The Curse of Being a Second-Class Citizen

The frustration of EU citizens living in the UK is easy to understand. Many of them have made their lives here, have contributed with work and taxes for many decades, have raised families here and now feel pushed out. However, as Helen de Cruz points out in this article, it is part of a widespread (and now officially endorsed) xenophobia 

Unless, of course, you are very rich, in which case you can arrange a visa or naturalisation deal, not many questions asked about where your money comes from. But for those of us who are neither wealthy nor (some of us until quite recently) EU citizens, it will sound very familiar indeed. We have always been second-class citizens, even in the eyes of EU citizens living here. The Greeks and Spanish looked down with disdain on the newer EU countries, forgetting that when they joined the EU in the 1980s, the French and Germans looked down on them. And that’s just those of us who have the same colour skin and a shared European history. Can you imagine how they felt about those from different continents and with darker skins? As writer and academic Sunny Singh explains in this Twitter thread, it is disingenuous and requires some intellectual acrobatics to pretend that Brexit is not ‘really’ about hatred of pesky immigrants and foreigners. EU citizens are now experiencing this prejudice for themselves and it’s something that they are not used to – or at least, not since the 1950s/60s. But I cannot feel Schadenfreude. I was the second-class citizen who strove to give my children the opportunity to never have to feel inferior, so it makes me sad. And I also believe it’s a dangerous time to allow hateful rhetoric to create divisions between ‘desirable’ and ‘less desirable’ immigrants.

Lunar House, Croydon

It’s not that English (and Scottish and Welsh and Irish) people are not welcoming individually or in batches, but the UK administration as a whole has not made our lives easy at any step of the way. Think about the humiliations, queues, lack of understanding and incompetence you have sometimes encountered at the Job Centre and multiply it five-fold to get an approximate idea of the frustrations of getting your visa renewed at Lunar House in Croydon (a name that strikes fear in the heart of most of us immigrants or students). The amount of paperwork and official invitations and payments required to get your elderly parents to visit you (and no, they do not want free NHS treatment, as they think that Romanian doctors are vastly superior – or at least those of them still living in Romania, as many of them are working for the NHS). Same applies for other countries: I know many Greeks or Polish friends who go back ‘home’ to get their teeth fixed. Out of the 7 dentists at my local practice, 6 are from an immigrant background (India, South Africa, Vietnam and Greece, in case you are wondering). But you’d better be careful and not stay for too long outside the UK with your medical problems, otherwise you will not qualify for your indefinite leave to remain… Then, because the UK is not in Schengen, even if you have a one-year student visa here, you will still need visas to visit the rest of Europe, often having to prove that you are covered for travel and health insurance, that you have a certain amount per day of spending money, that you have an address where you intend to stay while visiting that country or maybe a letter from a company or conference organiser if you are there on business.

Queues at Lunar House

And of course there are some people (including politicians, who really should know better but cannot resist pandering to the voters) who are blaming immigrants for all of the things which don’t work in their society. There are quite blatant personal attacks in the media and on the street, but even if you haven’t experienced them personally, there is plenty to give you pause for thought. I conducted a sociological experiment during my training courses with a large UK company: in half of the (completely identical) courses I stated I was Romanian, in the other half I emphasised my Britishness. Guess which courses got higher scores in the feedback forms? Then there are the ever-so-subtle, sometimes unintentional questions which give you an insight into a deeply entrenched way of thinking:

‘What a pretty name? What does it mean?’ – why, does Jane or Sheryl mean anything

‘But where are you really from?’ – just because you were born in Watford doesn’t mean you really belong there

‘I thought I detected a trace of an accent there…’ – although they didn’t at all, not until you told them that you were an immigrant

‘What was that language you were speaking with your child?’ – and how dare you speak it in front of us

‘I’d never have thought you were ___, you don’t look/sound/behave like your other compatriots’ – how many of them have you met and got to know

‘No, of course we were not referring to you, you are all right, but all those other ___ should go off home’ – you’re the exception which confirms the rule. but woe betide if you don’t behave!

‘So are you thinking of leaving the country now after Brexit, don’t you feel you are too cosmopolitan for life here?’ – perhaps you should be, you are too exotic and don’t belong

Soon it will be the turn of the British citizens to feel second-class in Europe. My father was a negotiator during the accession of Romania to the EU and he would tell you how hard it is to fight against the combined interests of so many countries. After protecting the interests of Spanish textile industry, Greek fruit farmers, French and British farmers, Swedish and Finnish timber industry, steelworkers everywhere in the EU, there was not much left for Romania to trade. Most of its industries and businesses have been acquired by international owners and so most of the earnings go out of the country. And yet Romanians are still in favour of the EU – because they recognise that the alternative would be worse.

There is a strong likelihood that Ireland or Malta will mop up any of the English-speaking, low-taxation-loving US companies for their European headquarters. If the British negotiators don’t get their act together soon, they will be severely depleted by the EU team – and so a vicious circle of blaming and hatred will start up again.  I’m not sure that the UK can compete with labour in Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary, which is still cheaper (and more productive), although giving up on any laws to protect workers’ rights might help.

I’ve become used to being a second-class citizen everywhere I go, even in Romania (because I have spent too much time abroad and speak with a slight foreign accent).  I am less happy that my children might be viewed as second-class citizens too (their Greek name over here, their British passport over in France or Germany). My sons prefer the English language but can speak three others, they support the German and French football teams, love the Greek sea and the Romanian mountains, want to study in France or Switzerland maybe… What we feel is European and we had been hoping that these meaningless nationalistic affiliations would disappear and we could feel loyalty to our local communities and the larger Europe instead.

42 thoughts on “The Curse of Being a Second-Class Citizen”

  1. So, so sorry you’re having to put up with all this crap, MS. I keep hoping the Brexit nightmare will go away but, even if by some miracle that happened, that wouldn’t solve most of the bureaucratic nonsense and certainly not the street bigotries.

  2. Awesome post, invoking for me, an inveterate meritocrat, all kinds of exasperations. In fact, what you have brilliantly and poignantly described in your post is just a specific example of the widespread practice of looking down on others by those who just happen to have some inherent advantage they didn’t work to get in the first place. Never ever they would start by asking: what do you produce? how do you contribute to society? do you have any special talents? The first thing they want to find out is whether you belong or not. I can easily imaging them talking to such second-class citizens as Vladimir Nabokov or Joseph Conrad (and both of them speaking with an accent, yikes!) and shaking their heads at their not belonging.

    1. I remember reading somewhere that having a strong accent (regardless of how fluent you are in English) automatically makes people rate your IQ as far lower.
      I suppose the points-based system they propose is supposedly about meritocracy, but it is not realistic, as so many degrees/qualifications are not recognised in the UK and who has the money or time to redo them over here?

  3. So well put Marina, and we should be moving away from this kind of divisiveness. Nobody is a second class citizen in my eyes, certainly not you, and I relish being able to mix with people from all different parts of Europe (which I do every day) – it’s enriching and the thought of us severing ourselves from the union is awful. Why we are persisting with it is beyond me. 😦

    1. Because no one wants to admit they are wrong? When I heard Boris Johnson on the radio this morning say that there is no vacancy for a Prime Minister, I thought to myself: yes, because nobody wants to be responsible for this mess… so they will blame the woman. Not saying that she handles it well, though…

  4. This is such a powerful statement on the way too many people think, Marina Sofia. As you point out, not everyone has those xenophobic, provincial attitudes. But they are there, and you can sense them soon enough. What’s worse, from my perspective, is when they cohere and become a matter of policy, or at least, common practice. I’m very sorry to hear you’re having to deal with all of this again.

    1. Sadly, both of our countries seem to be degenerating into this kind of ‘officially sanctioned’ hurtful and divisive rhetoric. Role modelling from the top and so on.

  5. I may be writing this too soon, but my recent experience in England has been… complex to say the least. Even though I may pass for English (and I say this as if it were a good thing), you can tell I’m not English as soon as I open my mouth. All people have been welcoming to me, especially people at the British Public Libraries and at my university, but sometimes there was something more, and it was not a case of lost in cultural translation. At fist I thought it was paranoia, but then was it? Or was I a second-class citizen? I was definitely not considered ‘white’, and it showed. However, I had very pleasant and interesting experiencies with people in the UK, who all happened to be descendants of immigrants.

    1. Goodness, no, it’s not your fault. As I said, I’ve found many friendly and helpful individuals or groups, it’s the system that is not easy. And it infuriates me that they ever display it as easy, that immigrants are taking advantage of it etc.

      1. The tabloids with their increasing hysteria have a lot to answer for here. Quiet voices of reason tend to get drowned out. I hope things improve soon for you.

        1. Ah, it’s not so much a cry of pain from me, because (as I said) I’m used to it. It’s new for the French, Italians, Germans, Austrian, Spanish friends that I have here. But yes, I think the tabloids have been creating a frenzy and it’s shocking how much the politicians of all stripes have pandered to them.

  6. Hi Marina-Sophia, back in 1999, I came back to England for a funeral, I was pretty cut up about it. I flew from CDG to LHR, going back I forgot my jacket, left it at the funeral, didn’t notice when I got to LHR, hopped on my flight and only noticed both my jacket and passport were missing when I got to the border check in Paris, I expaimed to the policeman who just shrugged his shoulders and waved me in.
    Can you see that happening today!
    In the 80’s I stopped needing a work permit.
    Then in 2003 within the EC, the need for a permit to stay in another nation was waived.
    Yes the non ending queues, the papers without a single scratch mark on them, the trips to the préfecture, i can honestly say that we weren’t treated all that well either (but not unfairly) all of that was behind me.


    1. Ah, you see, I’ve never been waved through… But on the other hand, when I moved to France things had become far easier and I never needed to do anything other than register my business online and then apply for my carte vitale online. Still, when it came to paying taxes in two countries, it got complicated… If you ask me, EU integration hasn’t gone far enough with taxes, pensions etc.

      1. After 9/11, I now need my carte vitale to go to the US it’s the only proof they accept that I live in France

  7. All the “anti” rhetoric is heartbreaking. In the US there has always been tension with Mexico for complicated reasons but now it is directed at everyone who wasn’t born here and even people who were born here who are obviously “ethnic” ( read not white). The US prides itself on being a melting pot, a country of immigrants but it seems to have forgotten all about that. My great-great grandparents were immigrants and they were hard working farmers. People in the US love to “trace their roots” back to their countries or origin while denying anyone else the opportunity to make a new life today. What is going on here and in the UK is so very sad and I am sorry to hear you have been on the receiving end of some of it. Hugs.

    1. I’ve got a background in anthropology/sociology, so I can’t help but be fascinated by this contradiction (and frightened at times). Research has shown that sometimes the 2nd-3rd generation of Italian immigrants in Switzerland for instance are more vehemently anti-foreigners than the ‘native’ Swiss. Also, that the areas which have far fewer immigrants are usually the ones that are most violently xenophobic.

      1. Interesting point. I have a friend who is descended from first generation Italian immigrants to the UK and he shocked me by voting for Leave because of the ‘problem’ of the immigrants!

      2. That is really fascinating. Regarding areas with fewer immigrants being more xenophobic, we definitely see that in Minnesota where I live (and I believe in the rest of the US). In my state that mostly means small rural communities. But I heard a news story not so very long ago about a small town that is losing population trying to reverse the trend by being more inviting to immigrants and it is working. Perhaps not all is lost.

        1. I know some abandoned Italian villages have got immigrants to live there and give it a new lease of life. So I suppose it works… until the first negative news comes out of a place like that.

    1. I don’t want to inspire pity. Not all of this has happened to me personally, I have also incorporated some of the experiences of my friends. And of course others have experienced far worse. It just seems very different from the tolerant society that I believed I had found when I first came to the UK.

  8. Marina, thanks for sharing your very well-written insight on the immigrant’s experience. I found it poignant and thoughtful. It’s such a pity that some people don’t realise that we are the same wherever we are or wherever we go or whatever the colour of our skin. The world needs a lot of compassion and acceptance.

    1. Oh, well said, my dear! People should always be judged on an individual level – one by one, rather than by race, nationality, class, education etc.

    1. I think what Lady Fancifull says in her comment below is spot on: in a high-density community we rely more than ever on others, and on mutual respect. But we seem to be regressing rather than progressing in this regard…

  9. MarinaSofia, your carefully dispassionate and precise post of course hit the target. Whilst I know that not all who voted leave did so for indefensible reasons, certain politicians and certain papers absolutely bear responsibility for stoking the dangerous fires of xenophobia. I guess part of our animal heritage as a small tribe species is a distrust of strangers, i.e. anyone we don’t immediately know. But, living in community should
    teach us that we all rely on the kindness of strangers and have deep bonds, one to another. Any kind of horrible tragedy, and any kind of small mishap, shows that – strangers come forward to offer help. What is so troubling is concerted attempts to foster that division between peoples into a division which says the stranger is not just the individual you do not (yet ) know, but this group of people, with this label, whatever the designated label is.

    I suppose an island, a large island, felt it did not quite need to understand its neighbours in quite the same way as some countries with more fluid borders. Hence, our rather shameful expectations that all should speak English (or, more accurately, American) but we might not need to learn another language. A cursory look at our own history though shows, like I guess the history of most countries, that we all come, at some point, from somewhere else. And what we might call ‘our’ culture is composed of a creative mix of influences. I

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I think the island nation state has contributed to that (it certainly also contributes to Japanese notions of uniqueness, rather than comparing itself to its Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai neighbours.

  10. Everyone’s comments are well-said. Over here in the States, a lot of xenophobia and racism has accompanied the election campaign and then presidency of someone who promotes bigotry. So, certain groups slithered out from under their rocks and have been more blatant, even violent, against immigrants or people who defend them. In Portland, Oregon, three men came to the aid of two teenagers, one of them wearing a hijab. The young women were being harassed by a white supremacist. He killed two of the men and seriously wounded the third. This is maddening and heart-breaking.
    Some people here have forgotten that everyone, except Indigenous people and people of African descent who were brought here involuntarily, is a child or grand-child of immigrants or descendants of earlier immigrants.
    And I have heard that since Brexit passed, that harassment of immigrants has worsened in Britain.
    The Grenfell Tower disaster comes to mind. Many of its residents were immigrants or children of immigrants. Why were they in a building with a flammable covering? Why are they not being heard now on what type of inquiry they want? Why do they feel they’re not being told the truth about the number of fatalities?
    Why are people who live in Kensington Row’s luxury housing showing contempt for poorer people who lost everything, perhaps relatives, in a terrible disaster, at the thought some will live there in the “affordable housing” section.
    And on and on.
    Everyone with a conscience, compassion and ethics has to speak up.

  11. I just think there’s been a disgraceful lack of leadership in this country across the political spectrum. It is only now that we are leaving that many people are finding out all the things we will be losing. Great post.

    1. Yes, a lot of the things they are talking about now makes me want to shout: yes, it was obvious, why did you not discuss it before the referendum?

  12. Fascinating post.
    Sad situation in UK but seeing how many voters the despicable Le Pen got here, we are not in a position to give lessons.

    Plus from what I’ve heard, it’s not that easy to get French nationality even if you’re British, have been living here for 25 years, have been married to a Frenchman for about that long and have three French kids…

    I think UK law is too lenient towards the trash press. If companies made advertisements as misleading as some articles during the Brexit campaign, they’d be in court for false advertising. But the press gets scotfree.
    Is there a crime of “advocating racial hatred” in the UK because here, there’s one..

    1. You are absolutely right that the press has been appalling – but I think politicians were quite happy because it played into their hands. They seem to care more for press and opinion polls than for the country’s future (and we all know how quickly public opinion can change, so opinion polls are a very bad basis on which to fix your policy).
      Most of my British friends in France are applying for French nationality – and have lived there for much shorter periods of time, so I am surprised that you know of such cases. I even know of a 15 year old who applied for French citizenship after living in France for nearly 10 years, although neither of his parents are applying for it.

  13. Thanks for this moving post. I’m saddened and angry at this situation, which is somewhat similar in France. I do wonder when things got worse. It seems to me somehow that prejudice and racism were always there, but that now people aren’t afraid to say it out loud, which is a vicious circle. What do you think?

    1. Yes, that’s exactly it. At least political correctness kept things a little bit in check, made people think twice before opening their mouths, but now it seems like anything goes, because they’ve seen politicians and newspapers spouting such rubbish.

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