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Whose history will my mixed-race daughter be taught?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 1 July 2020

Meena Khatwa.

‘We are here because you were there’ (A. Sivanandan).

Windrush protest

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


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14 Responses to “Whose history will my mixed-race daughter be taught?”

  • 1
    Melissa wrote on 2 July 2020:

    This is a wonderful blog Meena. Honest and heartfelt. Your experiences are shared by many and I am so happy that we are raising these issues. They must be discussed honestly and openly for all of us to move forward!

  • 2
    Irene wrote on 2 July 2020:

    Being a person in the BAME group, of course I do feel what you feel… but I do not have the articulation (n maybe the courage) to call out people who think it’s OK to diminish others who are racially different. Often I hate myself for not daring to speak up n end up blaming myself for not pursuing further to change things….strange victim psychology…..? Maybe it’s because of my age n culture, I feel less able to be forthcoming with my real feelings. Now we have a champion in you to tell the world to take notice. Onwards n upwards. Thank you Meena. X

  • 3
    Gill wrote on 2 July 2020:

    A truly indicative piece of writing as to where the problems arise within the curriculum. Although having said that, when I taught Black History at KS3, had to contend with some pretty ignorant white working class, particularly males, who couldn’t see what Black History had to do with their kid! Didn’t help that one of the Senior Management, who had been to Cambridge, hadn’t known that Black people were not the indigenous population of the Caribbean.
    There is a long way to go but let’s start now to get the curriculum changed.
    Thanks Meena for sharing and I hope your first blog articl reaches the audience it should.

  • 4
    Malika wrote on 2 July 2020:

    Thank you Meena, for taking the time to write this very heartfelt and brave blog. Knowing you through the UCL Staff Singing Club, I know your dedication and passion to strengthen the UCL community spirit, and to spread positive vibes and love. For that reason, I have so much respect for you for sharing your story to increase awareness and understanding. Thank you for standing up for equality which, as Santan Dave put it “is a right, it doesn’t deserve credit.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mXLS2IzZSdg)

    The death of George Floyd has been a very painful time for all of us, and the hardest part for me and for some members of my community is looking at the racism within our own ethnic community. I have had some of my Asian friends open up to me about their encounters of racism in Arab countries, at airports, or indirectly through the experiences of relatives who travelled to work in the UAE and have had absolutely unacceptable, very upsetting experiences there. I disassociate myself completely from such racist people within my community and I apologies for their behavior. Saying that, I feel it’s always easier to speak up for others than it is for myself, so we should always use our voice when we can. Hate is hate, and it’s very ugly for anyone to experience discrimination for whatever reason.

    Thank you again Meena. Keep up the good work Meena and I’m sure your daughter is very proud of you 🙂

  • 5
    Dylan wrote on 2 July 2020:

    This is an excellent read – it’s heartfelt and moving. I totally agree with the point that we need to be taught a much more honest and inclusive account of history. I was taught a very narrow slice of history in school – I’d like to think children now are getting a much more inclusive education, but the Black Curriculum website and Gill’s comment above shows that there is a very long way to go. Thanks for sharing and for pushing the discussion forward Meena.

  • 6
    Richard Abendorff wrote on 2 July 2020:

    Thanks Meena
    Your story is the story of so many .thanks for sharing. So shocking. It must end
    We are at a moment when we must all unite now to fight this scourge. Policing education Covid19 austerity refugees brexit scapegoating all these and more are united by the racist actions of the State. all on top of the far right whether dfla Bnp edl or UKIP. We must work together with blacklivesmatter and stand up to racism . Education must be used to take apart all of these lies dangerous and indeed murderous ideas. One event I recommend coming soon https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/we-demand-change-open-forum-slavery-empire-and-decolonising-education-tickets-110978672196 and get involved with your local anti racist group. If not now- when?

  • 7
    Jenny wrote on 2 July 2020:

    Congratulations Meena – a moving and timely piece by a fine writer! It is the second piece of yours I have read now ( I remember so well the telling of your family’s story ) and have thought both times, you have a great voice . So glad you are using it. Xxxx

  • 8
    Dheeraj Akolkar wrote on 3 July 2020:

    “If we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will”, says the extraordinary, world-renowned Indian filmmaker Mira Nair who has made Uganda her home for the last 26 years.

    Our stories cannot come second or third, wrapped up in veils, hidden beneath disguises, and especially when told by us. Our stories matter. Every story matters. And the Most Personal is the Most Powerful, whether in a classroom, on an open field in front of a protest rally or in the Houses of Parliament.

    My congratulations to you, dear Meena, for your passion. I have known you for 14 years and your commitment to a cause is complete. There are never any half-hearted, half-baked efforts. YOU SHOW UP! You care with that same passion and intensity for your students, or your book-club, or your brownies, or your choir or your words.

    This article, I hope, is the just the beginning of a passionate, honest, articulate, intelligent and dedicated human being’s journey in writing.

    I believe this piece should be read out loud, everywhere possible. I dream of a day when the history books in our schools are changed, so that our children may learn that people are not heroes or villains – they are humans – they make mistakes, they are cruel and kind, whether they have power or not, irrespective of the colours of their skin.

    Very well done, Meena…

  • 9
    Dermot wrote on 3 July 2020:

    Fantastic article Meena! Insightful and poignant. Your personal account of growing up and navigating away through a hostile racist environment is moving and apposite.

    ‘We are here because you were there’ – Is certainly the case for my good self.

    In 1841 it was estimated that there were over 4000,000 Irish living in Britain. The vast majority of whom were the poorest paid labourers. The disasters that these Irish people experienced came less from the potato famine than from the merciless repression following the United Irish rebellion.

    The alliances forged between English Chartism and Irish nationalism in the early eighteen hundreds will not be read about in the current UK school curriculum.

    The appalling atrocities committed over the centuries by the British Empire needs to be recognised and taught in schools. There is much British history that the denizens of this Isle should be proud of that is unfortunately barely touched on at School or celebrated in society. Yet it is because of those that struggled and fought for the rights of the British people that we have the nhs, universal franchise and the eight hour day.

    You won’t see any statues in Whitehall honouring the Jacobites, Luddites, Owenites or Chartists and all the others who did not accept the oppressing social and economic order of their time. Instead the route to Downing Street is littered with memorials and statues to those that defended the British Empire – whose history is this? Not mine or yours. Let’s tear them down!

  • 10
    Elif Ozkan wrote on 3 July 2020:

    This is a brilliant and brutally honest narrative which mirrors the experiences of many minority communities living in the UK.

    It is very bittersweet that such a personal story shared by Meena, is often relatable by many migrants who have endured racism over the past years.

    This blog touches on a serious matter very wholeheartedly, following through very relatable personal experience(s).

    As much as we may stress that we are anti-racist, dis-acknowledging colonial history, particularly in the curriculum is a major juxtaposition in itself for the government. We need to do better, to make a change and really accept and celebrate the multi-cultural society we inhibit. We are the last generation to tolerate, house and maintain racism. We will make the change.

    Thank you for this wonderful piece Meena.

  • 11
    Kelly wrote on 3 July 2020:

    Meena – this is a moving and evocative account and a raw call to arms that must be heard and answered. Thank you for writing this piece and look forward to the next one. There’s so much more to hear and reflect on – this is only the beginning in breaking silence on these issues and moving to real change xxx

  • 12
    Michelle wrote on 4 July 2020:

    A big thank you, Meena, for sharing your courageous and strong voice. It feels impossible to comprehend such events and situations when they are delivered by fellow humans. I sincerely hope that conversations like these will help to dismantle social oppression and contribute to making the world a safe and welcoming home for everyone.

  • 13
    Annie Anand wrote on 6 July 2020:

    The article is so beautifully written, it is intriguing and informative at the same time. Having been born in a similar set-up wherein the system isn’t broken but made this way, I could resonate with the article on a personal level.

    It was an absolute pleasure reading this piece, Meena. Always look up to you for inspiration! xx

  • 14
    Preethy D’Souza wrote on 14 July 2020:

    An interesting blog, powerful expression of your experience.
    The responses you are recieving about the blog is very hopeful. I wish the blog will have a huge impact in addressing the vital social issue of racism.
    I will forward to as many people possible.