Upstairs, Downstairs, and the Spaces In-Between

Dr Kinga Goodwin, Policy Impact Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Modern Languages works on the project ‘In-between spaces: Central and Eastern European Art and Artists in the UK in the UK Creative Economies’.  Here she discusses the intersections of various cultural identities, and how this impacts on migrant artists.

Seats in a theatre marked out to allow social distancing

‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ was a critically acclaimed 1970s British television drama which let the viewers peek into the lives of the townhouse in Belgravia and watch exchanges between the family ‘upstairs’ and the servants ‘downstairs’. This allegorical tale of class relations, from the Edwardian era to the 1930s, documents how these relations evolved, and how the idea of a ‘proper place’ for those living ‘downstairs’ and ‘upstairs’ transformed over time. The symbolism of a shared house is one we often use while talking about opening (or closing) the door to migration, or a glass ceiling restricting women and minorities access to upper-story offices. These analogies are not coincidental: privileges and rights are irrevocably tied to spatiality, and there are many regulational and linguistic barriers that keep certain people and groups ‘in their place’. This language also shapes our sense of belonging and tells us in which spaces we are welcome, and where we will find a locked door.

After the 2016 Brexit referendum many Europeans living in the UK woke up to the unpleasant reality of suddenly feeling unwelcomed in what they thought was, until now, their home. This awakening was, however, different for Central and Eastern Europeans (CEE) than Western Europeans. It also further highlighted the ambiguous places CEE often inhabit in the UK. They often describe these spaces as ‘in-between spaces’, a ‘gray zone’ or ‘limbo’.

The White Other

CEE migrants are predominantly white, and on diversity forms are classified as ‘White Other’ – a ‘tick box’ they share with Western European, North Americans and Australians. They do not, however, share the same privileges and access to the same resources. As the Irish before them, they are not seen as ‘properly white’ (nor properly European). They experience the white privilege of ‘invisibility’, but are – once identified as Central and Eastern European – often targets of violent xeno-racist attacks and hate crime. A study by the University of Birmingham and Centrala on Inclusion and Representation of Central and Eastern European Art and Artists in the UK’s Creative Economies found that CEE artists are significantly underrepresented in the art scene in the Midlands (and the UK), compared to their Western European and North American colleagues, and they report experiences of discrimination, exclusion and xeno-racism. This is a curious position: white, European and in a position of privilege compared to migrants from other parts of the world, but not ‘white and European enough’ to enjoy full inclusion. Why is this so?

Western Ex-pats and Eastern Workers

When 22-year old Pierre works in Starbucks in London, he does not see himself as an immigrant (or much less ‘work migrant’) and is not treated as such: he is a student on a gap year. So why is his young co-worker Zoran seen differently? Unlike his Western European friends, Zoran is placed at the lower end of the ‘hierarchy of Europeanness’, with many class stigmas attached. When talking about the CEE communities the word ‘migrant’ is usually used interchangeably with ‘worker’: this tendency often pervades even migration surveys. When young Germans or Swedes are asked about their willingness to live abroad, young Central and Eastern Europeans may be asked if they would move for work. This view may not be inaccurate, but it is rather reductive: it also relegates CEE migrants to limited, usually economic, rather than cultural, spaces. Seeing CEE communities solely as an invisible workforce translates into the spaces they are allowed to occupy and co-create. As Krystyna Iglicka noticed about Poles in Norway ‘we wanted workers, but people arrived’. These people do not want to be confined to ‘downstairs’ only, but wish to be allowed into all the rooms, and have a say in how to decorate them, too.

Unpacking the Suitcase

One of the often-repeated words when it comes to migration is ‘contribution’ – usually seen in strictly economic terms. This idea is, however, one-sided: it is as if people arrived in the UK empty-handed, and their only value was derived from their work. This approach to inclusion assumes (and focuses on) needs rather than a symmetric exchange of resources. To recognise ‘strength in diversity’ we may have to update the way diversity is recognized and evaluated, for example by acknowledging the skills and qualifications people bring with them. CEE migrants are more overqualified and underpaid than their Western colleagues: their cultural capital not being adequately translated into UK markets and the creative economies. This has been recently acknowledged by the European Commission, that – for the first time – recognised complex types of discrimination, and included ‘EU citizens of migrant background’ in their 2021-2027 Action Plan. In the UK being a migrant is not a protected characteristic: this leaves many migrants vulnerable in a post-Brexit Hostile Environment.  And although there may be other protected characteristics these migrants possess, they may not want to draw additional attention to themselves, which limits their access to resources (such as disability support).

From the Servants’ Quarters to the Drawing Room

There are many groups that have been denied entry to cultural or artistic salons, be it women, or working class artists. Art is about visibility, creation and (historically) what may be called ‘high culture’: it is maybe not surprising that it remains inaccessible to many migrant artists, especially from communities associated with fruit-picking. Building integrated and cohesive communities is thought to be all-encompassing, targeting all communities or groups that experience exclusion, such as women and poorer White British households. It is important to remember that everyone has multiple identities and belongs to many social or cultural groups: we are all diverse. In that sense, this is not about diversity, but securing equal access – for all – to all the rooms of a house in which we live in together.