We Need A Broader Critical Analysis Of History To Move On From Systemic Racism
With the death of George Floyd on 25th May 2020, conversations about the scarred past of western civilisation have resurfaced as people attempt to identify reasons for the systematically racist societies we've consistently failed to reform. While there are immediate, practical solutions to addressing these issues, sweeping changes must also be made to our society and system of education to ensure that the way we remember our history is balanced, and offers the chance to think critically about how historical events affect our communities today.
Inevitably for a country which owes a large part of its wealth and influence on the international stage to centuries of conquest, the UK’s past is a patchwork of characters and events which fall short of what would be considered principled and reasoned today. Often, we're not exposed to some of the profoundly disturbing information about what our ancestors did in the name of Empire and the 'betterment' of indigenous populations. How much of the general populace know about the millions of deaths caused by famines in India under British rule, while tons of food was exported back to Britain? Or the concentration camps used during the Boer War at the turn of the 20th century, and in Kenya during the 1950's? The torture centre's in Aden (modern day Yemen) in the 1960's?
These events occurred because of the premise that one race is superior to another, and that it was that race's destiny to civilise other, less-developed races. Although simplistic, it is a concept at the heart of every decision made from the formation of the empire. Churchill famously spoke to the Palestine Royal Commission in 1937 and said: "I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place."
It is this narrative which persists in the very fabric of our society, used to shroud our darkest moments in a layer of self-congratulation. Lack of interaction with the shady parts of our past means there is a disconnect between what we know of our shared history, and understanding how historical events affect our lives today. It's the reason why true racial parity still eludes us; in our criminal justice system, in housing, in our immigration policies, our medical care, and in education. It's also the reason why so many people balk at the idea that Britain continues to be systemically racist.
While multiple reviews have recommended implementation of a range of measures to alleviate some of these issues, on a fundamental level there must also be change in the way we are educated about our history, from grassroots, school-based projects to statuary and dedicated museum space. It must encompass a broader spectrum of topics, and be taught in a way which allows people to understand the impact of past events on the way our society is structured in the 21st century. It is not acceptable that we learn a sanitised history of Britain, that we learn about the technological advances brought to India without also learning about the regimes used to fracture society and exploit the Indian people for resources including spices, jewels and textiles; that we know about those like William Wilberforce and James Ramsey who fought for the abolition of the slave trade, but turn a blind eye to the acts of those who propagated it like Edward Colston (who's statue, rightfully, is to be interred in a museum and his legacy confined to the history books).
While issues with extreme right-wing activism is still present in Germany, a program of sweeping social and educational reforms in the 1980's has meant no-one is unsure of the history of genocide and persecution in the country, and the nation takes the responsibility of remembering it in order to make sure it is never repeated again. On 8th May 1985, then-president Richard von Weizsäcker told the German parliament that: “Anyone who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present... Whoever refuses to remember the inhumanity is prone to new risks of infection.” School children are taught the horrible truths about Nazi Germany, and take class visits to concentration camps. You can’t walk through a German city without seeing a memorial to the innocent people slaughtered under Hitler’s rule, and it’s a crime to deny the holocaust ever happened.
Earlier this year on the 75th anniversary of VE Day, current German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier said: “It is not remembrance that is a burden, it is non-remembrance that becomes a burden. It is not professing responsibility that is shameful, it is denial that is shameful... We must never forget that remembrance is a challenge, and a duty.”
In the celebration of controversial figures from our brutal past, while our school curriculum's deny a basic education in the true impact of the empire and the history of black and ethnic minority people, Britain is failing in its duty to remember the millions murdered and oppressed in the name of imperial expansion and exploitative capitalist enterprise. Historical events shape the societies we live in today, no matter how far away they may seem. Without taking ownership of our past mistakes and holding ourselves responsible to never forget where we’ve come from, how are we ever meant to improve and move towards the fair and equal society we should aspire to?