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‘You’re a history teacher? You don’t look like one’: changing perceptions and actions during Black History Month

Blog Editor, IOE Digital15 October 2020

Robin Whitburn and Abdul Mohamud.

Black History Month has featured in England since October 1987, when the Ghanaian activist Akyaaba Addai-Sebo led the efforts of the London Strategic Policy Unit to introduce a UK version of the longstanding American experience.  For recent generations it appears as a traditional feature of the autumn landscape and it might be easy for it to lose connection to its activist roots.  But 2020 has seen a sharper edge to the sense of obligation to ‘do something for Black History Month’.

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the end of May and the subsequent Black Lives Matter campaigns have stimulated considerable appetite among history teachers for curriculum change that might do justice to the global and British history of peoples of African descent. But what should that look like?

Diane Abbott MP addressing an event at the Houses of Parliament. 1987 saw the first Black and Asian MPs since the 19th Century

As with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, in 2020 it appeared to be the United States that was the unequivocally racist society, and some people in England sought solace in the notion that the slaughter of George Floyd could only happen there. After all, ‘we never had segregation, and our police don’t shoot unarmed Black men in the back’, therefore British history should be presented as having a positive profile on race. Notwithstanding the inaccuracy in ignoring the British ‘colour bar’, Amelia Gentleman’s recent tireless efforts to expose the scandals of the British Government’s ‘Windrush Betrayal’ should surely call a halt (more…)

‘When Black lives matter all lives will matter’ Part 2: forging new alliances

Blog Editor, IOE Digital23 September 2020

Ann Phoenix, Afiya Amesu, Issy Naylor and Kafi Zafar – a teacher and three students discuss the BLM movement in their second blog.

The scrutiny of racism that Black Lives Matter has produced raises questions of commonalities and differences in experiences of racism across groups. One consequence is that Asian people have found themselves remembering the pain of being subjected to implicit and overt racism. One example is learning that others thought there was something inherently wrong with darker skin through being asked at age five years, “why is your skin black?” before having any concept of race, ethnicity, or skin colour.

Fons Americanus by Kara Walker, displayed in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall. Photo by Les Hutchinson via Creative Commons

Part of the complexity ingrained in everyday racist practices is that it is not simply between those who are white and those who are ‘other’. Instead, South Asian children learn early that, not only is there a great deal of racism and casteism towards South Asians, but also within their own South Asian communities. Comments from elders range from complaints of becoming too tanned in the summer, and darker skin ruining marriage prospects for young girls, to offhand remarks about how beautiful a baby is for no other reason than their fair complexion. This is, arguably, as destructive as external racism since it tears South Asians apart from the inside. This colourism is now recognised to be one face of racism that has gained strong footholds because of histories of enslavement and colonialism. It highlights the importance of recognising what Avtar Brah, in the 1990s, called ‘differential racisms’.

Increasingly, young British Asians are fighting against these ideologies through not only embracing their own dark skin, but also breaking down the stereotypes and stigma (more…)

‘When Black Lives Matter All Lives Will Matter’

Blog Editor, IOE Digital22 September 2020

 

Ann Phoenix, Afiya Amesu, Issy Naylor and Kafi Zafar – a teacher and three students discuss the BLM movement in a two-part blog.

The publicity following the death of George Floyd after the white policeman Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck galvanised support for the Black Lives Matter movement. BLM and the attention it has garnered over the last few months has thrown light on the ongoing discrimination and systemic racism that black people continue to face.

Alongside the unprecedented global protests against racism, there seems a new appetite to understand the specificities and ubiquity of anti-black racism and its subtle, every-day materialisations as well as its murderous manifestations. That quest for understanding has seen an extraordinary outpouring of testimonies from black and mixed-parentage people, telling stories of events and day to day experiences that have generally been reserved for insider conversations on microaggressions and discrimination.

It is evident in institutions such as the media and universities that both like to see themselves as progressive but are repeatedly shown to reproduce social inequalities. A crucial (more…)

History in the unmaking: how the government department that brought the Windrush scandal downplays slavery in its citizenship handbook

Blog Editor, IOE Digital28 July 2020

Arthur Chapman.

July 21 this year was a day of historical reckoning, of sorts, for the British government’s Home Office.

On the one hand, the Home Secretary apologized for the ‘unspeakable’ treatment of members of the ‘Windrush generation’ at the hands of her department and promised ‘a genuine cultural shift’ including ‘mandatory training for Home Office staff on the history of migration and race in the UK.’ On the other hand, the Historical Association posted an open letter signed by 175 historians, protesting about the distortion of British Caribbean and imperial history in the Home Office’s official ‘textbook’ for those taking the UK Citizenship Test, Life in the United Kingdom: A guide for New Residents.

As the historians rightly contend the 2013 edition, still currently in use, is ‘fundamentally misleading and in places demonstrably false’ in its representation of the history of slavery, the slave trade and decolonisation. The narrative, they argue, is not only factually inaccurate, it is also selective and written in a way that obscures the agency of the enslaved and the colonised in the developments it narrates. The text, they conclude, ‘perpetuates a misleading view of how we came to be who we are.’

The old Customs House, Lancaster, built in 1764. Lancaster was the fourth largest slave trading port in Britain in the 18th century

This is no trivial matter. The booklet is published by a department of state (the Home Office), commissioned by ministers, and used in a state-mandated test (more…)

Whose history will my mixed-race daughter be taught?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital1 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 (more…)

Black Lives Matter in narrative too: we should look to English not just History in schools

Blog Editor, IOE Digital23 June 2020

Gemma Gronland.

In the Victorian novel, The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle, the character Tonga – a native of the then colonised Andaman Islands, in the Bay of Bengal – is portrayed as the embodiment of evil. A murderous savage who shows unwavering devotion to his white quasi-master, Tonga’s character makes a good conduit for pupils to learn about British colonialism and racism.

The description of Tonga as having ‘features so deeply marked with bestiality and cruelty’ offers insight into Britain’s historical relationship with race. Yet, it could also provide a learning opportunity to reckon with racial discriminationand the way the issue of race is evolving with the Black Lives Matter movement now. Pupils could be asked to reflect on race as they experience it, to challenge the Whiteness default setting in the books they study and the curriculum as it stands. It would be amiss to explore Tonga solely as a character representing a moment in history, an attitude of the past, and nothing more.

One teacher I interviewed for my research into how Prevent policy and fundamental British values manifest in the English curriculum, felt similarly. They described how it is left to a teacher’s discretion whether they emphasise the colonial context of a novel over other themes, and even more so if they choose to draw a line from that (more…)

There should be no doubt by now that we are not living in a ‘post-racial’ world. How can school history help bring understanding and hope?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital5 June 2020

Robin Whitburn and Abdul Mohamud.

The COVID pandemic has taught all of us in 2020 about the need to think very carefully about the routine act of walking out of our home onto the streets to go about our business.

For most of us, this is, hopefully, temporary. But such vigilance has been required of Black people in this country constantly for centuries. Streets are not automatically safe spaces for Black people, especially Black men. The repellent and enraging scenes of George Floyd’s public killing by police officers in Minneapolis at the end of May should impel every one of us to self-examination and action.

Racial profiling by law enforcement officers regularly makes Black people open to brusque and brutal treatment without any further just cause on both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, they are not necessarily safe in the confines of their own homes; the case of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, in March this year brings to mind those of Cherry Groce and Joy Gardiner in London in the 1980s and 1990s . What do we know of that history, and does the school curriculum ensure that we are prepared to make sense of the realities of race and racism in this century?

COVID has smashed gaping holes in notions of British exceptionalism.  But history should have already taught us to be sceptical of false national pride and to searchingly examine the impact that British expansion has had on global peoples.  The school history curriculum has too often laid the foundations for the premise that brutal racism and (more…)