When I first saw this cartoon, published in the Daily Mail, my first reaction wasn’t anger or indignation. It was fear. As a black African, it scares me that anti-immigrant rhetoric (heavily laced, more recently, with anti-black racism) has reached such a fever pitch in England that racist caricatures of black people can be published in national press to little public outrage. And, make no mistake, this is a racist caricature. Look up old, racist cartoons of black people and you’ll see the same indistinguishable features across the faces of each character. The same white ovals and comically full lips for mouths.
We’ve seen these pictures before and view them as relics of the past. They are roundly condemned. And yet, now that they’ve made a reappearance, there’s silence from the majority. Has everyone really become so inured to the dehumanisation of African immigrants that this is normal now? Yes, we all know that the Daily Mail is hardly a bastion of liberal thinking. But surely there’s a limit to what we can accept from those at the fringes of right-wing politics? We should, every single one of us, be outraged. But the lack of news coverage concerning this image suggests that few people are. Hence my fear.
The thing about cartoons like these is that they are never just cartoons. And the silence that receives them is never just silence. The only reason why the Daily Mail has been able to get away with this is because of the rise in England of the irrational fear of immigration. The consequent devaluation of the lives of people fleeing poverty and instability (as any of us would do, I can assure you, if we were in their position) has become extremely fashionable.
From Katie Hopkins referring to immigrants as “cockroaches” to foreign secretary Philip Hammond claiming “marauding” migrants are a threat to the English standard of living, it seems everybody wants to get in on some migrant-bashing. This appears to be reflected in the general population, too. I know to ignore the sort of people that spew hate in comments sections across the internet, but the violence of some of the comments is appalling with some going as far as calling for the murder of the immigrants.
In the seven years I’ve spent being educated in England, I’ve never seen this much racist xenophobia hit the mainstream. I’m not convinced that the language currently being used by politicians and civilians alike would have been acceptable a few years ago. Which means that views are changing fast, and for the worse.
So there’s an important question we should be asking ourselves: why, all of a sudden, are immigrants and refugees being perceived as a major threat to the English way of life? There’s no real evidence that they are what people keep saying they are. Figures from between January to March 2015 show that only four percent of Europe’s 185 000 asylum seekers applied to the UK. Hardly a “swarm”. Moreover, the number of refugees in England is, in fact, falling. It’s true that living standards across the Eurozone have been in decline, but this is hardly down to immigration. Yet immigrants are simultaneously scapegoated both for the lack of jobs and for benefit fraud on the part of the unemployed. In spite of these facts, the population is being invited to unite against a “threat” that hardly exists.
And so cartoons such as this can be published and hardly a ripple is caused. If the facts don’t convince you, you should at least be questioning how it’s justified to decide whether to respect a person’s humanity on the basis of something as arbitrary as their nationality (and, in the case of this cartoon, their race). Nobody chooses their country of birth, and Europeans aren’t any more deserving than anyone else of political and financial stability. This is especially true considering that European wealth was derived from the colonisation and exploitation of some of the countries from which refugees are fleeing.
I concede that the problem of immigration is a complicated one. No clear solutions exist. But I do know that the answer isn’t to demonise vulnerable people simply seeking better lives for themselves, as is their right. Nor is it to remain silent in the face of their oppression. I refuse to accept racist caricatures in national press as the new norm. So should you.