Will Britain’s History Ever Transcend Empire?

In recent months, racism in Britain has been widely discussed in the light of the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other people worldwide. The Black Lives Matter movement has gained poignancy, with many supporters risking their lives to protest against systemic racism during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

When discussing this issue with peers, one comment often made was, ‘I don’t understand why they’re protesting here, that’s all happening in America?’. On the surface this might seem true, however comments like these fail to address Britain’s horrifically racist past, and the continual microaggressions and discrimination people of colour face today as a result of this. And this begs the question – if we’re ‘better’ than America in this respect, can any country ever completely transcend its corrupt past? 

A propaganda poster for the British Empire, centred around George VI. (CreditL Snowgoose, via Pinterest.)

The verb ‘transcend’ is broadly defined as the action of going beyond the limits of something, so in order to make a sound judgement on history’s ability to transcend a period of mass exploitation, we must first discover what ‘limits’ empire placed on Britain’s History. Back in school, you might remember History lessons telling you of a time when Britain ‘owned’ almost half the world – the British Empire, reaping massive economic benefits for Britain. The crimes of the British Empire need to be discussed in greater depth.

The British Empire imposed Western ideas of civilisation onto foreign cultures, and colonists committed heinous crimes. An ideological ‘them and us’ binary was instigated by the Empire; British colonists used this dehumanisation to justify horrific acts of violence and oppression against native people, alongside the stealing of land and imposition of culture. All this is delivered to British people today under the guise of either neutrality or a jubilant narrative which ignores and diminishes the atrocities of the Empire, and the lasting effects this ‘them and us’ mentality has had on the lives of BAME people in Britain. 

So, while it’s understandable to hope for a History detached from Empire in today’s more progressive society, it’s integral to understand that the global devastation caused by Imperialism cannot simply be forgotten. Remember that it was only in 2015 that the British taxpayer had paid off compensation paid to families of slave owners for their loss of ‘business assets’ after it was abolished in 1833. Imperialism arguably catalysed racism, and years of Black Lives Matter protests have shown that there is no quick fix. To hope for a transcendent utopia away from this is naïve. In many ways, ‘moving on’ from Empire minimises the experiences and culture of those adversely affected by it; derailing discussion and progression in a way which mirrors using the phrase ‘All Lives Matter’ as a response to ‘Black Lives Matter’. 

One method which gained huge amounts of public backing was a change to Britain’s school curriculum, in which education about the realities of Empire and colonisation are made mandatory. Many of us will remember, and have signed, the government petition for this which gained over 250,000 signatures. However, after first responding to this in July, saying that colonial education is already part of the key stage 3 curriculum (ages 11 to 14), they have now agreed to host a debate on the subject; the date for which will take over 80 days to decide. 

One organisation who advocate for education on Black History in schools is The Black Curriculum. In their open letter to the Secretary of State, Gavin Williamson, they stated their aim to embed, ‘Black History in England’s National Curriculum more explicitly’, to counteract the whitewashed version of History children are taught. This would be an important step to take in tackling racism and inclusivity in schools; the founder Lavinya Stennet and her team have developed an extensive multimedia curriculum to teach Black History in an accessible way. If you’d like to support this cause, you can download their email templates to send to your MP, or donate through the link on their website. 

So sadly, there’s no way for Britain’s History to transcend Empire, as this would ignore the experiences of those continuing to be affected by racism, stereotypes and the microaggressions brought about by it. Being able to see past the effects of Empire is a privilege, and one which unfortunately isn’t a reality for many British citizens, despite more information becoming available via social media to help inform everyone of changes that can be made.

Sarah Matthews

“Strong people don’t need strong leaders” – The Continual Impact of Women in the Black Freedom Struggle

With the ongoing global protests against police brutality and systemic racism sparked by the murder of George Floyd, it is now more important than ever to look back at the history of the civil rights and black liberation movements. When we look at these movements, the work and contributions of women are often overlooked, although current protests take far more inspiration from historical female activists than is often recognised. The impact of women, such as Angela Davis and Ella Baker, in the black freedom struggle can be seen clearly. Many of the global demands being made at this time concern the police and prisons; however, it can only be helpful to take a closer look at the successes of women and attempt to learn from them as best we can.

The most well-known leading female figure of the black liberation struggle, and arguably the most influential in the current protests is, without a doubt, Angela Davis. An active and continuing campaigner for the black liberation struggle for over 5 decades, she has an exceedingly large body of experience to examine. The influence of her commitment to police and prison abolition and her lasting criticisms of the prison-industrial complex can be seen throughout many of the demands currently being made in protests. Furthermore, her internationalist, intersectional outlook should undoubtedly be the standard against which organisations attempting to foment radical change should be measured. There is much that has already been said about Angela Davis, but her ubiquity should not serve to diminish her influence. We should not focus simply on her work, but also the work of other contemporaries and past figures. The most important, yet overlooked, is Ella Baker.

Angela Davis speaking at Columbia University. (Credit: Columbia GSAPP, via Flickr)

It is hard to overstate the monumental impact that Ella Baker had on the civil rights movement. However, compared to many of her contemporaries, her contributions remain largely unrecognised. During her lifetime she was an active member of organisations such as the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and even helped to co-found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960. She was deeply critical of organisations driven by a single, usually male, charismatic leader and feared that such organisations would distance themselves from the very people they were intending to help. Ella Baker fundamentally believed that people should always be prioritised over organisations, and her approach to activism remains forward-thinking and progressive by modern standards. By prioritising grassroots appeal and more horizontal, technocratic forms of organisational hierarchy, she showed commitment to her belief that every individual has the capacity to engage with, and fight against oppression. 

The nature of the current protests exemplifies these womens’ lasting influence. We see now movements driven not by a single, messianic leader, but by a confidence in the wisdom of ordinary people to define their problems and cultivate solutions. We are beginning to see forms of group-centered leadership with individuals accountable to each other. Never before have calls for police defunding or prison abolition been so loud and so widespread; more people than ever are attempting to fight and dismantle a system that perpetuates racism and violence. However, none of this means that the current protest demands and organisational forms are beyond reproach, and it is important that we look back and learn from the actions and demands of women such as Angela Davis and Ella Baker, as well as unmentioned figures such as Assata Shakur, Rosa Parks, Elaine Brown, Ramona Africa and many, many others. Looking reflectively at the past, and the pioneering work of these women is critical to ensuring the current movements can be as effective as possible, and provide the best chance of inducing real change.

Freddy Fossey-Warren

Decolonising the Curriculum

Whilst the #RhodesMustFall protests began over 5 years ago in South Africa and in the United Kingdom, misunderstanding has continued over movements to ‘decolonise the curriculum’. To ‘decolonise the curriculum’ means to question well established biases and gaps within teaching that limit our understanding of the world around us. Thus, the movement campaigns to give a fuller version of British history to reflect injustice and celebrate the histories of British POC.  

If our curriculum remains entirely static in its distorted presentation of knowledge, it will become stale, risk entrenching racial thinking, and inadvertently devalue POC. As students, if we do not challenge what we are learning (and how we are learning it), entire perspectives and realms of knowledge can go unheard, which can become enormously damaging over time. For our BME peers, our current focus on the great (white) man theory can suggest that BME identity is inferior, as British course contents do not attempt to teach any aspect of their history.

On a personal level, as a white History undergraduate, I am glad to see petitions being submitted to my previous school which call for widened GCSE and A-level History curricula. Despite having both a GCSE and an A-level in History, my learning has been entirely Euro-centric, limited to the Tudors, the World Wars, the Cold War and the Stuart Century. Shamefully, it is only recently that I began to question why my curriculum focussed exclusively on white, western intellectual traditions and histories. To young and impressionable teenagers, this undoubtedly promotes the notion that European history and culture is both universal and superior.  

The movement to decolonise the curriculum is multidimensional and therefore its application, in practical terms, must also be. Firstly, our curriculum should widen its scope to include more internationally diverse thought. Undergraduate reading lists, for example, should encompass a greater inclusion of authors outside of Europe. Further, course contents, from the age of 16, must become more international, and give a fuller version of British colonial history.  

Students at Oxford University calling for the removal of Cecil Rhose’s state in March 2016. (Credit: David Hartly/Rex, via Shutterstock)

In terms of having a genuinely positive impact on POC, providing an accurate and full portrayal of history will help to address the prominent racial attainment gap within academia. Where only 50% of black students are awarded first-class or upper-second class honours, 78.8% of white students are. Many believe this can be partly explained by BME students’ inability to engage with an exclusively white-focused curriculum in the way that their white peers do. We must also fundamentally reconsider who is teaching and how they are teaching. In 2016, only 25 black women were working as professors compared to 14,000 white men – outnumbering black women professors at a rate of 560 to 1. Promoting a more inclusive and diverse teaching body within higher education will help to broaden our perspectives by examining biases within our course content.  

See our podcast with Dr David Andersen for his academic view on the importance of a decolonised curriculum, as well as wider discussion about the impact of the Black Lives’ Matter movement on the Obama and Trump presidencies, alongside many other fascinating topics. Listen to it on Spotify here.

Amelia Crick

George Floyd

History does not look kindly on bystanders but we must not allow our fear of this to determine our reaction to injustice.

The killing of George Floyd has emblazoned social media with messages of protest in solidarity with movements such as Black Lives Matter. Unlike those who came before us, we are able to broadcast our views to the world, but eagerness to not be remembered as onlookers in an atrocity should not determine the action we take. Soundbite political culture and social media allows statements to be publicly broadcast, but we must be careful that this does not supplant real meaningful political engagement. When the hashtags have stopped we must continue to act against injustice.

Posting on social media is not a replacement for real life critical engagement with our political and social climate. Public statements that ‘Black Lives Matter’ are virtue signalling if we don’t look at the flaws within our communities, families and ourselves. Racial injustice does not just occur in times like this when we see an African American man being murdered by a police officer in the US. In the UK, racism is prevalent, institutional and historically entrenched. If we are to proclaim that Black Lives Matter, they must matter always, not just when it is the done thing to post a slogan supporting justice on social media.

Unless they are backed up by action, words are dispassionate at best and dishonest at worst.

I fear that statement-led politics can be used to absolve white peoples’ guilt. Expressions of sympathy can be used as a statement that ‘I am not racist’, ‘I am not one of them’. White people are in a position of inherent privilege as their skin colour is not a basis for oppression. Does this political culture on social media make it easier to avoid conversations about race as people appoint themselves immune from being part of the problem? We must consider the use of social media in a productive way and solely expressing sympathy or solidarity is not enough to be part of the solution. White people must acknowledge their racial privilege and actively challenge racism even when it may feel uncomfortable to do so. If our behaviours or attitudes are challenged we should listen to the experiences of others and not assume that our Black Lives Matter post can make us immune from making mistakes.

Our generation’s power to engage with and combat global injustice is unparalleled and this is largely due to our connections with each other through social media. Our anger should not be used for social approval and our anger does not absolve people from wrongdoing. Our anger needs to be supported by action for radical change and active anti-racism. Social media can raise awareness, but if we don’t support these words with action, we are no better than those who stand by and watch.

I am writing this as a white person and am not exempt myself from what I have argued. I am going to do better and put more effort into being aware, listening and learning about racism and my own privilege. To find out how to help go to https://blacklivesmatter.carrd.co, this includes informational resources and links to the places where your donations and signature can be the most effective. For causes to contribute to in the UK: https://www.independent.co.uk/…/black-lives-matter-charity-….