Brexit, political rhetoric, and racially motivated street harassment

Recently, I’ve been feeling alienated and disenfranchised. I no longer recognise the rhetoric of this country’s leaders, or the image of Britain they are trying to project, and I no longer feel safe.  A woman was physically assaulted as she was shopping on Oxford Street – the perpetrator pulling down her hijab. This is an incident I fear highlights the potential for nasty physical culminations of our consumption of endless messages of alienation and hate. It represents the endpoint of a dangerous path we are now all – wittingly or unwittingly – travelling and a post-Brexit future where individuals are singled out as ‘Other’, violence is enacted, and passers-by are passive. 

The majority of rhetoric bandied about by the Conservative Party, leading ‘Brexiteers’, and the right-wing media when discussing ‘Brexit’ has been extreme. There has been a return to a fervent patriotism which separates ‘Us Brits’ from ‘Them Others’. The message is poured out in such vast quantities that I find it hard to see how it could not have an impact on the mind-set of the millions of citizens consuming this daily message. It has also had the effect of widening the parameters of acceptable debate to a place where it is okay for the Home Secretary to start a speech with “don’t call me racist…”

It’s difficult not to link rhetoric like this to a clearly racially motivated assault like that of the woman on Oxford Street. She had her hijab pulled down and was verbally abused. In an interview she gave after the incident one thing that stuck with me was how she was shocked that no one intervened or helped. The political discourse of individualism, protecting ourselves, and fear of the ‘Other’ has not only led to individual acts of violence, but an entire populace of indifference fearful to intervene when an innocent bystander is attacked.

Theresa May in her speech at the Conservative conference stated, “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” The idea that we belong to the nation state before we belong to a common humanity is not new but the way this idea has now been naturalised means that the boundaries of discourse and acceptable speech have shifted. It is implied in this statement that you cannot and should not believe that humans belong to a common humanity and it paves the way to racially and religiously motivated street attacks, and infringements on individual human rights.

I feel it is important to draw a link between popular rhetoric and its boundaries, increasingly of which it seems there are none, to demonstrate the implications it has on an individual’s right to walk down the street free from violence.Whilst it is encouraging to see Police tackling the issue, “racially and religiously-motivated crimes will not be tolerated” – it is not enough. We need to challenge this dangerous rhetoric on a daily basis, and disrupt its message.

Theresa May concluded her statement on citizenship by saying “you don’t understand what the very word citizenship means” well, our definitions obviously differ, but to me citizenship means belonging to a common place, humanity, and a humanity that stands up in the face of intolerance which our government is perpetuating. I call on you, and those in positions of power, to take up this responsibility, disrupt the narrative and the violent rhetoric which legitimises acts of violence, and stand besides victims.


Katherine Soroya is a co-site leader at Hollaback! Oxford. She is interested in political discourse and gender issues. @KatherineSo91

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