Our Whitewashed History

Over these last few weeks there has been much discussion and protest marches about #blacklivesmatter.  

There have been protests before. There has been discussion before. But what I desperately hope is, that this time, the discussion will continue, and be followed by action.  Action which is way overdue.   

One of the main things I think needs altering is, changes to  the History curriculum in schools. 

I’m not a history buff, but I’m sure that if people were taught about the history of everyone who is born in Britain, of all races, there might be more of an understanding about the rich diversity of our culture.

Why is this my opinion?

Many people in this country appear uninformed about why we have such a diverse population. They also seem to be ignorant about the fact that many, many of these people are in fact British citizens.

A man visiting where my husband works (I have mentioned previously that he is first generation Black British), asked him if he minded being asked questions about what #blacklivesmatter meant.  My husband was very happy to answer any questions that this man asked, and in fact was pleased that he had felt comfortable to do so.

However, I was shocked that someone in their sixties didn’t seem have any understanding of history about the Empire, and what it means.

In reality, I shouldn’t have been surprised, because, also in my sixties, it wasn’t something that I was taught about at school either. However, over time, I have wanted to find out about the impact the Empire has had on some people in our society.

During the time after the Brexit vote, certain people suddenly thought they had the right to tell people of colour, or people with non-British accents that they should go home.  Most of those people made their perceptions without ever considering that Britain could be that person’s home and they were born here.

History curriculum 2020

As it stands the History Curriculum for KS 3, has a few sections where pupils could actually be taught truthfully and openly about how we were involved in the Atlantic slave trade; how we asked Commonwealth people to come and fight for us in both World Wars, and then invited them to come live and work here after the war, due to shortages of workers.

Key stage 3 pupils have to study the following:

Under the heading of: ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain, 1745-1901

Non-statutory examples:

  • Britain’s Transatlantic slave trade: it’s affects and its eventual abolition
  • The development of the British Empire with a depth study (for example of India)

Under the heading: challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day in addition to studying the Holocaust, this could include: 

Non-statutory examples:

  • the Second World War and the wartime leadership of Winston Churchill 
  • Indian independence and end of Empire

Then they also have to choose one of the following:

  • at least one study of a significant society or issue in world history and its interconnections with other world developments [for example, Mughal India 1526-1857; China’s Qing dynasty 1644-1911; Changing Russian empires c.1800-1989; USA in the 20th Century]. 

(Taken from the Statutory guidance National curriculum in England: History programmes of study. Department for Education. published 2013)

Surely, there should be no choice about these areas of study, they should be statutory. There may be flexibility for children to be taught about the Empire, about the Commonwealth men and women that fought in the first and second world wars, but if they don’t appear in the text books, then teachers are, not surprisingly with their workload, generally going to go for the easy option.

Yes, we have a ‘Black History Month’, and many schools do take advantage of this time to share information, which you could say is better than nothing; but is it? In one way it is, because otherwise people would not know anything about Black people in history…. But isn’t only allowing a month of the year, paying lip service to the recognition of all of the Black and people of colour throughout history who have had as much impact on our history as the white people we recognise.

Teachers and historians within the ethnic communities have, over the years been asked to create resources and lessons to add to the curriculum. However, these don’t seem to have been shared widespread with schools.

Anecdotally, I have two stories about people of colour, both British, and how they were taught history in school. The first, my husband remembers seeing pictures in books of slaves lying in rows in the bottom of the ships.  He didn’t understand that they were his descendants. He didn’t know that they were anything to do with him.

He was born in 1964, the same year that a Conservative MP was elected into power during one of the most racist elections ever fought in Britain based on the slogan, “If you want a n…. for a neighbour, vote Labour.”

The second is a young friend, who is now at University studying to become a solicitor; she was taught about British Colonialism in 6thform. She said it was highly glossed over, and most of the abhorrent truth was skimmed over. She was one of the few pupils of colour in the room, and was made to feel very uncomfortable by the discussions, yet her teacher completely ignored her discomfort.  

They are not alone.

What did you learn about the Empire in your school days?

Why does it matter about the Curriculum?

13% of the UK population is non-white. Some of those people have moved here from their countries of birth, but also a great many of those people are first generation, meaning after their parents moved here, their children were born here. 

13% of the population equates to almost the population of London.  Imagine if those children were not taught inclusively – ie. they were not given any understanding of how they fit into the rest of the population; they were not given the same opportunities; or they were met with opposition just because they came from London every time they applied for a job, or applied to colleges – it would be unthinkable, and everyone would be up in arms.

This is how it must feel as a non-white person in the UK. 

I think this is why it is so important that we think more closely about our school curriculum, to ensure it is inclusive for all children.  It shouldn’t stop at History, but that would be a great start.

Like many people, possibly some teachers feel uncomfortable or are too ashamed of our colonial past to tackle the subjects about slavery and the Empire. Maybe they are nervous that they might say something offensive to their pupils who are from non-white backgrounds. But, if we don’t learn to face our truth and train teachers and ourselves (the white population) how to deal with this, then in ten, twenty, thirty years, people will still be having the same discussions, and the same protests, because people of colour are not treated equally and inclusively.

It isn’t good enough to keep saying this is a predominantly white population therefore the history we teach reflects that. We have had people of colour living in this country for hundreds of years, and it is time that we accepted that it is not and us and them situation. All of the people in our country are involved and part of  our history. 

We do need to keep having conversations. I don’t expect things to change overnight; they haven’t yet, but there seems to be a difference at the moment. The young people are engaging with the discussion more readily, both white and of colour.  All of us need to ask questions, and consider if we are truly being inclusive in how we employ people in our businesses, and how we interact with people every day.

Talking about racism: 

“It’s up to all of us – Black, white, everyone – no matter how well-meaning we think we might be, to do the honest, uncomfortable work of rooting it out.”

Michelle Obama