I was talking with my favorite American tonight about my family’s experiences in the United Kingdom during the 1960s.
My parents’ generation, West Indians who moved from the Caribbean to the Mother Country, is known as the Windrush generation after the boat that brought them to the UK’s shores in 1948. My parents landed several years after the Windrush and its migrant passengers, but British cultural pace being what it is, the same broad rules of marginalization and denigration applied when they arrived:
No dogs. No Blacks. No Irish.
You know where you stand when you see a sign like that. You know where you can rent a room, or not; where you can worship in peace, or not; where you can find good work befitting your skills and experience, or not.
My mother tells of earning less after RN training in the UK than she’d earned as a teenage schoolteacher in Jamaica. As the third of ten children, she was still expected to peel shillings from her wages to send back home so younger siblings could pay for their local college training.
My father volunteers far fewer stories about his first years in England, but training initially as a welder and later as a social worker, he also had plenty of experiences with White Britain and its limited expectations of Black people.
In 1948, Britain was just beginning to recover from the ravages of war. Housing was a huge problem and stayed that way for the next two decades. There was plenty of work, but the Caribbeans first clashed with the natives over the issue of accommodation. But alongside the conflicts and the discrimination, another process was taking place.
Excluded from much of the social and economic life around them, they began to adjust the institutions they brought with them – the churches, and a co-operative method of saving called the ‘pardner’ system. At the same time, Caribbeans began to participate in institutions to which they did have access: trade unions, local councils, and professional and staff associations.” —Mike Phillips, March 2011
White England’s explicit bigotry drove my parents’ generation and their elders to form a very tight parallel society, one where, often through informal church networks, they provided each other and other newcomers with housing, childcare, work or tips about how to get it, and short-term loans. They bought into property, business, and other ventures together, and they shaped a social platform for their children that the wider society could not or would not provide.
It wasn’t all bliss. It wasn’t even mostly blissful. But it was what they were empowered to build when their new society became honest enough to make its bigotry overt. Without explicit hostility, more of them might have spent longer entranced by the all-embracing rhetoric of empire.
There weren’t obvious casualties, not often. All through British history there have been occasional riots, literal witch-hunting, and raids of the Other. In 1719, for instance, disgruntled fabric weavers rushed through a market north of the Thames ripping and soiling the clothes of women who’d dared to wear material imported from India.
Before my family got to London, White Britons harassed Caribbean immigrants on the streets of Notting Hill under the slogan, “Keep Britain White.” More recently, we’ve seen clashes between Black and other minoritized ethnic Brits and police over the English version of “stop-and frisk” and many, many years of prejudiced policing.
But again, you know where you stand when unapologetically racist gangs are roaming the high street without consequence, when you never see a conviction for state violence, and when, though qualified and skilled, you can’t find suitable work because your name isn’t perceived as Anglo-Saxon.
Even in my own generation, lawyers are struggling to find placements as solicitors and barristers because hiring parameters haven’t changed in a hundred years and weren’t designed for people of their hue, culture, or class.
To secure a job interview, we had to send out 74% more applications for ethnic minority candidates compared to white candidates. Discrimination affected all minority ethnic groups. Differences between the minority ethnic groups included in the study (black African, black Caribbean, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani/Bangladeshi) were not significant.” —National Centre for Social Research
It’s not comfortable or safe to experience other people’s hatred. Sometimes it’s deadly, and often it hurts targeted people in more subtle and psychologically destructive ways.
Just as my parent’s generation discovered, though, explicit bigotry also offers people options: to acknowledge, engage, and change, or to build worlds within the world where even if we learn to navigate a hostile, resistant environment, we’re also creating spaces where we can breathe, love, and live without using that external society as our primary reference point.
It’s exhausting to never measure up because the measurements weren’t designed to take you into account. It’s also that much harder to deny the burning cross when everyone in the neighborhood feels its heat. While it shouldn’t take such a threat of violence to heighten people’s awareness, it often does, and the most useful question to ask at that point is What will we now do?