Windrush and Black British history in the era of ‘allyship’
Image: Chris Lawton via Unsplash

Windrush. For some, this word can trigger intense emotions. Former troopship HMT Empire Windrush transported 1,027 Commonwealth citizens primarily from the Caribbean to Tilbury, Essex in 1948: an event that is largely understood as the beginning of a period of mass migration between 1948 and 1973. Many children travelled to the UK under the legal status of their parents’ identification, and in the early 1970s, an Act of Parliament was passed which granted Commonwealth citizens the right to live in the UK if they arrived before 1973. 

However, for years, Windrush citizens have criticised the UK government’s treatment of them, with most outrage regarding the deportation of lawful citizens by the Home Office; a morally corrupt process proven to be questionable by legal counsels. In total, 164 Windrush citizens who migrated to the UK before 1973 have been either deported or illegally detained since 2002. Inconsistencies in official data make it hard to gain a precise understanding of the impact of such policies, but it is clear that “institutional amnesia and inadequate practice denied them [the Windrush generation] their liberty.”

A humanitarian scandal.

The key policy relating to the scandal is the ‘hostile environment’, introduced under Home Secretary Theresa May, which aimed to deter illegal immigration to the UK as well as encouraging migrants to ‘voluntarily’ leave the UK through stringent measures. Detailed documentation was demanded by the government in order to prove citizenship; documentation many Windrush citizens did not have.

Eventually, scrutiny of immigration policies coupled with public outcry culminated into a political crisis, with cases of wrongful deportations gaining traction in the public eye in 2015-16. The BBC covered the stories of Paulette Wilson, Anthony Bryan and Edwin Burton, who were accused of residing in the UK illegally despite having lived here for over 50 years. The accusations led to the forced detainment and removal of Bryan and Burton while Wilson was subsequently released following intervention from family and legal support. The revelations that followed in the media made it difficult to present cases as being unique – the scale of the problem was now realised. 

The scandal reached its height in April 2018 following open letters from politicians, academics and campaign groups. The letters warned Home Secretary Amber Rudd of the devastating impact of the hostile environment policy on individuals. The combination of a lack of both remorse and clarity during a parliamentary questions session culminated in her resignation, as a means of salvaging public faith in the government.      

Black lives matter.

The Windrush scandal is a microcosm of how institutionalised racism is camouflaged as “ignorance and thoughtlessness”. For too long, government callousness toward ethnic minorities has been disguised as unintentional ‘incompetence’, rather than something more sinister; a theme that runs throughout British society, especially in regard to the teaching of diverse history. 

For example, school history lessons covering World War Two graciously omit the thousands of Commonwealth citizens who risked their lives fighting alongside British soldiers on the front lines. The current guise of the history national curriculum succeeds in disassociating Britain from “a legacy that has oppressed Black people historically in favour of a more romanticized, filtered legacy.” This filtered legacy asserts Great Britain as an all-accepting, all-conquering nation, accepting to ethnic and cultural differences. History tells a different story, and as such calls to redefine ‘Britishness’ resound. 

Education reform is, therefore, a crucial tool in implementing systemic change that prevents further injustices occurring. Changes were made under the coalition government, aiming to promote ‘Fundamental British Values’, and whilst Black history can be taught as part of the curriculum in secondary schools, the decision to do so is left to exam boards and schools. Some institutions choose to include Black History Month (BHM) within their history curriculum, which is a positive start, yet ultimately the content taught during BHM often focuses on key individuals such as Rosa Parks, rather than the richness and plurality of Black History. As recognised in the 1999 MacPherson Report, ‘decolonising’ the curriculum is essential to opening the westernised teaching lens and enabling the development of well-rounded opinions that reflect the ethnic and cultural diversity of UK schools.

Throughout 2020, public stands against racism have been highly visible. A statue of Bristolian Edward Colston was removed during ‘Black Lives Matter’ (BLM) protests in June 2020 – a phenomenal act of defiance for those in the movement. A new era was signalled; one in which the racist parts of British history are acknowledged properly, rather than through glorification. Breaking away from the camouflaged history of Britain presents the opportunity to give a voice to the hundreds of Windrush generation citizens, many of which have had their experiences of history erased in the British education system, and in society at large. 

Where from here?

The lack of Black history education is being partially addressed by  ‘The Black Curriculum’. Through workshops, the organisation founded by Lavinya Stennett aims to make Black history more accessible in British schools. History lessons that focus on the trauma of slavery often alienate Black students, conflating Black history with victimhood and avoiding a positive discussion of blackness. It is invaluable for students to develop positive associations with their history and the curriculum should be rich and detailed, rather than a study of token individuals.

By tackling classroom microaggressions as well as institutional racism on a greater scale, a structural approach to addressing racism within education through curriculum reform would reduce the number of students feeling marginalised in schools. 

The apparent openness of Britain was not on display during the Windrush scandal. Hundreds of citizens suffered stress and trauma, losing their livelihoods because they were unable to legally prove their Britishness. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel reflects on the extensive review of the Windrush scandal and states that she has been “deeply moved reading the report.” This is rather problematic as it suggests that the Home Office was unaware of the treatment faced by victims, despite the increasingly publicised nature of individual cases. Many have been confused by such behaviour because the sympathetic display given by the Home Secretary does not reflect efforts made to amend legislation or engage in meaningful dialogue with citizens.

Representative and inclusive history is one of the key end goals for those fighting against inequality and racism in Britain. To achieve this, we must tackle the system incrementally. The UK is not innocent and must strive to take active steps to form the inclusive history that Black people – and all others – so desire.