Kim Singh-Sall explores the whitewashing of the history curriculum, and why simply acknowledging the issue is not enough.
As one of the few BME first year history students at Bristol, I know what it’s like to feel like the brown elephant in the room. I notice this in seminars when we are discussing ethnic identity and immigration in Britain today, and in lectures, listening to a (most likely) Caucasian academic lecture on colonisation and Empire to a hall filled with predominantly white students.
The curriculum itself is trying to be less white: our modern history module draws attention to the horrors of modern European empires and to black history, specifically the experiences of the Windrush generation of migrants. However, we also study the early modern period, an undeniably Eurocentric historic period which seems to amplify the events and successes in Europe in c.1400-1700, and downplay those in the East, apart from in relation to the European World, such as the threat of the Ottoman Empire. Despite this period encompassing the age of exploration and colonisation, and the beginnings of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the focus remains Eurocentric. This is acknowledged by staff and students, but recognition is not enough.
Thus, it is fitting that in October 2019 the University appointed the first ever History of Slavery professor – Professor Olivette Otele, the UK’s first black female history professor. Her role will include working with staff, students and the community to help the University better understand its past and role in slavery, and to use this knowledge to shape how history is taught.
Professor Otele’s new position is refreshing, completely necessary, and inspiring, bringing the dawn of a hopeful new age of history and its approach. Throughout the discipline, history academics are notoriously as white as the curriculum they teach. According to the 2018 Race, Ethnicity and Equality in UK History report, 93.7% of all UK history academic staff are white, 6.3% BME and just 0.5% black. Compared with UK universities on the whole, of which 15% of academic staff are BME, it is clear that this is a subject specific problem. But more than that, it is a cultural problem.
There needs to be a change in attitude and approach to British history, not just in university, but in schools and in society. Specifically, the history that showcases the not-so ‘happy and glorious’ stain that Britain has left on many parts of the world. We, as a country are proud. We should be proud; I am not in opposition to the love of British culture and identity – I enjoy a cuppa, a curry and a roast more than most – but reverent patriotism has the habit of rewriting and whitewashing history.
A 2016 YouGov poll found that 44% of Britons were proud of British colonial history and that 43% believed the Empire was good, while only 19% said it was bad. Although Empire cannot be subjected to such linear judgement, this poll nevertheless suggests an overwhelming level of collective British amnesia towards our colonial past. Former Prime Minister David Cameron argued that the Empire should be “celebrated”, as there “is an enormous amount to be proud of in what the British Empire did and was responsible for.”. He made these claims on a 2013 trip to India, emphasising the sheer ignorance and audacity of ‘educated’ classes, when it comes to imperial atrocities and interactions with formerly colonised countries. We know politicians to be infamously out of touch with the masses; who knew they were so out of touch with history too?
The sun has well and truly set on any British Empire. As Brexit Britain forecasts an ominous future for this country, there is no better time to study Britain’s true place and role in this world. But this history has to be told by people who can cast a fairer light. We need to be taught about colonialism, in society, school and university, by a diverse group of individuals and academics. If we are not, our history becomes diluted and distorted.
Conversations and debates about race and colonialism are, by nature, pregnant with anger and emotion. However, these feelings are not adequately expressed when we are taught about these histories, the way they are when we learn about the horrors of the Holocaust and High Stalinism. In seminars, tutors and students are tentative, dancing around the issue of race with fears of offending. Everyone is uncomfortable and it almost feels redundant. No one is equipped to talk about it, so no one wants to talk about. So while there is room for open discussions about black and brown British history, the composition of the curriculum, staff and students make this ineffective. Debate is lukewarm; made to feel like it’s simply ticking the diversity boxes. I don’t know about my white peers, but I know I come away from such discussions uncomfortable and unenlightened.
We are still inadvertently fed the narrative that tends to post-imperial wounds, underpinned by the desire to maintain the status and reputation of a ‘Great’ Britain. The history we are taught feels removed from its humanity, which is further strengthened as issues of immigration and casual British racism, consequences of an age of Empire, don’t affect your average white history student.
Bristol should celebrate our first History of Slavery professor. May it set a precedent for the decolonisation of history as a discipline. May the stories of black and brown people be told and uplifted, treated as frontrunners and not accessories in British history. And more importantly, may these histories be taught by a more diverse group of academics, so we can work to dismantle the imperial nostalgia that plagues this country.
Our histories don’t just deserve to be told; they deserve to be told by us.
Artwork by Rivka Cocker.