdrop against which many participants suggested that racist ideas have been legitimised and the people subscribing to such ideas emboldened. Statements suggesting that we have gone back to the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s were also commonplace. And not just in terms of racism. A considerable number of people used both surveys to share their experiences of workplace sexism, homophobia, transphobia, disablism and class domination.

I have argued in an earlier Discover Society piece that imperial nostalgia was at the very core of the EU Referendum campaign. Nadine El-Enany has also shown that fond memories of empire have also been at heart of much political discussion since the referendum. In fact, some Brexiteer’s continue to argue that Britain’s return to prosperity and greatness is to be achieved through trade deals with our ‘Kith and Kin’ in the ‘Commonwealth’, while Whitehall officials have even invoked the term ‘Empire 2.0’ to describe their vision of post-Brexit Britain.

Both during and after the EU Referendum, repeated references were made to ‘our friends’ in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. Each of which are white settler colonies which came into existence through the violent replacement and subjugation of indigenous peoples. Racism justified such endeavours. However, a meaningful discussion of the state and street-level violence that greeted Britain’s ‘Kith & Kin’ once they had migrated to the colonial ‘Motherland’ after the Second World War has been largely absent from discussions around Brexit (See Ashe, Virdee & Brown 2016). Bearing this in mind, it can be argued that survey participants’ references to ‘going back’ to the 1950s, 60s and 70s are far from being chance. In fact, over one in ten TUC survey participants racialised as non-white reported that they had experienced racist violence in the workplace.

The personal statements recorded by both surveys also reminds us of the extent to which colonially engrained ideas and mentalities continue to shape people’s everyday working lives, especially in terms of the enduring nature of the kinds of racism highlighted by Nirmal Puwar in Space Invaders. Indeed, both surveys remind us that many workplaces in Britain continue to be structured by the historically informed hegemony of the white, ‘able-bodied’, heterosexual male.

Both surveys contain hundreds, if not thousands, of testimonies documenting the way in which people racialised as non-white continue to be thought of as ‘child-like’, ‘degenerate’ and ‘subhuman’. People racialised as non-white also continue to be positioned as belonging to places characterised as ‘dirty’, ‘wild’, ‘uncivilised’ and ‘backwards’. Whereas the 2014 European Social Survey found that 18 per cent of British people agree that ‘some races or ethnic groups are born less intelligent’, quantitative analysis of the TUC survey found that 25 per cent of non-white participants had been treated as intellectually inferior at work. Qualitative analysis of both the TUC and BITC surveys reveals that the idea of ‘competence’ is all too often associated with whiteness.

Across both surveys, the legacy of colonial racism was also expressed in profoundly gendered ways. This included encountering the racist stereotype of the irrational the ‘angry Black woman’ and Black women being pressurised, if not explicitly forced, to conform to white aesthetic norms such as having to ‘straighten’ their hair. Some Black women also reported being objectified by white colleagues who deemed it appropriate to touch or ‘pull’ their hair without their consent. Men racialised as Black also reported encounters where it was alleged that they posed a sexual threat to White women, while other Black survey participants reported being portrayed in hypersexualised ways.

A significant number of Muslim participants also drew attention to their encounters with imperially informed caricatures of their religion. Indeed, Muslim participants commonly reported that their religion had been essentialised as ‘aggressive’, ‘threatening’, ‘barbaric’, ‘violent’, ‘backwards’, ‘irrational’, ‘fanatical’ and inherently patriarchal. What is more, Muslim women testified that they had been racialized as ‘passive’ and that this fed into notions of sexual desirability. Colonially entrenched forms of racism also saw a number of men report being cast in the role of the ‘the dark Muslim male, sexually charged, violent [and] refusing to integrate’, while also embodying ‘a backward religion and dangerous inferior culture’ (Tufail 2015).

In short, these are just some of the ways in which the ideas that once determined the place that people racialised as non-white would occupy in the world continue to shape the economic and class realities of racialised minority people at work in twenty-first century Britain.

There is also another feature of the BITC and TUC survey data that can be immediately connected to the rhetoric and academic, political and media narratives in and around Brexit and Trump: namely, the suggestion that globalisation, deindustrialisation, neoliberalism and austerity have had a disproportionate impact on the ‘white working class’ (see Bhambra 2017).

Many BITC and TUC survey participants were attentive to the forms of everyday, institutional and structural racism encountered by their non-white colleagues. However, it was equally, if not more, common for participants self-identifying as white-British and working class to argue that it is they who have been ‘left behind’. In doing so, many participants alleged ‘reverse racism’, while stating their opposition to immigration, multiculturalism, ‘political correctness’ and workplace-based equality and diversity initiatives. Being disregarded and abandoned by the political class and the broader erosion of traditional forms of working class formation (e.g. trade unions) were also constituent features of such narratives. Some TUC survey participants even drew on reactionary discourses from the United States in order to contend that ‘All Lives Matter’; thus, obscuring the historical, structural and institutional nature of racism and power. Moreover, many survey participants interpreted current economic, social and political arrangements as threatening whiteness, masculinity and heteronormativity. More often than not, such narratives called for the conservation of the forms of privilege long bestowed upon white, ‘able-bodied’, heterosexual men.

Taken together, the BITC and TUC surveys attest that such arguments run parallel to a range of coercive and repressive measures taken against people who speak out or challenge racism and other forms of prejudice and discrimination in the workplace. Such arguments and practices are silencing. They are reflective of, if not profoundly informed by, a broader hegemonic apparatus which seeks to secure consent to the economic, political and cultural hegemony of the dominant class. Rather than exist in isolation, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and disablism are integral to this system of domination and control.

To conclude: colonialism and Brexit have played a central role in setting the broader coordinates of hegemony in twenty-first century Britain. Fifty years after the Race Relations Amendment Act outlawed racial discrimination in employment, the BITC and TUC surveys catalogue the way in which Brexit and empire continue to shape people’s everyday working lives.

The BITC 2018 Race at Work survey is open until 1st May. To take the survey please click here.


Stephen Ashe leads the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity’s Racism at Work Project. His co-authored report based on the 2016/2017 TUC Racism at Work Survey is due to be published in April. Stephen is also co-editor of Researching the Far Right: Theory, Method and Practice (Routledge Fascism and the Far Right Series, 2019). @sd_ashe

Image: Nick Youngson, Alpha Stock Images