Ahead of our Being European festival next week, Xavier de Sousa talks to us about otherness, togetherness and the damage that’s already been done.
On otherness and the EU Referendum
I am currently sat in the outside area of Federation cafe, the best coffee place in Brixton Village – FACT! – and around me I see a plethora of ages, ethnicities, culture backgrounds, accents, skin tones, nationalities, sexualities and genders.
A few years ago, I was so happy to live in Brixton, with its vibrant nature and cultural significance. It was here that the riots against Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax policies changed history. David Bowie was born and lived here. It is here that you find the best food in London – FACT! – and it is also a place that foments a sense of community, togetherness and, yes, diversity. Today the mood is sombre. Brixton is changing, rapidly. And most of its’ current residents are sooner or later being forced out due to higher rent prices and the threat of a EU exit.
Sitting with me are my two good friends and usual collaborators, Milda and Amelia, both also foreign and living in England out of their own choice. Amongst talking plans for a community project we are working on with the local library, we talk about things that are currently in our minds: men, landlords, our work at the Tate Modern next week and our summer plans. Everything is going well, we are quite happy even if we keep descending into derogatory comments about landlords and, yes, men.
Then, Milda, with her brashfully endearing Eastern European bluntless, drops ‘the bomb’.
You know the bomb.
The ticking bomb that is currently not only in the back of our minds, but all around us, all the time, everywhere. Omnipresent. At the front of our minds.
We can hear it ticking
when we wake up
when we open our Facebook pages
when we engage in discourse with our friends
when we walk through the streets and hear people discussing it
when we see the articles shared on social media shared every day,
when we turn on the TV
when we go to the cinema
when we open the newspapers
when we go to the local Tesco Express to buy the morning supplies
when we have coffee in your local coffee shop and the bartender asks you how you are doing today
when the bartender keeps asking you how you feel about the referendum
when we are at work planning performances in other countries
when we speak to our families
when we open Grindr (or Tinder)
when people mispronounce your name
when we try to register to vote
when people ask you where you are from
when we get invited to participate in panel discussions about the bomb itself
when we tick boxes on funding applications to justify our artistic outputs
when we take the bus
when we take the tube
when we read the Metro (not the Standard. Never the Standard)
when we brush our teeth
when we wash our armpits
when we look out of the window
when we ride our bikes through Central London
when we walk down the streets
when we enter a newsagent
when we enter Boots
when we fuck
after we fuck
when we awkwardly say goodbye and promise to call back
when we avoid our family’s phone calls
when we wait
The ticking is everywhere.
All the time.
We know when it is going to explore.
We don’t know the outcome of it yet. But we know one thing: it has so far been a very damaging experience.
On a personal level, my idea of borders and nationality is completely bias.
I was 11 when the EU opened its borders. My father used to take us around Europe in his car every Summer. Each day it would be either me or one of my sisters in the co-pilot seat commanding the driver on roads to take. I was 9 when we started to do it and quite frankly, sometimes I hated it. I just wanted to be home and read my X-Men comics in peace. But now I value that experience so much. From the ages of 9 till I was 16, we travelled all over the continent, discovering new cultures, meeting new people, tasting new foods, learning new songs and dances, making new friends.
It was around the same time that the internet started to arrive in rural Portugal and as a curious child, I became completely obsessed with expanding my knowledge on the world. My concept of where I belong was always focused on internationalism, a trans-national identity. The village was where I lived, but Europe is where I belong. And this is something that my generation grew up with, perhaps more so than the generations before us. Because we saw Europe opening up as we grew up, as we tried to make sense of the World.
And perhaps because I also never really felt at home in rural Portugal. There was always a sense of ‘otherness’ to that experience, like I didn’t belong there and wanted to go and explore other regions, other ways of living. And so I did.
But that feeling of otherness is yet to be overcome.
And it has recently gotten much worse. Because for the past two years, specifically, we have been surrounded by a nation-wide discourse on us. Migrants. Not ‘people’, not taxpayers, not workers, providers, artists, friends, lovers, collaborators. Migrants.
I did my show, POST, as an attempt to reclaim some meaning to the word ‘migrant’. And for me, being a migrant means that I have a broad understanding of the world, that I don’t confine myself to the idea of nationalism, of national identity, or even of national pride.
Because nationalism and borders are discriminatory, colonial concepts and we in Europe (specially both Britain and Portugal) should know better by now than trying to keep reinforcing systemic colonialism on our people. Border limitations are an archaic concept, institutionalised to enforce disadvantaged people into thinking that the place they live in is theirs. It is never theirs, it always belongs to someone else, someone more powerful. And those at the top don’t have any regards to borders, for they trample over them all the time.
Having said this, there is a constant conflicting sentiment within me that sort of understands why people like to preserve their ‘territory’. But territorial conquest is, again, intrinsic to white culture. We like to conquer, colonise and maintain. Yet, we do not like to accept when others try to do similar and the consequences of that are so damaging to our neighbours, that it only reinforces privilege and status, over democracy and freedom.
In the arts, there have been both cases for Remain and Leave. The main case for Remain is that it allows for us to access networks of support, funding opportunities, collaborations and easier access to theatres, festivals and audiences that otherwise we wouldn’t have. Everyone from within the EU is free to move from country to country and make shows as they please. Speaking from experience, I have to reinforce this notion: without EU support, a lot of our industry would be dead on its feet. The idea that we can survive with just our meagre Arts Council funding is a delusion. My friend and producer extraordinaire Jo Crowley has written about it much more eloquently than I ever could so have a peak at her article for more in-depth analysis. (LINK)
The case for Leave in the arts is mainly that this is not fair on non-EU artists, who don’t have the same privilege. And I think this is exactly where the crux of this whole issue is: privilege. I could never agree with this argument, because whilst I agree that it enforces a sense of privilege on some artists versus others, the answer cannot be to curtail EU artists’ rights to move and work and live because others can’t do so. The freedom of some can’t be curtailed because others are not free.
Because what will happen if we leave is that only the privileged few artists who already have institutional support from the organisations rich enough to bring them into the country would be allowed to. From that point of view, then surely the way forward would be to lobby for the EU to enforce freedom of movement for all. Not Brexit.
At this point, Milda and Amelia are upset because earlier in the day, they got ‘looked at’ and heckled at on the streets, simply for not being ‘obviously’ British. Having been born a gay man in rural Portugal, I know this sentiment. The feeling that you are not part of it, no matter how much tax you pay, no matter how much you integrate in this culture, no matter how much you try. The looks on the streets, on the supermarket, at work, the questioning, the talking and the consequent disenfranchisement… I feel it again, particularly today.
The reason I am writing this blog, is to let you know this: no matter the outcome of the EU Referendum, a lot of damage has been done already. How can it not, when everyone is talking about us, discussing us on TV, in the media, on social media, on the streets, in Parliament… Everyone is talking about us and voting on us.
And whilst you might argue that technically the debate is not about us but about the UK’s membership in the EU, then think again. For any debate that is about sovereignty, control of borders and market forces is deeply and fundamentally rooted in discrimination.
Me before you.
Ours before yours.
Us before them.
Not even Us and Them. This is just you.
We are other. And that feels oppressive.
We are not allowed to engage in the conversation, not allowed to vote on the matter. And in the meantime, we listen to all of this noise, all of this disturbance, of you talking about us everywhere, without asking our opinion, thus creating a bigger gap between us and everyone talking about us. And that feels oppressive.
I have the power to vote back in Portugal. I choose not to, as I don’t think it is fair. I don’t live in the country, I don’t pay tax there and I haven’t worked there in a long time. I do all of that here, yet I am told that I am not a citizen. And that feels oppressive.
The migrant experience is already one riddled with doubt and uncertainty. For all this talk on the EU, make no mistake: this has a massive influence on how the migrant communities see themselves in this country: as non-participating but tax-paying and probably unwelcoming citizens. And that feels oppressive.
When I moved to the UK, I really wanted to be a part of it. So much so that I lost my Portuguese accent and started to think in English. Recently, I have come to regret that, for even if I wanted to, I would probably be quite bad at getting my original accent back. Realising this mistake made me feel quite futile, redundant. Because it has been, throughout my experience in the UK, a point of connection with British people. My accent. The thing that makes people feel like I am not a foreigner, a migrant. And that feels oppressive.
Against much advise, I decided this year that I wouldn’t apply for British Citizenship.
I want to stay in this country, but I don’t believe in citizenship due to one’s place of birth or nationality. And I certainly don’t believe in a country with closed borders. So, I am letting it go and accept that other people chose for me. In a couple of weeks, I will know the answer. Let’s hope we are all certain about what we are doing.