This series of blogs is based on a talk I gave at Wellington College earlier this year. The first was on the purpose of history, the second looked at the case against Black History Month by highlighting its roots in scientific racism.
In this third blog I will focus on the impact of Black History Month. In terms of individuals, one of the core claims, that it would impact positively on black people has yet to be substantiated. It is assumed to be a good in itself and I think it is time to challenge that belief.
In the US, it has fed identity politics. Initially, black was much like “of colour” is now – a generic term for non-white people. Now the focus of Black History Month is exclusively on the history of Black/African Americans.
This narrowing in scope has led to other groups demanding that their histories also be given special status.
In a country of immigrants, it was inevitable that those from white immigrant communities would seek to have their heritage validated too.
Given the seismic ructions that occurred in the US during the civil war, well it was only inevitable that there would be a…
I didn’t even cover the full list. The only thing more farcical than Confederate History Month is the fact that there are more history months than there are months in the year.
In the UK, Black History Month has slowly gone down the same route as in the US from a generic meaning of black to a specific focus on black people from the Afro-Caribbean diaspora. Recent events at Kent University show that we are further down the road than I had thought. Zayn Malik’s inclusion on a poster for Black History Month was criticised for being culturally insensitive and Kent Union backed down even though they had consulted on these posters initially. Black means black and Zayn will have to wait for Asian History Month to be celebrated.
The saddest thing about the continued existence of Black History Month in the UK is that the 1988 history curriculum already included a wide range of histories of different people at different points in time. It is worth asking why a largely left-wing, anti-racist profession was unable to make the curriculum more inclusive given that it had the opportunity to do so. Why did they prefer to teach Black History Month instead of incorporating new units?
In the absence of research I think that the likely explanations are:
a) many anti-racists are simply adding a label to their lapel but don’t mean it,
b) conflict mongers will never be satisfied with a curriculum that doesn’t emphasise the conflictual elements of black and white history. It certainly struck me that there were some black and white colleagues who seemed hellbent on teaching the most conflictual elements of black/white history with no depth, no comparison or balance in terms of the accounts taught. I think we can put this firmly in the “radical history” model, or as I like to see it, grievance mongering.
c) it was easier to stick with units that were known,
d) there was genuine opposition to the new units (though it would be interesting to know from who and why).
The calls for black teachers for black children is rarely criticised even though it is explicitly based on the idea that different races need to be separate. The case I would make for black teachers is simply that as members of the community and this country, they should have the same opportunities to be a teacher as anyone else. I don’t see their sole role as supporting black children because it doesn’t solve the issues faced by them. It also lets white teachers off the hook in a way they are not allowed to do so for white children or indeed for other ethnic minorities. It also gives a false sense that the problems are based on race alone, when, it is clear from the performance of different ethnic groups in this country that race alone can’t explain disparities in attainment . None of this is positive and none of it actually helps us to support underprivileged black children.
The aspect of Black History Month that has always concerned me the most, however, is the acceptance of the conflict narrative that runs through the stories selected. It was simply one story after another with the same theme – black victim and white oppressor – as though there were no other dynamic between the two groups or ever could be.
Looking at the history of the US, it is clear that black and white people have lived together for hundreds of years. It’s unsurprising that the idea of a “white history” would arise given that black people were omitted from American history. The system of slavery and Jim Crow were underpinned by the idea of scientific racism. The break in history for the black people in the US and the Caribbean is real, and there is no way to trace roots to a specific location, which most of us take for granted. Thus their identities are tied to the start point they do know which is slavery. I don’t think it is surprising or indeed untrue for the black victim/white oppressor narrative to be so deeply embedded.
In settler colonies, such as the US and South Africa, it is fair to say that history has been deliberately distorted. The reign of white people has been seen as the high point and the history of different people in those nations have been deliberately ignored or sidelined. The UK was a colonial power but the country was not a settler colony and thus studying British history does not fall into the same category as these other nations.
There are key differences between British history and that of the settler colonies:
Britain was uninhabited prior to the crossing of the land bridge, there was no displacement of other people in order to settle here. Subsequent invaders and settlers were again, overwhelmingly white (with the exception of some black Roman soldiers, who like most white Roman soldiers, are not taught about). Until the post-war era, there were no significant groups of non-white people living in the UK on a comparable scale to that of the US.
Even if there were no more white people in the UK tomorrow, we would still mostly be learning about white people as the overwhelming majority of people who have ever lived in the UK have been white.
Much is made of the Blackamoors and Lascars and the lack of focus on them has been taken as an indicator of a deliberately racist history being taught. Yet the same argument could be made for many other groups such as Jews. It doesn’t require much curriculum time to point out that Britain was not 100% white for its entire history up 1948. For most of this country’s history the most important changes that took place were enacted by the monarchs. It is possible to understand the Britain of today without studying the Blackamoors and Lascars, it’s not possible to do so without studying Henry VIII.
Do I think that ethnic minority children were deliberately taught “white history” in the post-war era? No. I think that the people in this country simply taught as they had been taught. That the colonial era was glorified is unsurprising, as were the stereotypes of different groups because that is what most people had to go on. The idea that the choices on the curriculum were intentionally racist is one that I have seen no evidence for.
Until the 1950s and 1960s, I don’t see why the average white teacher in Britain should or would have cared about or thought much of the impact of the history they were teaching on people living in the colonies/ex-colonies just because they were/had been part of the Empire, any more than I spend time thinking about the Falklanders or Gibraltans. I’m not interested in condemning people for not managing to do what I don’t do myself. In advance of immigration, how could they have known what impact the history they were teaching would have?
Even when the first post-war immigrants arrived, it was not clear that they would stay or settle here. My parent’s attitude was the norm for Indian immigrants, they would come, work here and then move back with their children. It didn’t happen and it didn’t happen in part because of the children of immigrants like me, who did not see those foreign shores as a home to go back to.
BAME children did suffer from racism, low expectations and discrimination in the education system but over the past 60 years, this has not been a uniform experience. The failure of all ethnic groups has given way to the situation we have now, where it is simply not true to say that race alone is the major factor in why some groups succeed and others don’t in the education system.
In addition, it has not taken hundreds of years for the history curriculum to reflect a wider range of histories; it took 40. I would ask you to look again at the 1988 history curriculum. In some cases it took less time than that as schools, pre-National Curriculum, changed aspects of their curriculum in response to teaching ethnic minority pupils. Ignorance, as well as racism, played a part in the teaching of British history and the extent to which it was the former is indicated to by the fact that changes have been enacted.
If we want to learn about British history we just have to deal with the fact that most of it will be about white people. And yes I know that colonialism means the history of Britain is linked to its colonies but let’s not forget that does not just mean African nations and India, it means the US and Australia as well. It is still only a part of the history of this country, as well as the countries that were colonised. I was speaking to my brother about this only last night, the Indian history my mother taught us made it clear to us that there was more to Indian history than the Raj and India was not singularly defined by it.
We can not cover the whole of British history on the curriculum but to focus on the colonial era onwards is to leave children in this country ignorant for the sake of political correctness. It is narcissistic to insist that the British history that is taught reflects the current population rather than the actual history of Britain. Our joint history in this country simply doesn’t stretch back that far. If you need to see yourself reflected, look in a mirror.
The Black Atlantic narrative has insisted on shoehorning and conflating US and UK history (and at times South African history). There were no Jim Crow laws, no apartheid, no laws based on race that classified black and Asian migrants as second class citizens that I know of. No separate fountains or beaches. The “No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs” sign shows that prejudices existed that were not based on race alone. It is rarely taught that the Race Relations Acts did not repeal discriminatory laws because there weren’t any to repeal. Instead, they ensured protection under the law from discrimination as that was lacking.
It also does not serve the “white history” narrative that the people who were the most discriminated against since 1948 were not ethnic minorities at all but Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland, who were not even covered by the Race Relations Acts. The Protestant majority in Stormont would not enact it as they would have had to stop discriminating based on religion and they weren’t about to do that.
The insistence on Black History Month is in some quarters is nothing more than a means of transmitting ideological beliefs about race.
The harsh truth for the BAME in this country is that no one forced our parents and grandparents to come here, they were never kept here against their will, and neither are we. Our relationship with this country and the colonial past is different to that of black Americans, and that includes the fact that we are the beneficiaries of the colonial era that did cause so much suffering to others. This is not an easy legacy or even an easy thing to admit. But it is an honest admission.
If we are to understand the nation we live in we need to learn its history and not a deliberately conflated version of those of other nations which does little to enhance our understanding of the society that we live in, worse still introduces false ideas of the past which create barriers between different groups in the here and now.