People of colour like me have been painted out of working-class history

Published on The Guardian, by Anna Chen, July 16, 2013.

Black people have lived in Britain at least from Roman times, and some historians claim that north Africans were here as much as 3,000 years ago. We know that Indian people were here as far back as Shakespeare’s time. The first Chinese visitor we know of was the Jesuit priest Shen Foutsong, who communicated in Latin when he worked at Oxford’s Bodleian Library in the 17th century. His portrait still hangs in the Queen’s collection. People of colour have been part of the fabric of British society for centuries, but you won’t find many in official histories – either from the right (look at Michael Gove’s draft national curriculum) or, more shockingly, from the left. 

Ken Loach’s feature-length documentary, The Spirit of ‘45, is one recent example. A documentary about the creation of the welfare state and its legacy, it presents us with Loach’s vision of the British working class, united in the struggle for a better Britain. And though it covers the period from the 1930s up to the Thatcher era, everyone featured in the film is white – it’s as if people like me have been bred out of the working-class gene pool.

In this Loach is swimming with the tide. Both Maurice Glasman (of Blue Labour fame) and David Goodhart, the former editor of Prospect magazine, are very influential in Labour’s thinking – and both nostalgically emphasise the importance of continuity and community values in the British working class, as against immigrants, who threaten that continuity. While the working class is rarely discussed in mainstream left circles these days, the “white working class” is endlessly debated. “Working class” becomes indivisible from “white” in such debates.

This is not an accurate portrayal of the British working class, either now or in the past. My own father, an ex-seaman, was a British trade unionist in Liverpool from the 1920s onwards, and helped found the Chinese Seamen’s Union. It was necessary: Chinese people ran much of the merchant navy in the second world war, and plenty died for us in conflicts up to and including the Falklands war, and yet they suffered horrible discrimination. Their pay and conditions were inferior to those of their white counterparts. Adding insult to injury, many were forcibly sent back to China after the war despite having settled here with families.

And many other people of colour contributed to the spirit of 1945 Loach celebrates: the black pilots who flew in the RAF in the second world war; the Chinese firefighters in Liverpool (including my dad) who fought the flames ignited by Luftwaffe bombs; the Nepalese Gurkhas and Indians who fought for Britain in two world wars, making up the largest volunteer army in world history. And of course, postwar, the thousands who arrived here in waves of immigration from the Caribbean in order to run the new NHS and public transport systems.

People of colour have performed important work in the labour movement throughout its history. I remember at least one south Asian shop steward at Ford Dagenham in the 1970s, and Asian women won a famous victory at the Grunwick film processing plant in a strike lasting from 1976 to 1978, in what journalist Paul Foot described as “a central battleground between the classes and between the parties” … //

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Link: The Guardian Film Show: The World’s End, Breathe In, Wadjda and The Frozen Ground – video review, on The Guardian, July 19, 2013.

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