I was deeply honoured to be invited to speak at #NoDust2 by the wonderful Dr Kate Hammer (pictured with me, right). The event took place on Friday 27th January 2017 at The University of Roehampton.
You can read my spech below.
- I’m a black woman from East London.
- I’ve always had a strong sense of my African Caribbean heritage and identity.
- My mum was a teacher and community activist who ran anti-racism training and published books on the post-Windrush generation settling in Britain.
- My political awakening came in the mid-80s, aged 6, as a result of global anti-apartheid campaigns.
- Europe was not really on my radar as a child. Our holidays in Britain were to Bournemouth and Ramsgate. Holidays abroad were to the Caribbean and the United States where we had family.
- My first real experience of Europe came aged 14 after joining The Woodcraft Folk, a kind of laid-back left wing brownies/scouts whose motto is to ‘span the world with friendship’.
- With Woodcraft, I went on trips and summer camps to Italy, Germany, Spain. I met other tweens from other European countries with whom I became firm friends.
- Those European trips made a huge difference to my school studies. I understood that the Spanish I was learning in my classes could be used in real life and decided to take Spanish for ‘A’ Level.
- Then I decided I wanted to learn another European language and decided to go to Germany.
- Many of my Black friends in London thought I was crazy.
- Why would I, as a Black British 18 year old, want to live in the country of the Nazis?
- Especially considering I had visited the Dachau concentration camp aged 16, walked into former gas chambers and broke down.
- But the 8 months I spent in Germany after ‘A’ Level became the defining period of my life.
- 20 years ago today, January 27th, I moved in with the Groeben family in Frankfurt.
- Today, I am Godmother to their second daughter, in November 1997 a baby adopted from Guatemala, now a beautiful young woman of 19.
- In Germany, I studied the Nazi period, and would sit talking for hours with my au pair grandfather, a retired judge who had been forced to join the Hitler Youth as a boy.
- Through him, I learnt about the division, pain and horror that nationalism and facism cause.
- As a young 18 year old, I began to understand – for the first time – why the creation and continued existence of the European Union was so important.
- So when I returned from Germany, I went to university to study European Studies, I then went to do an internship with Claude Moraes, a British Asian Member of the European Parliament, and ended up becoming the speechwriter stagiare (intern) to Anna Diamantopoulou, then the European Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs.
- In Brussels, my nascent European identity finally connected with my Black British identity.
- The EU believed in equality between men and women, promoted anti-discrimination measures and gave a voice to people from minority communities.
- Being European allowed me to feel comfortable about being Black British.
- Before Britain had joined the European Community, England especially had been the country of slavery, the Empire and “no blacks, no dogs, no Irish” but becoming part of ‘Europe’ meant that, in my opinion, we became an outward-looking, modern, confident nation that embraced people from different countries, speaking different languages, living and working alongside each other in peace and harmony.
- Before Brexit, I was proud to be an East Londoner, British, Caribbean, African and most definitely European.
- 4.39am on the 24th of June 2016.
- My birthday.
- I had been up for over 24 hours solid having campaigned for Remain in the morning, rushed to a trainee barrister interview in the afternoon, rushed back home to campaign in the evening and then attended the count as a borough agent into the early hours.
- At 4.39am on 24th June 2016, I sat in the living room of my flat in Leyton, East London, with other local remainers I had campaigned with since the 21st of February, and we watched David Dimbleby announce that Britain was leaving the European Union.
- I went to bed at 5am tweeting that I hoped that both David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn would do the honourable thing.
- When I woke up at 9am, David Cameron had indeed resigned.
- I spent the rest of the day looking at photos of my stage in Brussels after university.
- Happy young Greek, Swedish, German, British and other former fellow stagiares smiled back at me.
- I burst out crying.
- The last 7 months for me have been the classic 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
- But I am very much still in the depression stage.
- The increase in racist attacks, xenophobia and hostility towards EU citizens who have lived in this country for longer than I’ve been alive has caused me to question my own identity.
- Am I, as the child of immigrants, welcome here in Britain anymore?
- We heard a lot about how if Britain left the EU then it would mean more opportunities for Commonwealth citizens – people like my Caribbean family – to come to Britain.
- But I never believed this.
- Immigrants are immigrants. I refuse to accept the divide and rule tactics that were used in the referendum to play off older, more established immigrant communities from the Caribbean or South Asia against the newer Eastern European arrivals.
- As well as depression, I also feel deeply embarrassed. On a recent holiday to the Canaries, I was happy – for once – for the curious locals to call me Caribbean rather than British. Before Brexit, I would have happily pointed out that I was born in London and was firmly British as well as Caribbean.
- What now for people like me?
- The irony is that that very German family in Frankfurt who welcomed me into their home 20 years ago today, would warmly welcome me into their home again today were I to decide I wanted to leave Britain.
- That is what the European Union did – helped a nationalistic, fascist country like Germany under Hitler to become the tolerant, open and international country it is today.
- I hope and pray that, once we deal with the grief and trauma of Brexit on our national psyche, Britain will become tolerant, open and international again too.