The event description for this year’s Wadham Race Symposium panel was all-encompassing. It read “With the latent xenophobia of Brexit, the overt racism of Windrush and the electricity of Extinction Rebellion, Britain’s colonial past is finally forcing itself into the spotlight. At a time when illegal deportations are happening under our noses and ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ is dividing students, what exactly does it mean to call Britain multicultural?”.
It seems then, that Wadham’s POCRE officers were determined to tackle every aspect of this multifaceted topic in their symposium. They did not fail to deliver. With an electric panel line-up, and careful mediation, they ensured a truly incisive discussion took place last weekend. The panel featured local Labour councillor and anti-racist activist Shaista Aziz, future NASUWT president and local teacher Michelle Codrington-Rodgers, local artist Sunil Shah, and Orwell prize-winning journalist Amelia Gentleman (most famous for breaking the Windrush story last year). Karishma Paun and Leela Jadhav chaired the conversation jointly, drawing from their own lived experience and musings to shape this exploration on whether British multiculturalism has failed.
The discussion began with each panelist attempting to define what multiculturalism means to them. There appeared to be a general consensus that multiculturalism was a shifting term, one which had once signaled the welcoming of new migrants into British society, but was increasingly being used in a negative sense. Indeed, as Michelle pointed out, when her grandmother migrated from the Caribbean, her arrival was not about multiculturalism. Rather, it was about a sense of belonging. This is a point that was raised again and again in the ensuing conversation – the idea that for the Windrush generation, they were moving to another region within their home country of Britain. Leading on from this, Sunil pointed out that the word multiculturalism has always been associated with race, linked to those who have migrated from the colonies. He argued that the assimilation of Welsh and Scottish migrants is not considered to be part of a multicultural society in the way that the assimilation of brown and black peoples is.
The discussion then moved onto whether multiculturalism is a brand that people of colour have to buy into in order to be accepted into British society. The clearest theme that emerged was that this country’s current version of multiculturalism is not nearly good enough. Shaista spoke of a session she had with the young daughters of immigrants in a school in London International Women’s Day. She asked the students in the room when was the last time they saw someone on TV, or the internet, or in a book, that looked like them. One girl with a headscarf put her hand up and said “Shamima Begum. But Miss, they say she is a terrorist as well”. Shaista’s story had a visible impact on the audience – it is an indictment of our times when a young girl in a hijab has only a child bride groomed by terrorists to seek representation in. Similarly, Michelle talked about how multiculturalism sees the celebration of a single month for Black history, thus delineating a time when black people are allowed to be visible and remembered. She spoke passionately about how Black people have been here since the Roman times, and it is about time that her community and their experiences were mainstreamed. This process is taking too long, and indeed, it has now taken steps back.
She pointed out how Brexit effectively ripped off a ‘bandaid’, and now the world can see Britain’s racial dynamics for what they really are. This idea of regression was present in Amelia’s sad retelling of her interviews with the original Windrush incomers. She related that an uncomfortable question she had to ask her Windrush interviewees was whether they considered themselves British. Usually she was “put in her place” and told that they were obviously so. However, since the start of the Hostile Environment (the term that denotes Theresa May’s creation of an environment that has embedded harsh immigration controls into everyday interactions between public sector workers and the people they see), she has seen a shift in answers to her question. Now, she said, this generation feels less British than they did before. Despite having been invited to this country in the previous century, the message they have received is clear. Due to their race, they were never considered truly British.
These points flowed into a dialogue about the weight of words used in current narratives around immigration and multiculturalism. All the panelists were united in their worry about the way language is currently being used. Sunil stressed the importance of developing a language that joins, rather than divides. Amelia used a political example of dehumanising terms, referencing internal Home Office files about people affected by the Windrush scandal. She spoke of a disturbing exchange from the notes of a telephone conversation between a caseworker and their appointed interviewee. The interviewee was maintaining that he was British, and was repeatedly being told that he needed to return to Jamaica. His caseworker notes “migrant insists he is British”, and “migrant says he has been here for 50 years”. This terminology, which could have been replaced by more positive words like expat or emigre, shows the way in which political structures continue to disregard naturalised person of colour immigrants.
And yet, despite the personal hurt most of the panellists have suffered through the rolling-back of ‘multiculturalism’, they chose to end the panel on a hopeful note. Shaista spoke powerfully about the need for working-class unity, one which rejects the construct of the “white working class” as fundamentally racist. In her view, true unity is present in white members of the working-class supporting their person of colour counterparts in racialised situations – as she saw her father’s white supervisor do when his trade union promoted him and his co-workers protested. She reminded the audience that people of colour have always been part of the history of struggle in this country, from trade unionism to the Southall Black Sisters. She preceded this point by talking about how other countries are in awe of Britain’s multiculturalism. For them, Britain is jalebis, samosas and yams. This is the Britain we must embrace, for this is the Britain that exists. When this fact is accepted, multiculturalism can truly succeed.