#10: Rebalancing the history books: why learning about colonialism matters

In which I speak to four young women actively seeking a decolonised curriculum...

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PSA: The
Byline Times published an edited and abridged version of this piece on 1 October 2021 (to mark the start of the UK’s annual Black History Month), which you can view here. But, I’ve made the original, full-length version available especially for ‘She Dares To Say’ readers.


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Rebalancing the history books: why learning about colonialism matters

In March 2021, the publication of the Sewell Report saw the politically aware consumed with incredulity and anger at the report findings, which, across two hundred and fifty pages of dense type, negated pre-existing evidence of institutional racism. This report had been commissioned by Prime Minister Boris Johnson last summer to investigate race and ethnic disparities in the UK.

The report’s publication came just weeks after the then education secretary, Gavin Williamson, announced plans to appoint a ‘free-speech champion’, whose mandate was to include a warning to bodies and institutions, such as the National Trust, Historic England, the British Museum against taking steps to decolonise British history.

Sadly, it has become abundantly clear that the government is clamping down on the development of forward-thinking ideas. Through the use of propaganda, it is taking steps to entrench the divisive identity politics of establishment mindsets. Appealing to our free speech and liberal values with concepts such as a ‘free speech champion’ is a carefully conducted move that wields the language of democracy as a cunning mechanism of control. Inadvertently, through these actions, the government has demonstrated its awareness of the power of language, as well as its urgent attempts to make sure it continues to work in their favour.

It is no coincidence that this is happening at a time when the previously lesser-known ‘decolonise the curriculum’ movement has entered the mainstream discourse. Precipitated by the Black Lives Matter uprisings during the summer of 2020, globalised anti-Blackness has been thrown into sharp focus. Now, more than a year on, many minoritised people, myself included still, experience bafflement at the not uncommon calls for us to “go back to where you came from”. I always assume that such taunts are voiced by people who have likely never considered the many reasons why people might leave their home countries in the first place.

Historically, the British education system has neglected to address that British imperialism was designed to destabilise indigenous cultures by limiting avenues of resistance and by extracting all its conceivable resources. The inevitable turbulence which followed, such as violent uprisings or rapid economic decline, were triggers for mass migration. The sudden, recent engagement with systemic racism by the mainstream has highlighted the depth of the unawareness of historical truths such as these. Many, many cultural narratives have been distorted by imperialism, and the current government would like to see it kept this way. It seems that there are no plans to decolonise any parts of the national curriculum; only plans to limit that possibility from evolving.

However, Generation Z is working to change this. Last November, the Petitions Committee and Women and Equalities Committee hosted the ‘Black history and cultural diversity in the curriculum’ parliamentary committee meeting. This meeting saw a wealth of viewpoints presented regarding approaches to history − viewpoints that argued we need not always centre white Britishness in our teaching. I spoke to four young women in attendance to hear their thoughts on why learning about colonialism matters.

Cynthia Muthoni is a twenty-three-year-old University of East Anglia student who launched the petition ‘Add education on diversity and racism to all school curriculums’ in June 2020 – at its close in December 2020, it had received 89,496 signatures.

“Being a young black woman who grew up in the UK, I have experienced and witnessed racism throughout my life. When I was fifteen, I became really interested in politics and went on to study it at university. It has provided me with knowledge on the different systems and processes, like petitioning, as well as exposing me to more instances of racial inequality and resources. The catalyst for my petition was the tragic murder of George Floyd. I wanted to attend a local Black Lives Matter protest, but I’m classified as vulnerable to COVID-19 so I didn’t think it would be wise in the height of the pandemic. My friend said you should start a petition about it, and I did,” says Muthoni.

“There’s a real appetite among the public for a more intersectional approach to the national curriculum. This isn’t the first time that people have campaigned for a curriculum that reflects our multicultural society. And I think with the prominence of new media, particularly social media and social media activism, people are easily able to access information about racial inequality. And it is there, they can see the stories which traditional media often censors.

“In my school, we studied Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847) alongside Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966), which acts as a prequel to Jane Eyre and gives a deeper understanding into Caribbean and Creole culture. The way Jean Rhys was able to take this classic novel and provide a nuanced perspective by making the minor and underdeveloped character of Bertha (the first Mrs Rochester) the protagonist of her novel, was absolutely inspired.”

Back in October 2020, Kemi Badenoch, the Conservative Party MP for Saffron Walden, stoked a bitter debate on critical race theory when she asserted that the government does not want white children being taught about “white privilege and their inherited racial guilt”.

Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson and Nell Bevan, both twenty are the founders of Impact of Omission, an initiative that campaigns to get the teaching of the British Empire into schools. They are also the duo behind the petition ‘Teach Britain's colonial past as part of the UK’s compulsory curriculum’, which received 268,772 signatures during its six-month run from June to December 2020. I spoke to both of them on the issue.

Jikiemi-Pearson says, “I think Kemi Badenoch’s comments are interesting, in that most people take huge issue with hypothetical white children feeling hypothetically upset in classrooms, but to date have not spared a thought for the real Black children who sit in classrooms every day feeling real sadness, and actually feeling othered, due to the way education, as it currently stands, centres the white child.

“During my evidence session [where Jikiemi-Pearson spoke up to explain her position], I discussed the small ways in which we could uplift Black children that have nothing to do with the feelings of their white counterparts. I mentioned spotlighting Black inventors, or specifically reading picture books with diverse casts and Black characters in leading heroic roles. If you think that this would upset a white child, think about the fact that Black children go through this every single day of their lives.”

One example that highlights Jikiemi-Pearson’s views can be demonstrated through warfare narratives. The Allied Forces’ victory in the Second World War is often placed front and centre both within the national curriculum and also in mainstream popular culture a large. But certain historical facts regarding the Commonwealth battalions who also served in the name of ‘Crown and Country’ are repeatedly omitted from the discourse. Blockbuster movies such as Dunkirk (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2017) which claim to be meticulously researched, present a whitewashed interpretation of historical warfare. For many young people, popular culture shapes their perception of the world alongside what they take from schoolbooks and history lessons.

To return to the Sewell Report; one of its recommendations is the ‘Making of Modern Britain’ teaching resource, which “looks at the influence of the UK, particularly during the Empire period.” The report states that it “want[s] to see how Britishness influenced the Commonwealth and local communities, and how the Commonwealth and local communities influenced what we now know as modern Britain” (‘Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The Report’, p. 9). Yet on further investigation, these materials are only available as a companion to the AQA A-Level history syllabus, which leads me to question whether younger pupils will be exposed to a non-discriminatory look at history at all. We need a far more integrated, purposeful approach if we are to truly tackle the many insidious ways that histories have been adapted to suit those in power.

Jikiemi-Pearson shared some of her own thoughts, “One of the facts I feel was repeated to me constantly was about how Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, and it would be so easy to tell children about Lewis Latimer’s contribution, as he who invented the carbon filament that was used in the light bulb. And to mention James Edward Maceo West, who co-invented the microphone, in the same breath as Alexander Graham Bell. Mary Seacole is starting to get the recognition she deserves – my eleven-year-old sister remembers learning about her – but she should be on the level of Florence Nightingale by now in terms of children knowing her story.

“The social rights activist Olive Morris is also a key figure for me, and someone I was unfortunately not aware of until this year. Another key figure for younger year groups to study alongside the male inventors would be Marie Van Brittan Brown, the inventor of the home security system, now used in homes and business all over the world.” 

Jikiemi-Pearon’s co-collaborator, Nell Bevan, is of Caucasian heritage, and is able to frame her experience of a white-centred education without guilt clouding the strong feelings she has regarding these complex issues. She disagrees with MP Kemi Badenoch’s comments: “As a white person, I’m more angry and upset that I wasn’t taught Black narratives, history and culture at school, than I am guilty. In Germany, the atrocities of the Holocaust are taught to children not to make them feel guilty, but to show them how far we’ve come and, crucially, how far we have to go. How can we urge children to fight racism and be anti-racist if they’re not even taught why it exists?”

The Black Curriculum is a grassroots organisation, which, like Jikiemi-Pearson and Bevan’s initiative, was founded as a response to the incontrovertible centring of white Britishness in UK schools. Founder Lavinya Stennett’s impetus to launch the initiative stemmed from travelling to New Zealand to study. There she admired the New Zealanders’ commitment to engaging with indigenous Māori culture, and she wanted to do something similar once back in Britain. She set out to create The Black Curriculum a couple of days after she returned in January 2019, with the help of post-graduates Bethany Thomas and Lisa Kennedy.

The Black Curriculum has a YouTube channel that features short animated educational films spotlighting lesser-known historical figures such as abolitionist Mary Prince, Lilian Bader, who was one of the first Black women to join the British armed forces, and Fanny Eaton, who was a model for many of the Pre-Raphaelite painters.

I spoke to Eleshea Williams, who was media and communications manager of The Black Curriculum from March 2020 until May 2021, who says, “All of us, teachers included, are a product of our own education. So, if teachers haven’t been taught Black history, then they’re not necessarily going to feel as confident teaching those topics. And I think that by stating that Black history – which is an integral part of British history – by stating that that is optional, it’s teaching our young people that their history isn’t valued, or that they don’t matter.”

It can often be the case that having lived experience of marginalisation enables politically-minded women to acknowledged other sites of oppression, and, ultimately, work towards exposing complicity through activism, and new ways of working. Each of the young women I spoke to recognised that due to their place behind men in patriarchal society, they are accustomed to experiencing inequality.

Both the richness and simplicity in the solutions that the young women proposed had me genuinely excited for the next generation of schoolchildren. Seeing themselves, as well as the collective importance of their histories, reflected in the curriculum could raise the self-esteem of tens of thousands of children.

The moves by the government to introduce a so-called ‘free speech champion’ indicates they have recognised the radical significance of a decolonised education system. Yet no matter how discouraging this development may seem, we must never let divisive conservatism win. The younger generations have made huge leaps in leading the conversation, and the government has shown itself to be on the defensive. That pupils will no longer have to endure the erasure or dismissal of non-Caucasian histories is a vision worth striving for.

Glossary

allied forces – armies from different countries, fighting on the same side in a war. 

conservatism – the holding of political views that favour free enterprise, private ownership, and socially traditional ideas.

decolonise –  literally, the undoing of colonial rule over subordinate countries. However, the verb has taken on a wider conceptual definition which encompasses the freeing of minds from colonial ideology, in particular by addressing the ingrained idea that to be colonised was to be inferior.

Generation Z – demographic cohort born from around 1995 onwards (succeeding ‘millennial’ demographic cohort).

globalised anti-Blackness – of racism that disproportionately affects Black people due to systemic global conditioning.

institutional racism – is a form of racism that is embedded through laws and regulations within society or an organisation (also known as systemic racism).

marginalisation – treatment of a person, group, or concept as insignificant or peripheral.

minoritised people – a person or group who is subordinate in status to a more dominant group.

propaganda – information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.


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I’m Almaz Ohene, a Creative CopywriterFreelance Journalist and Accidental Sexpert.
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