The recent vote by the government to push Brexit back has created more uncertainty for Brits living at home. It’s also left those of us living abroad feeling a little lost.
When I’m asked by my American friends to explain Brexit, I throw my hands in the air because I can’t keep up with the twists and turns. So rather than point them in the direction of data that could change on any given day, I laugh/cry at the comedy bits and cat memes that help to humorously summarise where things stand. But, as clever as they are, none of them can fully describe the damage the 2016 vote did — damage that has left me wondering if I’d want to move back to the UK any time soon.
Before you tell me where to go, my concern isn’t driven by the potential price increases or food shortages. That’s alarming, of course — and I don’t want that to happen. But watching Brexit from the outside has made me feel like I’m completely out of sync with the nation of my birth.
This is more than the result of me living abroad for years. There has been a fundamental shift in the Britain I left in the early 2000s. Back then it was a nation that was struggling — but trying in small ways — to forge a new 21st century identity, a global one. Ironically, I remember thinking then how much work “Cool Britannia” needed to do to become more inclusive. That nation feels light-years away from where we are today.
This isn’t a case of me harking for the good old days. I’ve always had a complicated relationship with the UK. I’m a Scottish-born child of Ghanaian immigrants. On one hand I was always “othered”; I was called the N-word and “w*g” all before the age of eight. On the other hand, I grew up in the 80s and 90s, and was inspired by journalists, athletes, actors, MPs and academics who looked like me.
Moving to the US forced me to embrace my uniquely British traits: the accent, the muttering, the dark humour — it was all mine. My husband, being an Englishman, didn’t have quite the same challenges with his identity, but he understood why I felt the way I did, and still does.
Given our family ties, it made sense that we’d talk regularly about moving back to the UK after we made the hop across the pond. Our vague plans became five-year plans, which became two-year plans. We loved our life in the US, but we also knew that if the political climate and shooting deaths in the US continued to spiral out of control, we could always go home. While UK’s knife crime stats were scary, we felt more capable of dealing with Britain’s challenges.
Brexit changed that in 2016. The racial under- and overtones of the debate left people – myself included – feeling unsure and exposed. More people were being subjected to that 80s-style racism again, including some of my friends. One of them was called the N-word by a passerby while just sitting in his parked van, right next to the town he grew up in. The last time he was called that, he was a kid — in the 80s.
So, I wasn’t entirely shocked at the Brexit result. I was surprised, however, when my husband suggested that we think twice about moving back to the UK in the near future — and we should certainly make no plans until we knew what was actually going on with Britain’s exit from the EU. He never said it to me, but in that moment, I believed that he needed to understand what the stakes were and see where the nation was heading.
When parliament voted against a second referendum this week, I was disappointed. I didn’t expect to have that reaction. Then I realised what I wanted had nothing to do with a vote on the EU. I wanted a referendum on us: Britain. I was looking for redemption; to see if Britons would reclaim — or rather claim — a future that includes and celebrates us all.
I’m still confident I’ll make my way back home to the UK; my husband and I will resume our conversations in the future. Whether Britain will finds its way remains to be seen. Figuring out how to heal the wounds we’ve created will take more than a referendum. It will require lots of honest conversations. But with the nation so focused on patching a deal together, I’m not sure the nation is ready or even willing to have them any time soon.
Christabel Nsiah-Buadi is a writer and radio presenter who features on CBC, NPR, MTV and American Public Media
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