The Cumberland Lodge conference, Race in Britain: Inequality, Identity, Belonging, felt timely for me in ways both large and small.
Against the weighty backdrop of a year of anniversaries - the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Race Relations Act, the 70th anniversary of the arrival of Empire Windrush, which brought Caribbean British citizens to the UK, and the 50th anniversary of Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, to name a few – this gathering provided an opportunity to reflect struggles past and present.
And on a smaller, more personal scale, Cumberland Lodge provided a warm and welcome retreat to step out of day-to-day pressures and draw inspiration from colleagues in this field.
'Racism without racists'
Across the seminars, some themes emerged – the importance of language and how it is contested, the UK’s proxy debates on race, the invisibility and hypervisibility of ethnic minorities in a time of “racism without racists” and the importance of data, coupled with an acknowledgement that the UK narrative on race and citizenship are not shaped by facts alone.
One call was made repeatedly – a plea for tough conversations; for authentic, uncompromising conversations on race instead of the perpetual and often circular proxy conversations that tend to occur, particularly on immigration. Framing matters. When we don’t have the difficult conversations we vacate space for the far right to frame the narrative on race.
There was a powerful reminder that the proxy debate about immigration risks reinforcing stereotypes, and that the government policy of a “hostile environment” for migrants, now rebranded as the more Orwellian and “compliant environment”, is no less problematic for migrants or race relations.
Tough conversations also necessitate a dialogue with history in order to better understand issues about belonging, exclusion and inequality, and whiteness as social and economic capital. And situations such as the Windrush scandal need to be reframed to the nation not as aberrations but the structural outcomes of existing policies.
We also need better, more inclusive conversations so that ethnic minority voices are heard on issues beyond perceived minority issues. As the Gypsy, Romany and Traveller campaign on multi-hyphenated identities neatly put it: “We really are so many things, why focus on one?”
When it came to the question of reparations for slavery and colonialism, I was struck by the fact that the conversation was not about “if”, but “how”. This is perhaps one of the toughest conversations to be had across the nation: a public reckoning with the uncomfortable history of the British Empire and contested citizenships, one that resonates in the education system beyond it, into the popular imagination.
It goes to the heart of our mythology about the plucky island that made it all on its own; an erasure that feeds the lie that racism is a logical by-product of immigration rather than a product of empire. There is a more honest, messy but ultimately authentic story of these islands to be told, if we have the courage to face it.
The years since the events marked by all these anniversaries have seen the development of a body of research on the unequal outcomes for ethnic minorities. There have been landmark inquiries, reports and studies, and the government’s groundbreaking race disparity audit makes much of the information accessible in one place. But the cumulative weight of years of data demands a response. What’s needed next is a race equality strategy to act on it.