By Francesca Holmes
In light of the social unrest sparked by the murder of George Floyd by white police officers in Minneapolis, it is high time to shine a spotlight on the roots of racism in Britain. As a history student, it is clear that much of the racial ignorance in Britain is a consequence of the failure of the national curriculum to accurately represent the true nature of British history. Whilst many of us have studied aspects of the American civil rights movement and the Vietnam War at school, it was not until I went to university at the ripe old age of eighteen that I began learning about the atrocities that were carried out by the British Empire on our own turf. The fact that racial histories are sidestepped from the curriculum shows a denial about colonialism and an ignorance of the impact that non-white people have had on the world we live in today.
The past ten days have been a time to reflect, read, listen and learn about black history, but it should not be the case that we have had to independently self-educate ourselves about the racial injustices of our nation. It is wrong that I have learnt more about Britain’s colonial history from Twitter this week than I did during my fourteen years in the UK’s state education system.
The main issue is that the national curriculum simply does not represent modern Britain. Black history is essential to our understanding of today’s society, yet there are few black narratives predating the Second World War. This wrongly gives the impression that white people are the only important figures in the history of Britain, as black people and people of colour are rarely mentioned. Whilst white students can guarantee that the mainstream history textbooks will represent the experiences of their relatives, this is not the case for young black Britons who are denied the opportunity to learn about the histories of their people. The narratives of many influential black figures such as Edward Swarthye, Omoba Aina Forbes-Bonetta and Lilian Bader are erased from British history, in spite of their significant contributions to the society in which we all live today.
The sliver of black history that is taught in schools is oversimplified. The curriculum offers a sanitized version of colonialism and imperialism from a white, British perspective. The majority of the GCSE English and history reading lists are whitewashed; comprised of texts by white, male authors, which render the black experience invisible.
The brief account of slavery I did study in school was tainted by a sense of self-congratulation. Britain was represented as a guiltless nation with William Wilberforce deified as a heroic leader for abolishing slavery before the United States. While this may be true to some extent, the curriculum compares Britain’s history to that of other nations in an attempt to glorify the British story. By exploring British history against the failures of other countries, the education system fails to teach the unfavourable side of colonization and imperialism – a grim history of human rights abuses at the hands of Britain. This method of comparison goes beyond the classroom. In response to the current Black Lives Matter protests taking place across the UK, we are constantly reminded that police brutality is much worse in the United States, and that the protests are about the killing of George Floyd on American soil, not racism in Britain. Such comparisons imply that racism does not exist in Britain, or that it is not a serious problem. It is this denial that is entrenched in the national curriculum.
Indeed, there is an emphasis on the history of black Americans, but the lack of focus on the lives of British people of colour is nothing to be proud of. The national curriculum is in denial that Britain ever committed any atrocities under colonial rule; it is far easier to teach about the racial injustices that were carried out thousands of miles away from British classrooms. Even so, we cannot ignore the fact that slavery, colonialism and imperialism are all part of British history.
In particular, through comparisons with the United States, the contributions of British people of colour are forgotten. The Black Power movement in Britain is something that is erased from national memory and overshadowed by the actions of renowned American figures such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The significant contributions made by British groups such as the Brixton Black Women’s Group and British figures such as Olive Morris and Beverley Bryan have been written out of the national textbook. By continuing to push forward the idealistic historical narrative of peaceful race relations, the curriculum teaches that Britain has never been a place of racial tension.
How can we be shocked at the acts of racism that litter our newsfeeds when it is instilled in our education system? Racism is something that is taught and learned, aided by the very institutions that are responsible for our understanding of the world. The gaps in the syllabus therefore need to be filled and a change in the reading lists would be a good place to start. Given that we regard the stories we are taught at school as truths, young people should be taught about the true realities of the British Empire, whether they fit the utopian narrative or not.
There needs to be a more diverse range of voices represented on the curriculum. In order to remember their important contributions to the British state, the voices of the colonized should be articulated. Black history, art and literature should therefore be studied as part of the national curriculum all year round, not just remembered in a single month every year.
What we are implicitly or explicitly taught at school is not restricted to the classroom but permeates into the rest of society. As long as children are taught a whitewashed rendition of British history, backed up by a systemic whiteness in our art, literature and culture, racism will continue to be engendered in British society. We cannot conceal the truth just because it does not fit the idealistic narrative. Young people must be educated about the privileges they are able to enjoy today, as a result of Britain’s colonial past.