It is impossible to think about or even talk about diversifying our industry without broaching the sensitive subject of immigration
Siggy Cragwell, 83, has worked on the railway for 61 years after coming to the UK as part of the Windrush generation in 1962
By Nafisa Nathani
With any discussion around diversity, we continually hear the phrase about how we need to ‘reflect the communities we serve.’ It is impossible to think about or even talk about diversifying our industry without broaching the very sensitive subject of immigration.
The Brexit vote demonstrates how deeply divided we are as a nation, about this very topic. Depending on who you ask immigration is either thought about as an unmitigated boon or an absolute disaster. Either a disastrous act of misguided generosity that the United Kingdom can ill afford, or an apologetic hand extended to the occupants of countries destroyed by the legacy of British colonialism.
For many immigrant families, their journey into the UK was a direct consequence of their parents or grandparents coming here because of their great love of this country. It’s easy to forget how influential Great Britain is and the strength of its intellectual leadership across the world. We forget that British language, laws and liberties are the bedrock of the modern world. Philosophers like John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill shaped the cultures and constitutions of countless countries. This intellectualism is absolutely revered across the globe.
My mum always tells stories about how my grandfather always wanted to come to the UK and took great pride in the fact that as an Indian, he chose to have a British passport believing it would offer him and his family opportunities. Then, when Indians were expelled from East Africa, he took that as a sign to move his whole family over to the UK and build a life here. My British identity is very much baked into who I am.
You called, we came
We cannot talk about immigration or quite frankly the railway without acknowledging the Windrush generation. Next week June 22 will mark Windrush Day – 75 years since HMT Windrush docked into British soil. Following the destruction of the Second World War, British colonies were told that they would be welcomed with open arms into Britain – their mother country and the home of peace, justice and prosperity. This time has now been mythologised as a turning point, when Britain first became a multi-ethnic country and a cautionary tale about how one’s citizenship can so easily be withdrawn – something British Muslims are incredibly fearful of.
The story of the Windrush generation to Britain is one of incredible sacrifice and service
The story of the Windrush generation to Britain is one of incredible sacrifice and service. It is impossible to discuss this generation and their incredible fortitude and resilience without acknowledging the impact of race and the power of faith in this journey.
This generation came to the UK and were met with hostility, xenophobia and racialised violence. For many of the Windrush generation, they broke their backs rebuilding this country and dedicated their lives working tirelessly in quintessentially British institutions like the NHS and the railway. It is a tale of the normal everyday decency of ordinary people like Siggy Cramwell, who kept the peace in the face of enormous challenges.
The Windrush generation to me is a story about creating hope and telling the positive story of humanity, by highlighting a generation that have a generous capacity for compassion and cooperation despite the inhumane treatment they encountered. This generation demonstrates how individuals may not be able to overcome systemic barriers, but they can embody hope through their sacrifice, faith and service around our shared values and institutions. It also shows the powerful role faith can play in building internal resilience in the face of a sea of hostility.
Creating a community and sense of identity around our shared values, underlies much of what it means to be human. It feels like we have lost a sense of belonging and connection, in an increasing globalised and digitised world. In this age of identity politics we have become even more divided.
We have now descended into a form of tribalism of exclusive identities (defined by ethnicity, gender or ideology) rather than broader inclusive identities such as faith in our common institutions, shared values and collective endeavour
Traditional pillars of community and sources of identity have begun to erode and can help to explain this atomisation. We have now descended into a form of tribalism of exclusive identities (defined by ethnicity, gender or ideology) rather than broader inclusive identities such as faith in our common institutions, shared values and collective endeavour. I am not denying there isn’t a reason for this. There is incredible pain felt in discrimination, bias, hostility, racism, violence, misogyny, harassment, abuses of power. When this happens, it’s entirely natural for groups of people to bond over these very identities under attack. We withdraw. Become insular. Locked in a battle to just survive. This however is not sustainable. It leads to geographical segregation, social isolation and ideological polarisation.
To avoid this, we desperately need to build on areas of agreement to form meaningful relationships and dialogue. We need to focus more on the values we already share rather than focus on those that separate us. This is why employee networks like the Multi-Faith group are essential. They bring together individuals from different faiths together under one umbrella to listen, learn and bond over the importance of faith, religion and spirituality in dealing with the modern world.
In this 24-hour news cycle, we have fractured into individualism. Algorithms and personalised newsfeeds confirm, amplify and artificially inflate our own views. This leads to us becoming entrenched in our opinions. We have lost both connection and the time for the reflection and mindfulness we need to bond. These local socially constructed echo chambers not only lead to group thinking, reinforce societal stereotypes and reaffirms personal prejudices.
These prejudices which we all have, albeit in different forms become complicated and spill into the workplace. Getting a straight answer about a subject as complicated and personal as prejudice is difficult and often distorted by another form of bias known as social desirability bias: a desire to provide an answer that is imagined to be the correct one. If we are unable to talk about such things openly and honestly, it becomes difficult then to challenge.
A good place to start would be teaching history in such a way that it both more accurately reflects the role immigrants played in Britain’s past
Unconscious bias training should be as much a part of workplace life as health and safety. At the same time, we need to provide a framework that allows people to understand why and how such biases exist. A good place to start would be teaching history in such a way that it both more accurately reflects the role immigrants played in Britain’s past and considers the background to the social and racial divisions that exist in our world today: colonialism, legacy of empire and the effects of Windrush. But at the same time space must be left for the people on the other side to grow, learn, get things wrong, be tactless, ask obvious questions. Debate, conversation, community are essential ways to convey what life is like for you and they are stifled if bad faith is always assumed on the path of others.
Knowing our history better, understanding the forces it unleashed and seeing oneself as part of a larger story is one of the ways as a society, we can move forward together. The history of empire and Windrush is an essential part of our national story. There is no British history without the history of the Empire and Windrush is a part of this story. As late Stuart Hall put it, “I am the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nafisa Nathani is Intersectionality Lead for Multi-Faith Network, Network Rail’s faith and belief network, as well as Southern region lead for Cultural Fusion, Network Rail’s race network. Both networks are available to everyone who works in the transport sector, regardless of race or faith. To join, email email@example.com
This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.
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