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22 June 2023

Was Windrush a dream or a nightmare?

The story of black Britain cannot be reduced to a myth.

By Tomiwa Owolade

Black Britain is in a state of flux. The Windrush story, which began 75 years ago today when HMT Empire Windrush docked in Tilbury, Essex, is ending. The majority of black British people are no longer black Caribbean, as those aboard the Windrush were. Today black Britain is mostly black African – as a result of immigration from Africa to Britain over the past 25 years. Black Caribbean Britons have also intermarried with the white British population, and by the end of this century most of the descendants of the celebrated Windrush generation might be visually indistinguishable from white British people.

Windrush may have heralded the beginning of post-war British multiculturalism, but it is a myth that it was the start of multiracial Britain. Black and brown people have lived and worked and loved in Britain for centuries. They were here in Victorian England. In Georgian England. And in Tudor England.

Post-war immigration to Britain also did not consist only of black people. There are twice as many Asian people in Britain today as black people (though Asians were often categorised as black in the past when the term didn’t just refer to continent of origin but had a more political valence).

And finally, the ethnic background of the people on the Windrush – black Caribbean – now constitutes a minority of the black British population. Most black British people come from a black African background. They largely come from west African countries such as Nigeria and Ghana, but also Somalia, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

But myths still matter. When Windrush is described as foundational to a new, multicultural British identity, the aim is to glue disparate parts of the national story – so fractured in recent times – back together. You can see why Windrush is chosen. The story slots neatly alongside other British myths. Out of those passengers’ experiences emerged the first flowerings of a distinctively black-British culture. This culture was first established by the descendants of the Windrush generation but is open to black people of all backgrounds. Indeed it is open to British people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. It is black and British. It is found in sport, music, television and language.

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Those who docked at Tilbury on 22 June 1948 looked jubilant. For many of them, this was a return. Around half the passengers had served in the RAF or had worked in munitions factories during the Second World War. This was a homecoming: all of them were British subjects carrying British passports. Anglophone Caribbean territories were still crown colonies and overseas territories of the British Empire rather than independent nations. They were coming to the motherland.

Yet the same day the ship arrived, eleven Labour MPs sent a letter to Clement Attlee, the prime minister, in which they argued that controls on black immigration should be put in place. Tom Driberg, the left-wing Labour MP and later chairman of the Labour Party, greeted some of the arrivals, who were staying in a bomb shelter in Clapham, south London. “Britain is not a paradise,” he said to them. He added that “you have been warned that there may be difficulties caused through ignorance and prejudice, but don’t let it get you down. Try and stand on your feet as soon as you can.”

[See also: The quiet revolution in black British identity]

The responses from the white British natives to the new influx of “coloured immigration” were mixed. Many of them were opposed to immigration from the Caribbean for straightforwardly racist reasons. In 1955 the outgoing prime minister, Winston Churchill, suggested to Tory colleagues that “Keep England White” would make a good campaign slogan for a general election. (Churchill was ignored.)

Across Britain the Windrush generation encountered vicious racism. There were race riots in Notting Hill and Nottingham in 1958. The Antiguan-born carpenter Kelso Cochrane was murdered in May 1959. The infamous slum landlord Peter Rachman overcharged black people while putting them in awful housing conditions in Notting Hill and north Kensington. Schools discriminated against black children by categorising them as “subnormal” and putting them in special educational units. Hostility in the Church of England led black Caribbean people to instead embrace more evangelical branches of Christianity.

All of this made the new arrivals feel alienated from the society they had been taught from birth to view as their motherland. They thought they had a special affinity with Britain. They were told so in their schools; the British monarch was their monarch, British geography was their geography, Shakespeare belonged to them no less than to white English people. But they were made to feel like hostile invaders.

Pressure, released in 1976, was the first feature-length black British film. Written and directed by the Trinidadian-born filmmaker Horace Ové, it depicts a dystopian Britain. But the source of the dystopia is nothing like the nightmare totalitarianism of George Orwell’s 1984. Ové’s characters are Caribbean people, and their nightmare is racism; it pervades every crevice and corner of his characters’ lives like an imperishable toxin. The protagonist is a teenage boy called Tony, and everywhere he goes, from trying to get a job to simply walking on the street, he is the victim of blatant racist discrimination.

In the decade after Pressure was filmed there were riots in Brixton and Tottenham in London; riots in the district of Toxteth in Liverpool; the New Cross fire and the institutional indifference to this tragedy. The 1990s – a time of optimism for many white British people – was marked by the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, and the MacPherson report of 1999 that gave a working definition of institutional racism and applied it to the Metropolitan Police. The threats that Tony faced in Pressure continued to be violently realised two decades later.

It can be tempting, given these events, to view the history of black people in Britain after the Second World War as one bleakly unwavering sequence of oppression. This has often been the story told by successive generations of academics, writers and pundits, particularly those on the political left. In this telling the enduring fact of racism undermines any case for viewing multi-ethnic British society positively. The Windrush dream became a nightmare.

That dark picture needs to be reconsidered. Nobody could deny that racism still exists in Britain but we have made progress on many fronts. In 1983 more than 50 per cent of British people declared that they would not marry someone from a different race. This is far from the case now; interracial marriage is common and overwhelmingly supported. According to an Ipsos poll in June 2020, 89 per cent of British people agreed that they would be happy for their child to marry someone from a different ethnic group (and 70 per cent strongly agreed). In January 2009 it was 75 per cent (with only 41 per cent strongly agreeing). The poll also found that 93 per cent disagreed with the statement “to be truly British you have to be white” (with 84 per cent strongly disagreeing). In October 2006, 82 per cent disagreed with that statement (55 per cent strongly). Ten per cent agreed with the statement in 2006, only 3 per cent in 2020.

Black British people are not an anomaly but a mainstream part of British cultural life: from football stars like Bukayo Saka to musicians like Little Simz, from Conservative politicians like Kemi Badenoch to Booker Prize winning novelists like Bernardine Evaristo, from award-winning screenwriters like Michaela Coel to comedians like Mo Gilligan. A list of black British success stories doubles as a map of British institutions, from literary prizes to prestigious football clubs to positions of political power, that have accommodated and made space for black Britons.

I understand why making the case for optimism is dangerous. I don’t want to be callous about or indifferent to the racism that is still experienced by black British people. More to the point, anyone who suggests we live in a post-racial society is wrong. Racism still exists. For instance, last December the London Fire Brigade was put into special measures by the chief fire inspector, Matt Parr, after a report that found examples of misogyny, racism and bullying. The Casey report in March this year concluded that the Metropolitan police was racist, sexist an homophobic. But the kind of racism that happened decades ago is rarer because we as a society have grown more sensitive to prejudice.

Racism is not an all-pervading force. Black people should never feel guilty for trying to integrate. The Windrush generation have themselves integrated in terms of music, film, sport, comedy and politics. They have also integrated in the most visceral way: many of their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren are mixed-race. The story of the black British is as much a story about Britain and its ancient yet adaptable traditions and institutions as it is about black people.

The future is difficult to predict. Because we are so attuned to the culture of America, our understanding of race might continue to be defined by dire pessimism, the racial angst of summer 2020 repeated ad nauseam. I hope for something more optimistic. Not complacency about racial inequalities in our society, but a recognition that the legacy of the Windrush generation is more than black people being the victims of racism. It is also a more racially integrated society. Some of this legacy vividly lives on in the form of Multicultural London English, which is not simply the preserve of young black people but of young people across the country.

Despite some of the struggles faced by black people in the past and today in Britain, there are real grounds for racial optimism. Britain is far from perfect, but it is one of the best places to live in the world as an ethnic minority. The Windrush dream lives on.

This is Not America: Why Black Lives in Britain Matter is published today by Atlantic Books.

[See also: Is the future of Christianity African?]

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