I moved to this country 21 years ago this July. I moved a lot as a kid but, aged 17, England represented the toughest period of adaptation I’d ever experienced. Maybe it was just my age. Maybe it was my accent.
I remember walking down the street outside of my new home on the very first night and saying "hello" to a passing neighbour, out walking his dog. I remember being distraught that his response was to recoil, and hurry past, never returning my greeting.
I remember being looked at suspiciously, and being the butt of many innocent jokes from my peers. I remember being intimidated by those same jokers when they saw I'd stopped laughing. I remember being ambushed by six of them one night on the way home from a fair. I remember the punches and the kicks that left me on the ground bleeding, my girlfriend screaming for them to stop, their laughter as they took turns.
I remember curtains twitching in the window of the house outside of which the incident happened. I remember that nobody came to stop it.
I remember that I didn’t call the police, because I feared it would only make things worse.
It was 1995.
I also remember being reassured by the Protection from Harassment Act of 1997, the Crime and Disorder Act of 1998. I remember the rhetoric around them was one of a Britain that was modernising, that was moving beyond racial, ethnic and other divisions. A multicultural Britain, celebrating its values of tolerance and openness.
In 2012, I applied for, and was awarded, British citizenship. Having made my family here, and having adopted this country as my home, I could no longer sit by unable to take a full part in the electoral process. I’d never missed a local or European election, but I’d never voted for an MP. I’d never voted in French elections, either. It felt morally unsound to vote on matters that wouldn’t affect me directly.
As a politics teacher of 13 years’ experience and a lover of democracy who taught and modelled British values long before Michael Gove recognised their necessity, not being a full citizen was simply untenable.
It is immaterial what I voted for and think of the result of the referendum. What is relevant is that in the course of the campaign, we have all witnessed a new rhetoric about immigration that goes well beyond reasonable border controls. What is clear from social media and press reports is that this travesty of leadership has validated many people in the expression of racist views. A taboo has been lifted.
In many places around the country, this means children are a little less safe. They imbibe the attitudes they see modelled by society at large – the parent, the media, the politicians, the man in the street, the teacher. It would be naïve to expect them not to absorb these divisions.
Figures may never fully reflect the levels of racism’s impact among the young because, like me, they may never report it, but what threshold of evidence do we need before taking action? Prevention is better than cure.
I am in support of calls for the nation to accept the result and to move on. I may disagree with what that means exactly, but I know one thing for certain: moving forward in denial of the impact of this campaign on certain groups is not moving on. It is doomed to fail.
One of those groups is our children, and we have a duty to them – each one of them. If that isn’t the strongest argument there is for every school and every teacher to rethink their role and embrace their responsibility to teach and model citizenship, then I don’t how to convince you, but I will keep trying. That’s democracy, and that’s why I love it.