We don't know who we are - the danger of whitewashing British history
Illustration: Riddhi Kanetkar 

In light of the recent protests sparked by the  death of George Floyd, it has become evident that the issues of racism and prejudice against people of colour are still deeply embedded within society in many countries. It has forced us to pause and reconsider the institutions that were designed to protect all their citizens yet continue to uphold different standards for people of different races. The need for change and to understand our history is now more vital than ever— no individual should have to fear what might happen to them because of the colour of their skin or their ethnicity.

But how are we meant to eradicate these prejudices without learning about the roots which instilled a racial hierarchy in the first place? A look into why and how these biases were constructed is vital for an informed and effective discussion about racism today. This starts with learning about the influence of the British Empire. 

At its peak, the British Empire was the largest empire in history, ruling for over three centuries. By the early 20th century, Britain ruled over approximately a quarter of the world’s population in regions such as India, South Africa, Egypt, Australia, Canada, Ireland and many more. When looking at the world now, it’s clear that Britain’s influence remains dominant all around the globe from economic policies to the English language. 

For many of us who studied history in school, we learnt about the atrocities of Nazi Germany and how it perpetuated a fascist mentality which sought world domination and culminated in a genocide. Yet as British students, we still remain largely oblivious to Britain’s role as an imperial power and oppressor during its reign from the late 16th century to the early 20th century. Currently only 4% of GCSE History students are taking the ‘Migration to Britain’ option which covers some aspects of the Britain’s colonial past. Not much has been done in order to establish a more permanent — and truthful —education of the British Empire on the national curriculum.  

As someone who has spent 14 years studying in the UK education system, I cannot understand why such a critical period in history is not given more attention. To comprehend the racial turbulence in Britain and the rest of the world, we must uncover the truth about the people of Africa who were dehumanised and sold off as commodities by slave merchants. We must recognise the struggles of the four million who lost their lives in the Bengal famine and the history of the railways built by the people of India.   

It begs the question of why the Department of Education is not making more of a concerted effort to include this in the national curriculum?  As it stands as part of the history programmes of study, it states that pupils should learn about “how Britain was influenced and had been influenced by the wider world.” Given the significant impact that the Empire has had for centuries in many countries and continents, surely this warrants a place on the national curriculum. However, it is only rarely discussed in the form of optional modules or through Black History Month which in no way goes far enough to reveal the stark realities of the Empire. 

Whilst there have been attempts by political parties to change the current academic strategies to accommodate for the British Empire, they have been largely unsuccessful. In 2018, the Labour Party pledged to set up an Emancipation Education Trust which would cover the history of colonialism along with slavery. Yet this was discredited by many, including the Conservative MP Tim Loughton who claimed that the proposal of such a project implied that Jeremy Corbyn was more focused on “talking down” Britain as opposed to celebrating “the immense amount of good we have done in the world over many centuries.” 

Such an attitude led me to consider the way that the current national curriculum imposes a “single story” , not only of Britain but also of other countries shaped by the British Empire. The concept of a  ‘single story’ was introduced by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who coined the term as a way of expressing oversimplified and incorrect judgements we can form on individuals, groups and countries. Such false perceptions originate from a lack of knowledge of the world around us and the full story behind how the world as we know it came to be. 

 

“As British students, we still remain largely oblivious to Britain’s role as an imperial power and oppressor”

By excluding the British Empire from ‘core teaching’, we undermine the centuries of violence and prejudice that people of colour have experienced. It demonstrates an ignorance towards the prevalence of racism not only on a structural level but also through microaggressions. 

By dictating and selecting which parts of history are and are not learnt about, we continue to reinforce the racial hierarchy by implying that certain races deserve more recognition than others. Not only do we fail to acknowledge the tragedies experienced by so many on a daily basis, but we also have a disregard for the efforts made by people of all backgrounds to shape Britain into what it is today. 

When looking at Britain, it’s important to recognise how the wealth that was unjustly extracted from countries across the globe influenced its prosperity today. Continued omissions of the contributions of a vast number of ethnicities fuels a feeling of animosity amongst people of different backgrounds. Instead, a full and detailed account of history is needed to help unite us as British citizens rather than create a divide based on race. 

The recent events have led to the largest civil rights movement to date, with people of all races fighting against our common enemy of racism. To progress even further, it’s essential that we change the way we study the history of this country to one that includes the monstrosities of Britain as well as its successes. Through a broadening of the syllabus, we will become conscious of the role of the British Empire in generating racial biases as well as gaining a better overall understanding of the society in which we live in today. 

A shift in the narrative will allow for a more tolerant, compassionate and sympathetic generation. With a more profound knowledge of the history of colonialism in the past, it could pave the way for a more comprehensive understanding of the present and a more sympathetic outlook on the future.