As British cultural institutions and community groups prepare to commemorate Windrush 75, a week after one of the worst maritime disasters in the Mediterranean, how can they navigate the cognitive dissonance inherent in celebrating the historic arrival of one group of migrants by ship while the British government simultaneously demands that it “must stop the boats” of another? Despite its relative novelty, Windrush Day encapsulates what Stuart Hall described as “the continuing deep ambivalence of the British towards an expanded definition of the nation,” as events to mark the historic contribution of British Caribbeans take place against a background of racism and xenophobia.
Thursday 22 June 2023 marks the 75th anniversary of the arrival of Empire Windrush, the ship that brought 800 Caribbean passengers to disembark at Tilbury Docks, Essex on 22 June 1948. The vessel has since become an iconic symbol of post-war Caribbean settlement in Britain and its passengers retrospectively characterised as founding members of the “Windrush Generation,” a term used to describe Caribbean people who settled in Britain, having been invited to help meet labour shortages.
The anniversary of the ship’s arrival had been long marked by British Caribbean organisations but from 2018 took on additional importance as 22 June became officially designated as “Windrush Day.” That formal recognition of the date wasn’t granted until then is significant. In late 2017 and early 2018, a series of stories published by The Guardian revealed the shocking treatment received by descendants (largely the children) of the Windrush Generation. Now retirement-age, some had recently experienced their UK citizenship being questioned by employers, landlords, banks, education and healthcare providers. Lacking evidence to “prove” their status (never having been called upon to do so before), many faced unemployment, ill health, poverty, homelessness, and, in some cases, deportation.
The Guardian’s investigations concluded that these individuals had become the unintended victims of new Home Office policy intended to ensure that illegal migrants in the UK found themselves in a “hostile environment” and thus would be motivated to leave the country. On learning about the treatment of these Black Britons, the public response was swift and unanimous and the condemnation of government that followed cost the Home Secretary her job. An independent review into the causes of what became known as the “Windrush Scandal” found that “institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race” in a government department with a “poor understanding of Britain’s colonial history, the history of inward and outward migration, and the history of black Britons” generated critical failures in the design and implementation of immigration policy.
The turn towards national recognition was similarly quick: a compensation scheme was established for those affected by the scandal, an annual National Service of Thanksgiving was instituted at Westminster Abbey, a commemorative sculpture was commissioned for London Waterloo train station, and formal recognition of the day was accompanied by a dedicated grant scheme intended to support cultural institutions and community groups wishing to hold special events. Windrush Day thus became an important and distinctive element in a suite of compensatory gestures and Britain’s cultural institutions a key locus for organising events which would evidence the contribution made by members of the Windrush Generation to British society.
Over the last five years, the scope and scale of Windrush Day celebrations has grown significantly with local authorities, national museums, churches and community organisations around the country planning special events to celebrate this foundational moment in the creation of a multicultural Britain. Conversely, 2023 has also witnessed some of the most repressive anti-immigration measures of recent times, with the passage of the Illegal Migration Bill from the House of Commons and Home Secretary Suella Braverman claiming at a recent conference that migrant labour risks harming the UK’s “national character.” Braverman has also reneged on her predecessor’s commitment to meet two recommendations made in the Windrush Lessons Learned Independent Review intended to improve independent scrutiny of immigration policies, as well as a promise to run reconciliation events with Windrush families.
Back in 1998, Stuart Hall commented on the irony of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the arrival of Empire Windrush as a positive story of racial assimilation in the same year as the enquiry into the racist murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence took place, and that irony can be keenly felt in 2023. Since its formal founding in 2018, various strategies have evolved around the commemoration of Windrush Day which serve to mitigate the jarring discomfort generated by celebrating historic migration at a time of increasingly xenophobic political discourse.
These strategies include the characterisation of a diverse spectrum of people as the “Windrush Generation.” While, as Amelia Gentleman notes, this strategy was politically expedient in highlighting how Home Office policy negatively impacted a specific demographic, it also risks eclipsing the specificity of individual experiences and fueling dangerous stereotypes. It has also facilitated what Tim Wise has defined as a kind of “enlightened exceptionalism” where a specific migrant demographic is hailed for its patriotism and contribution without disturbing the racism which continues to marginalize others. In the case of the Windrush Generation this is accompanied by the anxious repetition of the trope of “contribution,” as if this were an essential criterion for citizenship. Thus the Windrush Day grant scheme seeks "to celebrate and recognise the contribution that the Windrush generation and the wider UK Caribbean community have made to the UK.”
Moreover, in order to manage the tensions that accompany debates about migration in the present, Windrush is typically represented as a historic event. Much as the second world war has been recast as the defining moment of British nationhood, so too has the arrival of Empire Windrush been refashioned to serve as a totemic symbol of British welcome and tolerance. Nostalgia thus pervades Windrush Day, with many events and exhibitions looking back to an earlier era. Those earlier Caribbean pioneers might have encountered racism, but—the narrative runs—it was a different time.
As a prime focus for Windrush Day, cultural institutions like museums have to navigate these tensions. In being solicited to mark events such as Windrush Day, they are expected to provide compensation through representation, at the risk of providing a distraction from systemic social issues and state failure. Whether enlisted to deal with the legacies of transatlantic slavery, or consequences of post-war migration, today’s museums are at risk of becoming the kind of “compensatory mechanism” described by Floya Anthias, offering a politics of recognition as substitute for material redistribution.
This Windrush Day, then, it is important that Britain’s cultural institutions find opportunities to critically interrogate the legacies of post-war migration including their manifestation in government policy and rhetoric. London’s Black Cultural Archives has led the way here. Established by a member of the Windrush Generation, BCA has consistently combined representation with political activism, such as by hosting town hall events and legal surgeries for those affected by the Windrush Scandal. As BCA argue, for those museums marking Windrush 75, “celebration” must not come at the expense of reparation.
Helen Mears is Head of Curatorship and Research at Royal Museums Greenwich and an occasional lecturer at the University of Brighton. Previously Keeper of World Art at Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove, her research interests lie in world cultures collections, participation and decolonial agendas. Helen was a member of the working group formed by the UK Museums Association to produce guidance on Supporting Decolonisation in Museums.
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