From Exotic to ‘Dirty’: How the Pandemic has Re-Colonised Leicester

From Exotic to ‘Dirty’: How the Pandemic has Re-Colonised Leicester

Bal Sokhi-Bulley

I have always known it as Melton Road. The street sign says Belgrave Road. And the brown and white tourist attraction sign says ‘Golden Mile’. These street names feel metaphoric for how we see, or at least saw, Leicester. For some, like me, it was familiar, home; Melton Road was just where we went to eat out and window shop for jewelry and clothes. Melton Road is called the Golden Mile for the rows of jewelry shops that adorn it; many of these owned by East African Asians who emigrated to the UK in the 1960s and 70s from Kenya and Uganda.

Set in the East Midlands, Leicester is the exotic heart of Britain; a ‘city of diversity’ that sells the idea of Britain as an integrated, inclusive, multicultural society. But in the last few weeks the story has changed.  Leicester was the first area in the United Kingdom to face a second, or local, lockdown on 29 June 2020 following a significant resurgence of Covid-19 (with a current daily incidence measurement of 16.3 per 100,000 population). Literal red lines were drawn around areas of the city – including all areas of Oadby and Wigston, parts of Blaby District and Charnwood – penning people in.

To say that it is the virus that has colonised the city, by drawing lines on a map as colonisers do, is too easy. It is more than that; this is about a government that has drawn lines around its national shame and produced dirt out of exoticism by neglecting its people. It is a re-colonising of Leicester – where the combination of the virus and state mismanagement has produced a narrative that this is ‘the sweatshop of Europe’, containing irresponsible BAME communities and tyrannical factory owners.

The double-sided colonial gaze, capable at once of defining attraction and revulsion, has reverted from exoticism to a representation of Leicester as ‘dirty’, lacking reason, initiative and even kindness. The pandemic has revealed that other side of the colonial gaze, which turns the exoticism of black and brown British citizens into dirt. The anthropologist Mary Douglas defines dirt as ‘matter out of place’, as a sort of disorder of things. Leicester was always out of place in white supremacist Britain; now it is out of place as it represents mismanagement of disease.

‘How can this have happened in Britain?’, asks Anushka Astana on the Guardian’s ‘Today in Focus’ podcast, where senior reporter Archie Bland describes this as one of ‘the most shocking’ stories he’s worked on. The story goes that manufacturers in Leicester’s garment factories have been recklessly flouting lockdown rules to keep up with the heavy demand of fast fashion and satisfy relentless online retailers like the now infamous Boohoo. The conditions in which workers have had to work are alarming; they have been paid below the £8.72 per hour minimum wage (sometimes as low as £3.00 an hour); they have been forced to come in to work even when diagnosed with Covid-19; they have been threatened with lack of pay for not showing up; they have been subjected to furlough fraud.

Who are ‘they’? These are women from African, Asian and minority ethnic communities. Media reports describe them as amongst the most vulnerable in our society; some not able to speak very good English, many coming from Leicester’s Gujarati community (who incidentally received poor guidance on how to respond to the pandemic); some perhaps undocumented. Why is it so shocking? Because these people are effectively working in sweatshops; if this were, say, Bangladesh you’d be less surprised. But this is Britain. We promote exoticism not dirt; we respect our workers, we don’t dispose of them.

I confess to it being hard to imagine the area of North Evington as the ‘garment district’, as it now being called. It was just ‘home’. I went grocery shopping with my grandmother on the now infamous St Saviour’s Road, which was adjacent to the road I lived on. In the opposite direction to Kooners (the grocery store) was the Crown Hill’s playground where my granddad often took me. It is hard for me to separate the personal from the political here. But then, why should I? As a product of the labour of grandparents who worked in these very garment factories and in other industries of the city of Leicester, it is personal.

As Bennie Kara, author of Diversity in Schools, recently tweeted, it is hard to come to terms with the spreading of the inevitable logic of ‘brown people spread disease’ that the government’s penning in has produced. As Claudia Webb MP for Leicester East has stated, there is a blaming of black and ethnic minority communities here; hence her call to reject this blame and to focus instead on the racial and class inequalities that working class people, migrants and minority ethnic communities suffer – which means they are already at greater risk of exposure to Covid-19 and suffering its worst effects.

How do we respond? First, with recognition that this is about the hostile environment; Leicester’s lockdown reveals the disposability of certain lives – black and brown lives that are having their labour exploited in the name of exoticism, only to be branded as dirt. This is evidence of what El-Enany calls the ‘colonial theft’ of labour and culture. To say that the focus on race is ‘cultural sensitivity’ that has stopped the police from addressing the sweatshops in Britain’s fast fashion industry, as Priti Patel did last weekend, is to distract from the hostile environment. These same ‘cultural sensitivities’ did not prevent institutional racism within the UK police, nor the cultural neglect that has created the conditions for the factories to thrive in the first place.

Many workers have the immigration status of No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF); many are not eligible for statutory sick pay; they are employed by firms with no union recognition, and that lack health and safety provisions. Moreover, the same hostile environment that makes Britain unwelcoming towards illegal immigrants extends this hostility to all those it deems do not belong (because, as in this case, they are diseased) and who are not desirable because they represent disease. As Ben Rogaly discusses in his recent blog, questions of space and place arise: ‘What does this place stand for? To whom does this place belong?’ It stood for diversity; it belonged to us. Now it stands for dirt; it belongs to the re-colonisers, who get to define us as dirty. The place is Fanon’s ‘crouching village, a town on its knees, a town wallowing in the mire.’

The situation in Leicester raises huge human rights issues. Demands to enforce the minimum wage for all garment factory workers in Leicester, to work with trade unions to protect and promote labour rights and to strengthen the Modern Slavery Act to require due diligence on the part of large companies and fashion brands must be made. Yet this, and the urge to create and promote more rights and protections cannot be all.

Now more than ever we need to pursue the radical potential of ‘friendship’ as a way of life; a mode of life that creates culture, to respond to disposability with recognition and that sees the imperative ‘take care of yourself’, so often cited in our personal responses to Covid, as taking care of the other from whom we are estranged. ‘The bigger question’, says Anushka Astana in the Guardian podcast, ‘is about society’. It is about the way in which we consume goods. I add to that that it is also about how we treat the black and brown estranged other of British society – not with abandonment and caging in, but with generosity, kindness and right treatment. Something more akin to ‘love’ – a doing, as bell hooks terms it, rather than a feeling. We need to become friends; not in the sense of companions or buddies but in a sense where we respect the ways in which we are estranged and the ways in which the behaviour of the other may have betrayed us (by going to work, by not ‘staying at home and saving lives’).

This is the potential of radical friendship; to offer a critique of the hostile environment and indeed of the distraction that rights discourse itself presents as a response to it. Radical friendship requires a coming together. At the intersection of St Savior’s Road is East Park Road, where (turning right) you come to Milan’s – the vegetarian sweet shop that almost every visit back home entails a stop at. ‘Milan’ means union, or meeting, in Hindi. How do we respond? We must meet, or come together, or unite against ‘blaming’ our black, Asian and minority ethnic communities who have been made ‘dirty’ by a hostile environment. As Rogaly has suggested, nothing frightens them more than unity.

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger (Routledge: London, 1966) 36.
El-Enany, Nadine. (B)ordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire (MUP, 2019).
Fanon, Franz. The Wretched of the Earth (Penguin: London, 1963) 30.
hooks, bell. All About Love (HarperCollins: New York, 2001).


Bal Sokhi-Bulley works at the University of Sussex, where she writes and teaches on human rights. Her book, Governing (Through) Rights was published in 2016 and presents a Foucauldian reading of rights and citizenship in the domestic, regional and international context. Her current research interest is in exploring radical critiques of rights and citizenship using the concept of ‘friendship’. Some of her latest contributions, most recently a critique of the Shamima Begum case, can be found at Critical Legal Thinking.