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"Racism and xenophobia became intensified by the referendum"

On 23rd January Professor Helen Cowie will speak about how aspects of xenophobia and xenophilia have played out following the Brexit referendum vote in Brexit Britain.
Helen Cowie

Professor Helen Cowie
Figure: Grant Pritchard

Professor Cowie, the Brexit campaign was highly divisive and the vote revealed a divided country. Where do you see bullying and cyberbullying played out in this context?

Helen Cowie: Bullying and cyberbullying emerge when there is an imbalance in power between individuals or groups or where certain people are perceived to be vulnerable. Bullies take advantage of this situation and abuse their power over others in a whole variety of ways, through physical attacks, verbal insults and social exclusion – behaviour designed to make the target or targets feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, worthless and endangered. The knowledge that has been built up over the years about dealing with school bullying and workplace bullying can be used, in my view, to counteract such negative behaviour. As I plan to outline in my talk, there are ways in which bystanders can be empowered to defend the victims of bullying and there are approaches, such as restorative justice, that help to change the climate of particular social contexts and that offer alternatives to violence and abuse.

Much of your work focuses on the promotion of emotional health for young people and on overcoming conflicts. The young generation in particular was overwhelmingly pro-remain and many responded angered to the result. And there is talk of a ‘generation let down’. How do you view this generational divide and how can young people best be supported in finding their way and voice in Brexit Britain?

I think that it is a tragedy that the government did not lower the voting age in the particular context of the referendum since it is the younger generation which will bear most of the burden of leaving the EU in the future. A divided Britain has definitely emerged post-Brexit. However, it is not on the basis of age only and it would be mistaken to fall into the same mind-set as prejudiced people who are using the Brexit result as an excuse for xenophobic attacks on people from other countries. Young people are not the only ones who feel angered at the result. Young and old in Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain, as they did N. Ireland and in London; those of all ages who work and study in universities voted to remain. In my view, it would be mistaken to polarise younger and older people. At the same time, I have always believed in enabling young people to find a voice and have been disturbed by recent apathy on the part of some young people who feel marginalised and excluded from the political process. But this form of moral disengagement will not help the younger generation. They need guidance in their schools, colleges and universities to debate and discuss the great issues of the day and get into the frame of considering a range of perspectives. They need opportunities to challenge prejudice when they encounter it and to step out of the role of passive bystander when they see a xenophobic incident. They need the experience of restorative practices in everyday conflicts and the opportunity to participate in systems of peer support and conflict resolution in everyday settings. Now more than ever it is important for young people to play an active part in post-Brexit Britain.

Since the vote, Britain has seen a rise in reported racially motivated violence and increased anti-foreign sentiment. The title of your talk juxtaposes a less talked about aspect – what has xenophilia to do with Britain leaving the EU?

Racism and xenophobia was already present in Britain but they became intensified by the referendum and it was as if the result gave people permission to express their prejudice against minority groups. Shockingly, since the referendum, there has been an upsurge of xenophobic attacks, often targeting eastern Europeans who came to Britain following EU expansion in 2004. The issue of immigration dominated much of the debate in the run-up to the referendum fuelled by sensationalist posters circulated by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).At the same time, it would be wrong to think that all British people are xenophobic. This is simply not true and many UK residents welcome the positive contribution that people from other European countries make to the UK. For many, the strong links with Europe have enhanced the sense of our European heritage and many friendships have been forged in the course of working collaboratively on projects with colleagues from other European countries. Xenophilia takes many forms and we should not forget that there have been many expressions of support for European workers and residents in the UK, such as a memorial march and services in honour of the young man who was murdered in Harlow, and donations to those whose premises have been vandalised. Organisations, such as universities and companies, have circulated letters demonstrating their commitment to the continuing partnership with Europe and affirming the value of their students and employees from different countries. So, we cannot deny that there is a tension in today’s Britain between xenophobia and xenophilia. We need to be vigilant and knowledgeable in our fight to retain justice and humanity in our society. In my talk at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, I plan to outline some of the approaches and strategies that we can use.

Interview: Johanna Zinecker

The lecture Brexit – Xenophobia or Xenophilia will be held on January 23rd at 6p.m. at the Center for British Studies of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (Mohrenstrasse 60, 10117 Berlin).

About Helen Cowie

Helen Cowie is Emerita Professor of Health and Social care at the University of Surrey, UK and acts as research supervisor for Regent's University. She is Fellow of the British Psychological Society and joint Chair of the European Network for Social and Emotional Competence (ENSEC). Her work focuses on child development and young people, in particular on the promotion of emotional competence and well-being, and she has specialized and widely published in the area of school-bullying, including cyberbullying and strategies on how to counteract them. Her most recent publication is the co-edited volume (with Carrie-Anne Myers) Bullying Among University Students: Cross National Perspectives, Routledge, 2015. Her forthcoming edited book is Bullying in Schools: Interventions and Prevention, to be published by Routledge in 2017.

Further Information


Catherine Smith
Center for British Studies
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Phone: +49 30 2093-99040