Confronting British History

Due to the recent protests, awareness of systematic racism has highlighted the discriminative ways in which black people are treated in society and portrayed in British culture. Racist TV programmes like ‘Little Britain’ and statues like Edward Colston for example, which for a long time have gone unchallenged, now face scrutiny. The focus going forward must be to remove such features of society which glorify oppression but without forgetting or denying the past, or trying to rewrite history. On the contrary, though Britain’s past is shameful and embarrassing, an effort must be made to educate ourselves on these matters, to enable the gradual dismantling of systematic racism. Society must create a future that recognises and tackles the glorification of colonialism and also celebrates the achievements of BAME people in history, to allow for a new era with racially progressive attitudes.

The toppling of the Edward Colston statue and its disposal into the Bristol harbour was an eye opening moment which recognised the dark history of the city. The incident also forced other cities across the country to acknowledge racially offensive public tokens in their areas. Despite Colston’s role in the slave trade, the memorial in the city centre has largely evaded any criticism and his name is commonly used for roads, buildings, schools, pubs and institutions across Bristol. The statue which glorified the memory of Colston, described him in the inscription as, “one of the most virtuous and wise sons of the city”. Colston’s charity is even commemorated during processions and church services, in which school children pay homage to him, unaware and uneducated about who he really was. The glorification of Colston’s name, represented by many institutions in Bristol, has made him an accepted and unchallenged figure.  

Bristol City Council has said that the statue will be placed in a museum. This may be regarded as a progressive step in British society, acknowledging its shameful past and learning, rather than hiding, from its colonial history. Though it is crucial that the glorification of our colonial history in society today must be removed, an effort must also be made to remember and educate people about Britain’s oppressive past. Even Prime Minister, Boris Johnson recently warned that we “cannot Photoshop the cultural landscape.”

A part of the solution may be found in educating young people, by raising awareness of systematic racism in today’s society, and from a historical perspective. In Bristol, children (especially those at ‘Colston’s Primary School) are brought up to believe in the romanticised myth of the city’s history. Children see Colston as a figurehead, a father of the city and as a venerated and charitable philanthropist. The pupil’s at ‘Colston’s Primary School’ would certainly see Colston in this light and are probably unaware of his role in the slave trade, or what the slave trade even is. Seeing Colston’s name used by various institutions in Bristol is a constant reminder and glorification of his perceived ‘heroic’ past. This contributes to societies unwavering acceptance for him, a problem which is unchallenged by the compliant education system.

The lack of material on Britain’s oppressive history in the education curriculum is preventing our future generations from being able to recognise references to slavery and colonialism and be informed enough to challenge them. To prevent creating the impression that racism is an issue of the past, the curriculum should also include the presence of white supremacy and institutional racism in society today. In addition to this, modules on inspirational and heroic BAME figures should be celebrated in the curriculum. Our current ethnocentric education system needs to make a greater effort to include the artistic, cultural and political achievements of BAME people.

In light of the recent protests, racial discrimination in television culture has also been scrutinised. Racially offensive TV programmes are being criticised and axed from their streaming platforms. Popular British comedians, David Walliams and Matt Lucas have apologised for their stereotyping of BAME people in ‘Little Britain’, which aired in 2003. The show has been pulled from several catch-up and streaming services, including BBC iPlayer, as Walliams and Lucas used blackface caricature to imitate black and Asian people. Similarly, Channel 4 also pulled ‘Bo’ Selecta’ from their streaming service due to Keith Lemon’s use of blackface on the show.

The largest threat facing the movement now is sustainability. While it is easy for us during Covid-19 lockdown to find the time to actively show our support, what will happen when we return to work and our lives go back to being busy? To educate children in school about both colonialism and the achievements of historical BAME figures, would help to reduce the sustainability threat, particularly in future generations. Support for the movement needs to become second nature and a part of our daily lives. Society must be constantly inspected with a critical eye, injustices need to be called out and government and institutions need to be held to account. Most importantly, as individuals we have to ask ourselves what we can be doing to show our support, not just right now, but throughout our lives.

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