Educating Britain on the Real Horrors of History

Written and illustrated by Shazmeen Khalid

Labour have promised to teach the negative impact of British colonialism in schools. The manifesto can be found here.

During November, I had the opportunity to watch the launch of Labour’s manifesto among crowds of students, staff and party supporters eagerly awaiting to hear about the promises of real change. However, with staunch critics and party opposers, many have been able to relate to Corbyn’s self-confessed likeness to Marmite – you either like him, or you don’t. 

Jeremy Corbyn, Source: Third Sector

On November 28th, the Labour party launched a faith and race manifesto which, among many things, promises to make schools accountable for teaching the extensive ‘historical injustices’ of British Colonialism. 

My immediate reaction to these promises were – well, Marmite. While an amazing concept in theory and long overdue, I couldn’t help but immediately think about my own school experiences in a majority white, middle-class school. I thought about how deeply entrenched it was in teaching colonialism and British Empire as an unchanged historical period with positive consequences.

I admire this promise, I just hope that it is somehow possible to be fulfilled with sincerity and pushed particularly in schools where children are deprived of multicultural interactions to begin with. Whether you’re a Labour lover or loather, the promise is certainly an interesting one. 

I’m on board with the principles; it’s about time. However, my fear is that schools and parents won’t be. When you teach kids that imperialism is a powerful adventure by leaders of the past and that Churchill was a war hero, you erase the significance of those who have suffered the effects. You erase history for so long that people become desensitised to the unpleasant truths. Whether it’s the migrant struggle, the Windrush scandal, the Bengal famine, the Amritsar massacre… or plain old British racism – there are lasting effects which deserve a more conscious focus.

I don’t believe it will happen immediately because a huge proportion of Brits are so used to seeing colonialism through Eurocentric tinted spectacles that perpetuate colonialism as empirically beneficial to colonised peoples and a form of greater good. I feel it will garner reactions of defensiveness or a sense that if you’re apologetic you’re absolved of having to learn, talk about and respect the horrors of Britain’s past. Or, perhaps treated as an insult to British pride. 

I spoke to my colleagues and peers about their history lessons and understanding of colonial Britain in schools and most of them shared similar experiences to mine. Experiences of an incredibly selective and whitewashed history being taught and most of them having only learnt about colonisation through their own research or in further education.

It seems that British schools are so content on teaching how Britain was shaped by its encounters with the world yet are simultaneously content in redacting the parts of British history that demonstrate how so much of the world was left devastated by Britain’s interactions with it. Labour are steering a positive change which, if done properly, has the capacity to see a shift in cultures that normalise white supremacy. This includes, but not limited to; racial profiling, colonial stereotypes about racial otherness, anti-blackness, forms of institutionalised racism, Islamophobia and anti-immigration rhetoric. That would be a change that many of us would love to see in a country often so drenched with narratives of hate and division. 

Is Britain ready for change?

I am ready for real change in the way history is taught. I’m ready for Britain to admit fault at the hands of empire to masses of atrocities. I’m ready to see older generations truly unlearn the warped version of history which has for so long harboured and institutionalised white supremacy so that it can be taught as a blameless and crime-free saga of the past. 

I’m sure many have said this before but teaching Brits about the atrocities of empire isn’t an expectation of an apology or requiring people to live with an unrelenting guilt about the past for the rest of their lives. The change is about providing accurate accounts of history which are not clouded by white saviourism and include the gory details of colonisation. 

What do we hope will result from this change?

I hope that when in place, accurate history will humanise the past of the minorities that hail from formerly colonised countries and lead to better multicultural harmony in schools and less assimilationist expectations. I hope to see change in the way racism is tackled in schools, to remind racists that ultimately they are upholding the values of white supremacy that have been handed to them in textbooks and exam questions.

I hope to see changes in the language we use around colonialism, for example, replacing ‘third-world countries’ and ‘developing countries’ with more accountable terms like ‘formerly colonised countries’ and ‘countries suffering the effects of the British Empire.’ I hope to see identities acknowledged as hugely important parts of British history rather than side-lined as unimportant or optional. 

Who’s to know how it will go down. Probably like Marmite. 

The Author

Shazmeen is an English graduate who now runs her own blog. Her topics often include Islamaphobia, multiculturalism and representation. Her work has been published in the Birmingham City University anthologies and in her spare time she writes poetry.

You can find her blog here.

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