Race Matters

Windrush is Us

How should we commemorate 22 June by Dr Omar Khan

This year, June 22 marked the 70th anniversary of HMS Windrush landing in Tilbury Docks. A year ago ‘Windrush’ would have meant little to most people (especially non-Caribbean people) in Britain. It is perhaps fortuitous that ‘Windrush’ is now more widely understood, that these mainly (though not all) Caribbean passengers on that ship, have become part of our national story. The sad irony, however, is that that awareness of the British Caribbean experience and the racism they experienced has emerged precisely because of the recent unjust discrimination they experienced from the state.  

Being part of the national story is an improvement, not least seeing a wide range of people from all backgrounds and parts of Britain recognising and affirming the Caribbean contribution. And symbols matter, especially formal or institutional national symbols. So we can welcome the government’s recognition of Windrush Day, demanded for nearly a decade. But we can also ask: are these symbols enough, are they merely symbolic, and what about the symbolism of the government agreeing to the day even as its immigration policies have resulted in the denial of rights – to employment, education, housing and health – not to mention deportation and detention? Does this suggest that Windrush Day is viewed as compensation, however appropriate, for the recent injustices the Windrush generation, their children, grandchildren, and many others have experienced because of the government’s unjust immigration policies? 

How could or should we deepen the symbolism of Windrush? How can we ensure that the symbolism also leads to wider change?

First, by extending the principle of Windrush Day – that Windrush is an intrinsic part of Britain’s story – in a more expansive or deeper way. The extension requires us all to think about how both race and migration are part of who we – Britain – are. We should not conceive of ‘Black British’ history as a minor tributary feeding into a ‘mainstream’ British history barely affected by race and migration, but rather highlight how Britain’s economic, political, cultural developments cannot be explained without referring to race or migration.


And of course, there’s the actual people, the humans who make up who we are as a nation: many of the 8 million ‘black and minority ethnic’ people living in Britain today had all four of their grandparents, all eight of their great-grandparents, all 16 of their great-great-great grandparents, and so on, born ‘British’. What the Windrush injustice shows is that our historical amnesia about Empire, about our past, is not just about debates in academic seminars, but continues to harm people living today. We award and seek to ‘honour’ people with membership in an order of a (non-existent) British Empire, while we still can’t seem to understand that living members of an actual British Empire are being denied their rights and so dishonoured precisely because of the repatriation of the racial inequalities of rights that marked the Empire.

Second, we need to respond to the ongoing inequalities and injustices the Windrush generation and its descendants have experienced. It’s important that we celebrate, but commemoration also involves reflecting on and respecting the injustices that generation experienced, and continue to experience. From housing to employment to criminal justice black and minority ethnic people have worse life chances and outcomes, in part caused by racial discrimination. 

Third, and lastly, we do of course need to recognise the Windrush generation’s contribution. This is increasingly understood in the context of public services, such as transport and health services, especially in this 70th anniversary of the NHS. The economic contribution to Britain following the war is worth celebrating, yet it’s not the whole story. The Windrush generation has also fundamentally shaped how were are, and the values we now affirm. Until the 1965, 1968 and 1976 Race Relations Acts, discrimination was perfectly legal in Britain, with no freestanding right to equality. It is no exaggeration to suggest that what we now proclaim as British values – equality, non-discrimination –  would not have been won without the struggle of the Windrush generation (along with many allies).

It’s not just our British values but our identity that has been profoundly (re)shaped by the Windrush generation. To the extent that Britain has become comfortable with multiculturalism, the Windrush generation helped lay a foundation stone for a new edifice of Britishness that each successive migrant generation has been able to build.

By ‘Windrush’ we don’t mean just those passengers on that ship, or just those that arrived in 1948. And by celebrating a ‘Windrush Day’ we begin to recognise the role that black people, and migrants, have played and continue to play in our nation’s history and identity. Yet there is of course also a particular, special contribution of that generation. We best celebrate and commemorate that contribution by affirming that Windrush is Us, that Britain is profoundly shaped by and defined by the black and migrant experience. How far we fulfil the more idealistic and hopeful part of that ‘us’ – the values of equality and freedom – will depend on how far we finally make those values a reality for black and minority ethnic people and migrants living in Britain today.

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