'What They Don't Teach At School'
Black British History and Racism
By Philippa Mwayi
The resurfacing of the Black Lives Matter moment, sparked by the murder of George Floyd, has resulted in drastic action across the world. From statues being torn down to protests across the globe, people are doing everything they can for their voices to be heard.
Why there is such outrage may not be apparent to everybody, as racism is rarely portrayed as a problem in the UK. If you believed this to be true, you are not alone, and we have our education system to thank for the misinformation.
Despite the UK playing a substantial role in the enslavement of Black people, and despite police brutality and murder still taking place in the UK, and despite the British colonising African countries, there is virtually no mention of this in our school curriculum. We are often taught about the triumphs of the UK – and there are plenty to celebrate. But to skim over tragedies that Britain has caused leaves many of us naive to the full story.
It’s helpful to think of your relationship with the UK in the same way you would a close friend or family member. To ignore the mistakes they make because you love them allows them to continue making them. Calling a loved one out on their mistakes allows them to become a better person and allows your relationship to grow stronger. Similarly, criticising the UK’s past does not make you less patriotic, it allows us to move forward and ensure our country is truly one to be proud of.
Let’s take a look at some key parts of British history that we have been misinformed about until now.
The Abolishment of Slavery
Black people often hear a range of dismissive responses when they try to discuss the horrific stories of slavery. From being told not to “dwell on the past,” to arguing that because Britain was one of the first countries to abolish slavery, we don’t need to keep discussing it.
The Slavery Abolition Act instated in 1833 did formally free 800,000 people. However, what is less well known, is that the same act contained a clause stating that each slave owner should be given financial compensation for the loss of their “property”. Despite former slaves receiving not a penny of compensation, £20 million (the present-day equivalent of £17 billion) was agreed upon to give to slaveowners as compensation for their loss. The government had to borrow money to pay the 46,000 slave owners. British tax payers were paying off this debt until 2015.
Imagine discovering as a Black British citizen, that the money you have worked so hard to earn, was being used to pay back slave owners. Some of which may have owned, abused and murdered the ancestors of those same taxpayers. We even have statues of many of these slave owners in cities and towns, a frequent reminder of how a sinister past continues to be glorified. With information like this, it should be clear to see why discussing slavery is not dwelling on the past, the effects are still felt now.
If there is one thing we are taught a lot about in school, it is Britain’s triumph during the war. Many of us have taken that sense of pride and achievement into our adulthood and idolise many war heroes. But what if some of those heroes also had a dark past?
Take Winston Churchill. We know of him as the glorious leader that successfully led us through WW. Whilst this is true, we must also acknowledge that it wasn’t all positive. He believed that White people were the superior race and openly stated that he hated Indian people, believing them to be “beastly people with a beastly religion.” These opinions fuelled his policies, which had disastrous impacts for world progress, such as the Bengal Famine. In 1943, millions of people were dying of starvation in Bengal, primarily due to large-scale exports of food from India for consumption in the UK. Churchill’s Secret War, a book by Madhusree Mukerjee, elaborates in further detail, explaining that Churchill and his associates could have easily helped but refused. Churchill suggested that the blame should lie with Indian people for “breeding like rabbits.ˮ
You would be right in thinking that extremist views such as these weren’t uncommon at the time. However, just because they were common, it does not mean they were innocent: there are countless records, throughout history, of people acknowledging that their actions were inhumane but deciding, ultimately, that profit was more important. It is therefore vital that we don’t disregard the consequences of these views. If we think back to the friend analogy, critiquing and raising awareness of Churchill’s life and legacy does not mean the positives are no longer recognised. It simply allows us to be better educated about British history. Most would agree that a truly admirable leader would not be responsible for the death of innocent people, nor withhold racist opinions. By knowing the full story behind some of our most famous figures, we can choose even better ones in the future. Ones that want the best for every British citizen, not just those who are White.
On 22nd June 1948, the MV Empire Windrush ship brought hundreds of workers over from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago to the UK. In response to post-war labour shortages in Britain, job adverts were created to bring in workers from these countries. Despite what we are often taught about immigration, the UK needed these people: not the other way around. Jamaica was, and is, a country not in need of salvation. The UK was desperate for their labour and support to rebuild after the war, but the treatment of the migrants upon arrival was not one of gratitude.
Many passengers paid £28 (close to £1000 today) for transportation to work here. Alongside an estimated 500,000 others who travelled to the UK between 1948 and 1971, in return for their hard work, they were promised better, more prosperous lives. This was not the case. Upon arrival, many suffered from racism and discrimination. Companies refused to hire them because they were Black, landlords refused to provide housing and many were subject to violent abuse and attacks. Despite being promised so much and leaving behind their families to help rebuild Britain, they received anything but a warm welcome.
At the time, they were told by the government that they could stay in the UK permanently. However, the government did not keep a proper record of them. In 2012, when a change in immigration law happened, many members of the Windrush generation did not have the official documents they needed to stay here. This led to many being sent to immigration detention centres and facing potential deportation.
In 2018, the government issued a formal apology with the reassurance that nobody would be forced to leave. But by this point, the damage had been done. Despite dedicating so many years of their lives to contributing to this country, this treatment highlighted how little they were valued. With this happening so recently, it becomes apparent that racism and discrimination is unfortunately not a thing of the past.
Despite being hard to come to terms with, these few moments are just the tip of the iceberg. There is a whole side of British history — our shared history — that has been hidden from us for so long. When you learn that in 2018, 85.9% of all teachers in state-funded schools in England are White British, it is no surprise that our knowledge of the country we live in is one-sided. Whilst there is the potential for the curriculum to function properly and teach us the full story, in the meantime, our only option is to teach ourselves and relearn the past.
To ignore the past does not make it go away and Black people do not have the luxury of ignoring years of oppression and discrimination that are directly responsible for the inequalities we see in society today. We all know the past cannot be changed but by being aware of it and not just the good parts, we can learn from it. We can stop the same things happening again, we can ensure the voices and struggles of Black people are finally recognised. Most importantly, we can do better.
- Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, Akala.
- Black and British: An Untold History, BBC iPlayer.
- Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, BBC iPlayer.
- The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and Its Solutions, Jason Hickel.
- Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge.
- 13th, Netflix.