Growing up, immigration was always a fascinating topic to me. My parents both immigrated to the United Kingdom for work, my Dad from the United States and my mum from France. However, when discussing with people where my family is from, it becomes clear that they do not appear to fit in with a preconceived notion of what an immigrant looks like–particularly because they are white.
This can be attributed to wider social dynamics, particularly because of colonialism in the UK. Immigration has become such a racialised and politicised topic. Thus, I wanted to delve deeper into this topic and explore why my parents found it easy to assimilate into the UK and how this contrasts to my parents’ home countries.
The UK allowed for cultural autonomy in its colonies, unlike France. As a result, when Commonwealth citizens were encouraged to migrate to England due to labour shortages, there was not an underlying assumption that they would have to become British. This sentiment has been maintained, with Britain appearing to embrace other cultures, integrating them into British society.
Nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge how the UK is not a cultural utopia, and post-colonial structures have perpetuated a racial hierarchy in Britain, legitimised by structural racism, where white immigrants have often been prioritised.
An example of this would be the Windrush Scandal. Immigration policies after World War granted those born in British colonies the right of settlement in the UK, and those who migrated during this period became known as the “Windrush Generation”, a group made up of mainly black Carribeans. They had the legal right to come to the UK and thus did not need documents nor were they given any. This caused conflict in 2018 when the Home Office wrongly detained and deported Windrush generation immigrants, which also threatened second-generation Windrush immigrants. This demonstrated little regard for black Brits on behalf of Parliament, a hostility towards a community that rightfully considers itself British implying that they do not belong. However, as my parents are white they have the privilege of being considered British, instead of being inadvertently isolated, until they speak with American and French accents.
This raises the question of what assimilation into the US and France would have also looked like for my parents if they had been emigrated from the US and UK to France or emigrated from the UK and France to the US. In America, a main focus of Donald Trump’s presidency was restricting immigration. Nevertheless, in the US there is a racialised image of American identity where “true” Americans are assumed to be white, to maintain a racial hierarchy after slavery.
So Trump, when discussing immigrants, is using covert language to refer to people of colour, particularly Latin American immigrants. He infamously describes Mexicans as “thieves” and “rapists”, legitimately attempting to build a border wall to physically keep undocumented Latinx out of the country. Again, race plays an integral role in immigration and assimilation; it indicates that integration into the United States would not have proven difficult for my white parents.
However, France heavily focuses on assimilation to the French way of life, making integration for immigrants difficult. Like the UK, this also has roots in colonialism. France wanted to prove their culture was superior, strictly imposing their customs on their colonies and adopting strong integration models. Nonetheless, France is a traditionally white and Catholic country–making immigration and assimilation smoother for white people.
Additionally, France operates colour-blindly: the government does not collect a census nor any data on the race or ethnicity of its citizens. In France’s expectation for conformity to French culture they neglect to take into account their white-dominant culture which proves to be exclusionary of people of colour.
This suggests that if my parents had emigrated from the UK and US assimilation might have been more complicated than assimilation in the UK or US having to adapt quickly to French customs. In particular, learning French would have been key in assimilating into French society. Although national identity and history differs for each country, ultimately, the US, UK and France are all individualist Western cultures where their citizens are usually thought of as white.
At the end of the day, it is important to acknowledge that my view is limited to a white person’s perspective. Thus, I cannot comprehensively speak on minorities’ experiences in integrating into these countries but simply understand that it is easier for white people.