Discrimination Against Coloured Immigrants in the British Housing Sector in the 1960s

Seminar Paper 2005 12 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Culture and Applied Geography



I Housing as an Important Factor of Integration

II Analysis of Wole Soyinka’s “Telephone Conversation”

III Discrimination of Coloured Immigrants in the Housing Sector in Britain in the 1960s
1. General Situation in Britain in the 1960s
2. White Attitude Towards Coloured Neighbours
3. Overcrowding and Ghetto Formation
4. Coloured Immigrants and Private Rental
5. Discrimination and Owner-Occupation
6. Local-Authority Housing

IV Changes in Society were Necessary to Solve the Housing Problem

List of Works Cited
Primary Literature
Secondary Literature

I Housing as an Important Factor of Integration

The place you live in, where your accommodation is set, is a determinant factor for the integration of coloured people in the society today and was one in the 1960s. It does not only determine the education of the children and the employment of the adolescent[1], but the surrounding also has a deep impact on the social development. Therefore it is easier for coloured immigrants to be integrated into British society, when they are living in a rather middle-class area than in a run-down ‘immigration quarter’. Wole Soyinka’s poem “Telephone Conversation” describes the attempt of a coloured man to break out of the normally poor housing situation of blacks, but instead of getting a fair chance to improve his living conditions, he is only discriminated against. This paper will first have a close look on the poem and afterwards examine the reasons of discrimination in the housing sector and how they worked in the daily search for a better accommodation.

II Analysis of Wole Soyinka’s “Telephone Conversation”

The poem, describing a conversation between a white landlady and a black applicant, consists of four stanzas. It has a narrative structure to give the impression of a conversation. For the same reason there is no rhyme. Soyinka used mainly short and incomplete sentences. Although there are many enjambments in the poem, again to symbolize lively conversation, some caesuras disturb the fluent flow. The first obvious interruption is in line five: ‘Madam, […] I hate a wasted journey – I am African.’ This pause should increase the suspense before he reveals to the biased landlady his skin colour. The most obvious caesura is in line ten. The speaker’s feelings of surprise and even shock are depicted in these two pauses.

All the utterances of the landlady are in capital letters, which may symbolize the superior position of the white woman She can decide whether the speaker gets the accommodation or not. Furthermore you can find several alliterations. For example in lines 20, 22, 24, 33, which are all, except the one in line 22, linked with the reaction of the landlady after the black’s revelation. Repetitions are used to explain the reaction of the woman after the speaker’s revelation. She seems to be surprised and therefore she is not able to speak for a while: “Silence. Silenced Transmission of / Pressurized good-breeding” The anaphora in lines 13/14 of the poem describe the surrounding of the speaker. But the repetition of the word ‘red’, which normally stands for rage, may also be hint of the rising anger of the black man.[2] However the most important things in the poem are irony and sarcasm, used to make racism look ridiculous. A good example is in line 19, where the speaker compares his skin colour with the colour of different kinds of chocolate. In this way the prejudices of the landlady seem to be ridiculous and less important. Sarcasm is also used when he is asked to describe his colour and he gives his body attributes that are not linked with blackness, like the brunette face and the peroxide blondness of the palms of his hands and feet. Irony also gets obvious in the beginning of the poem, where the speaker has to confess his skin colour, like he would have to confess a crime committed.[3] At the very end of the poem the black man pleads the landlady she should rather see for herself what he is like. But, as he was talking of his bottom before, it could mean that he offers her to show her his backside instead of wanting her to make a better picture of him.[4]

The problems for the speaker to buy a house are laid bare in the first two lines. The word ‘indifferent’ can be attributed to two meanings. The first, ‘neither good nor bad’, refers to the house itself, describing it as a rather ordinary lodging. The second meaning, however, defines the word as “Characterized by a lack of partiality; unbiased”[5] Due to this second meaning of the pun you could conclude that the location of the accommodation should be free from bias and racism but this is definitely not true, if you consider the reaction of the landlady.[6]

III Discrimination of Coloured Immigrants in the Housing Sector in Britain in the 1960s

1. General Situation in Britain in the 1960s

As in many other European countries the British economy was growing very fast after World War II. This growth consequently led to a shortage of labourers. To compensate this lack of workers immigrants were, at first, invited to stay in Britain. Among these immigrants was a considerable number of coloured people of the former Commonwealth empire. But although the influx of black people was constantly rising they were only a minority of all the other migrants. In the year 1968 there were around one million ‘new Commonwealth’ immigrants in Britain.[7] Among them were three main groups: about 445,000 West Indians, about 230,000 Indians and approximately 125,000 Pakistani.[8] But nevertheless by 1968 the number of blacks entering the United Kingdom had quadrupled in a decade.[9]

But the housing sector was not able to accommodate all the newcomers. This sector would even have had problems without all the new people searching for accommodation. 5.5 million houses needed to be replaced and 907,000 families in England and Wales, which is one in every twenty, shared their home with other families.[10] This problem was intensified by the immigrants’ way of settling: They rather avoided the ‘traditional’ coloured settlements in the docklands and the ports.[11] They now settled in areas with a great demand for work. In those parts a relatively high concentration of coloured people was likely to occur, whereas the concentration in the rest of the country was less high. As a result 76.7 per cent of Asians and West Indians were living in the Southeast and the Midlands in 1971.[12] These areas also had the biggest housing problems, which were now reinforced by the increasing number of immigrants. Consequently a large number of people were competing for a limited number of accommodation. “Within this highly competitive set-up, there are various types of discrimination … [sic] not only against coloured people, but against all migrant labourers, people with children, and especially people with large families.”[13]

In consideration of all these aspects, the housing problem can not be seen as an immigration problem but rather as a structural problem of the country, which was not able to provide enough accommodation to handle the rise of economy. Nevertheless housing was considered to be “the greatest problem that confronts the immigrants themselves and the sphere in which the greatest tensions are likely to arise between immigrants and local people.”[14]

2. White Attitude Towards Coloured Neighbours

The racism shown by the landlady in this poem was a big obstacle for immigrants to find suitable accommodations and integration in a surrounding dominated by whites. Living together as good neighbours was therefore very complicated. The arising tensions between black and white were also a result of a general reversal of the public opinion about coloured immigration. In the course of the 1960s the climate of opinion


[1] Cf. Nicholas Deakin, Citizenship in Britain (London: Panther Books, 1970) 167.

[2] Cf. Robert Reese, “The Irony of Racism”, 2004, 16 August 2005 <http://writing.lantenengo.com/telephone.php>.

[3] Cf. Reese.

[4] Cf. Reese.

[5] Reese.

[6] The above section relies on Wole Soyinka ”Telephone Conversation”, Hurricane Hits England. An

Anthology of Writing about Black Britain, ed. Onyekachi Wambu (New York: Continuum, 2000) 105-06.

[7] Cf. Patterson Sheila, “Immigrants and Minority Groups in British Society”, The Prevention of Racial Discrimination, ed. Simon Abbot (London, New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1971) 49.

[8] Cf.Patterson, Immigrants 12.

[9] Cf. Patterson, Immigrants 24.

[10] Cf. Sheila Patterson, Immigration and Race Relations in Britain 1960 – 1967 (London, New York: Oxford

University Press, 1969) 194.

[11] Cf. Patterson, Immigration 194.

[12] Cf. Andrew Pilkington, Race Relations in Britain (Slough: University Tutorial Press, 1984) 100.

[13] Patterson, Immigration 194.

[14] Patterson, Immigration 194.


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Discrimination Against Coloured Immigrants British Housing Sector




Title: Discrimination Against Coloured Immigrants in the British Housing Sector in the 1960s