The Windrush scandal has cut through the heart of the British Caribbean community. It’s thrown up questions about racism, identity and history. Ironically, however, the Windrush scandal could be the very medicine the black British community needs to heal the divisions it has.
Despite being a minority, there is an unspoken separation within the black community in the UK. Those of a Caribbean background and those of an African background. This separation could be seen lightheartedly, for example, in the evergreen debate of how do you say “plantain”. (Africans: “plan-tain”. Caribbeans: “plan-tin”.) But more seriously, it can be seen in the lasting effects of colonialism on the black diaspora and the desire for status among the two groups.
I’ve lost count of how many African elders I’ve had advise me, “don’t marry a jamo” (all Caribbeans come under the term “jamo”, short for Jamaican) because, according to them, they’re uneducated unlike we Africans with our countless degrees.
Even in school, many black Britons from an African background could tell you the never-ending teasing they endured by their Caribbean classmates about their traditional names. They, after all, fitted in among our Caucasian counterparts because they had English first and surnames. It was bad enough with our brown skin sticking out like a sore thumb without having, to them, an unpronounceable surname.
For decades, whether in school, university, work or in neighbourhoods, British Caribbeans and British Africans have consistently looked down on one another for various reasons, which frankly, are unfounded.
Africans began to emigrate to Britain about 30 years after their Caribbean counterparts. This fact coupled with colonialism in living memory, the race to prove who is more British, in some minds meaning more refined and ultimately having higher status, still has echoes in the black British community today.
In terms of culture, Caribbeans have a closer proximity to western culture than Africans. For many years the latter was made to feel uncivilised, native, primitive but ultimately not as British as the former. Africans have been consistently reminded that because of our rich culture that’s far removed from the West’s, with our names, music, fashion etc, we couldn’t possibly be considered wholly British.
Also, among the black community it’s rare you hear a Caribbean person being deported for one reason or the other. After all they’ve been here for so long, you automatically think it’s an African who just came more recently.
However, the Windrush scandal has left a big question mark on the identity of what it means to be British for those of Caribbean descent. It’s no longer an automatic label as it was previously.
So what does this mean? So far it seems institutional racism, conflicts with the police and even a shared love of grime music – homegrown among black Britons of both Caribbean and African descent – haven’t been able to unite both groups. But this scandal might just. Aristotle said “a common danger unites even the bitterest enemies”. In this case, it’s the threat of losing an identity.
If you ask the average black person who was born and raised here or has spent, at an estimate, at least 20 years here, more than likely they would consider themselves British. My mother has been here since the late Eighties. She’s a staunch royalist who still has a thick Nigerian accent, eats jollof rice on a daily basis and watches Nollywood films as a pastime yet she would describe herself as British more so than Nigerian. She absolutely would not have anyone tell her differently. In her opinion she is British through and through.
Others may say she is still an immigrant regardless of how long she’s been here judging by her accent alone. A letter sent to David Lammy this week telling him to be “grateful” for being in a country that’s given him so much opportunity shows that this thinking is not targeted at thick-accented first generation immigrants alone.
This way of thinking is our common danger.
The Windrush scandal has called time on the division within the black community. It’s time for the days of “them and us” to be over. We’re all black and very much still fight the common enemy that is racism just as much as the next person of colour. None of us should be ignorant to the fact that despite our very British accents, being born here, having British values and knowing British history, there are some people who will just not accept that that is who we are. Even if we think that of ourselves.
Dare I say it, Africans may have been more aware of this than Caribbeans but I don’t blame them. If you’re a third generation immigrant you wouldn’t question your identity as much as a first generation immigrant or even a second. But as this fiasco has made clear, we may never be considered British. Regardless of the sweat some of our ancestors put into building Britain whether economically during slavery and colonialism or physically post-war up until the present day.
At the risk of sounding ironic, Winston Churchill said it best when he said “when there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you”. The black community is still healing from the wrongs done to it historically so it’s important that it ceases to generate new enemies inside its own camp when there is a bigger one outside.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies