Menu Close
A mural depicting an elderly woman against a background of flowers and text.
A mural in St Paul’s, Bristol celebrating the social worker and activist Barbara Dettering. Steve Taylor ARPS/Alamy

‘We need to be acknowledged’: how Caribbean elders navigate belonging in the UK

We all belong somewhere. And wherever we are, people either see us as belonging, or they don’t. In the UK, this has been made only too clear in the last decade by the government’s anti-migration policy, known as the hostile environment, instituted when Theresa May was Home Secretary between 2010 and 2016.

This controversial government stance is underpinned by overt racism and hostility. It triggered the Windrush scandal, which, from 2017, saw people of retirement age – many of whom had lived as British people in the UK since early childhood – denied citizenship and residency rights, and the attendant healthcare, housing and wider social support.

The scandal is emblematic of what many Caribbean elders have faced throughout their lives in the UK – the discrimination and poor outcomes they have experienced in terms of employment, criminal justice, housing, education, health and social welfare. The question “Where are you from?”, an all-too-familiar and enduring trope, encapsulates a narrative of non-belonging.

This article is part of our Windrush 75 series, which marks the 75th anniversary of the HMT Empire Windrush arriving in Britain. The stories in this series explore the history and impact of the hundreds of passengers who disembarked to help rebuild after the second world war.

Spending time together

We derive our sense of belonging from being recognised and accepted as being connected with – rightly placed in – a specific environment. Irrespective of dominant narratives to the contrary, people and communities in Britain have always found ways to foster connection and belonging.

For the last decade I have explored ideas of place-making and community-based knowledge through studies with older people of Caribbean descent in Britain. I have captured the ways they have found to belong in a place in which many have lived for decades, and in which they will die. I have found that, in migrant and diasporic communities, in particular, belonging is fostered in what sociologists term the “microsocial”: the everyday practices and rituals, as well as in the spaces people claim for themselves.

Two ladies in dresses and hats in a church.
Worshippers at the West Indian Church of God of Prophecy in west London. Homer Sykes/Alamy

For older church-going women who arrived in the UK during the Windrush era, luncheon clubs often played an important role in their lives. As Mrs Faith, a woman in her early 70s, told me during an interview in 2011:

We used to meet regularly, and it was nice … we had lunch, usually had a guest speaker and then just spent time with each other. It’s how we take care of each other – and, where we come from, taking care of each other is what we had to do.

For her, the club not only created bonds between members but was also a caring, diasporic space. Participants came to find a sense of kinship and connection in shared values and “ways of knowing”, drawn from their countries of birth.

Domino clubs elicited similar sentiments. One that I visited was established over 30 years ago. Members meet twice a week to play dominoes. They also take part in the annual tournament with five or six other small clubs from around the country. One 71-year-old member said:

It’s time for us … we take over here … some people come to play dominoes and are serious about it; others come to have a laugh and a talk … to make sure we are all right. That’s what it all about. We can relax, talk about old times and back home … and check on each other.

Ladies are seated in a row.
The African-Caribbean Elder Sisters in Cardiff take part in a workshop. Roiyah Saltus, CC BY-NC-ND

Carving out one’s own space

Togetherness is not the only route to belonging. In another study, I looked at the leisure activities of Caribbean people over 85 years of age. One man I spoke to, Mr Bridgeman, was born on a small holding in Barbados 90 years ago. He remains connected to the land – albeit land meted out by his local council in the UK – through an allotment, to which he has tended, daily, for nearly half a century.

When I checked on Mr Bridgeman during the pandemic he was continuing with his daily routine, drawing on the old ways. His allotment remained his refuge, a place in which to grow vegetables like he did as a boy – and, importantly, to just “be”.

Two old men embrace.
‘We can relax, talk about back home and check on each other.’ Roiyah Saltus, CC BY-NC-ND

I have found that these elders very seldom rage against injustice. There has been, in the main, a quiet resistance to generational hostility and to being made to feel like they did not belong.

The strongest response I have received was from a Mrs Jeffers who, in answer to a question on the importance of conducting research rooted in the lives of her generation, said:

Older people from the Caribbean need to be asked. We have played a valuable role in the development of British society and our views and experiences should be sought; we need to be acknowledged, respected and accepted.

Older men play dominoes indoors.
Men play dominoes at the Dominican Association Community Centre in Bradford. Paula Solloway/Alamy

The pandemic has taken its toll. Of the many spaces frequented by the Caribbean elders with whom I have spent the last decade, the luncheon club no longer exists, the domino club has lost significant members and Mr Bridgeman cannot get to his allotment as often as he once did.

Sociologists including the US writer bell hooks have called for the need for “epistemic levelling”. The idea is that in order for social policy and service delivery to be effective, it needs to be grounded not in the theoretical but in the parochial – in the knowledge that emerges from people’s everyday lives. This is especially the case for racialised communities, whose own knowledge production is so often ignored.

Many of the elders I have worked with are nearing the final chapters of their lives in the UK. Understanding both the strategies they have put in place to carve out their own spaces and sense of connectivity, and the very real fears they have too, remains pressing. We need to amplify their voices, and pay attention to what they have to say.

You can download the e-book here. Thank you for your interest.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 184,300 academics and researchers from 4,971 institutions.

Register now