Whose history will my mixed-race daughter be taught?
By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 1 July 2020
‘We are here because you were there’ (A. Sivanandan).
Whenever I deliver a lecture on slavery, the British Empire or migration, I always begin with this simple yet powerful quote. It immediately grabs the students’ attention, and they begin to understand centuries of brutal colonial history, laid bare in those words.
I’m a British Asian, born in Slough, in 1973. Like other Asian families at that time, I lived with my extended migrant family. Our house of ten resembled Piccadilly Circus. Every morning each family member bustled to their low-paid manual jobs.
The events that led them to the UK were shaped by the history of British colonialism. My grandparents fled Karachi during the Partition in 1947 and, for a few years, were refugees in a newly-formed India. They then moved to Kenya, but had to flee again after it gained independence in 1963, which brought them to the UK and to Slough. My PhD research captured similar stories. These families were identified as ‘twice migrants’ and – perhaps surprisingly – this upheaval resulted in slightly better assimilation because they had already experienced resettlement from India to Africa.
Slough was an interesting place to grow up, a social experiment in collisions of culture and traditions. I attended St Mary’s CE primary school, singing hymns, playing Mary in the school nativity and learning country dancing. This was juxtaposed with the heady sights, sounds and smells of my Indian and East African roots. However, as I got older and more aware of my environment, that cosy bubble suddenly burst. I noticed the National Front graffiti crudely sprayed in our dingy subways, skinhead boots marching down our street, feeling the spit on my neatly combed, coconut oil infused hair, with jeers of ‘Paki go home!’ This new environment became the norm.
This racism permeated all areas of life. As I poured over our history books in class, I learnt about the superpowers, the cold war and how the allies defeated Hitler. What about other histories that weren’t white? I sought out alternative representations – would TV offer an answer into who I was? Again, I was let down. Looking back, I didn’t realise how highly offensive programmes shown at prime time, such as Mind Your Language or It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, were. It was considered acceptable to poke fun at people of colour through comic characters such as Jim Davidson’s ‘Chalky’. This is how ‘Black British experiences were constructed and made sense of on British TV’. The only respite was the BBC’s Asian Magazine, followed by Network East on Sunday mornings and Bollywood movies in Southall.
I was finally awakened, like many young people, at university – mine was Middlesex. During my Sociology degree, I studied modules on Race and Postcolonialism. I gorged on literature such as: Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1967) and bell hooks’s Ain’t I A Woman? Black Women and Feminism (1981). Her words are visceral, as she reveals the atrocities of slavery, particularly for women. I was shocked, hurt and angry. My history was no longer whitewashed – but today, how far have we really progressed?
The brutal killing of George Floyd in May 2020 and the international protests that followed have taken us to a point of no return. David Olusoga’s article (Guardian, 8 June 2020) shares this powerful imagery, ‘The historical symmetry of this moment is poetic. A bronze effigy of an infamous and prolific slave trader dragged through the streets of a city built on the wealth of that trade, and then dumped, like the victims of the Middle Passage, into the water.’
On the same day, I watched Boris Johnson’s piece to camera declaring, ‘we are a much, much less racist society’, and ‘I hear you’. Who is the you he refers to? Is it the Muslim women he described as ‘letterboxes’ in 2018, or the ‘flag waving piccaninnies’ in 2010? He talks about celebrating the Windrush Generation, yet through the hostile environment policy so many are unfairly denied healthcare, detained or deported. We are all living on the Brexit Isles, where curbing free movement was part of the leave campaign. Their premise was to return to the glory days when Britannia ruled the waves.
Now, as a mother, I am navigating my mixed heritage daughter’s journey through this turbulent storm. Whose history will she be taught, who represents her? The pressures are mounting, and our school curriculum and wider culture urgently require an overhaul, as suggested by the Black Curriculum. We must reveal all of Britain’s past – the good, the bad and the ugly.
Photo by the author