Striking the Empire: Living in the shadows of Britain’s Forgotten Colonial Past
On Saturday 20th October, I went along to a talk titled ‘Striking the Empire’ by Akala and David Olusoga. My take away from the event? We’re still living in the shadow of Britain’s colonial past, our institutions continue to encourage a collective amnesia of all the atrocities committed by the British, and our society is settled on omitting the achievements of the black British population. The discussion, however, also highlighted the great achievements that black Brits have had, and fired up the entire audience to go home and think about how they can practice activism in their day to day lives. There are so many stories that continue to go untold, and it's our responsibility to make sure that these voices aren’t deleted from history.
The Education System Lowers Your Expectations as a Black Child
Despite the 13 year age gap between the both of them, with Akala having his formative years in the 90s while David experienced teenagehood in the 80s, their stories of education’s expectations of black children are strikingly similar. David grew up in Newcastle and, being one of the very few black students in the area, suffered a slew of racial abuse as soon as he moved to the city. In contrast, Akala grew up in Camden, surrounded by Black Caribbean communities and attended Pan African supplementary schools from a young age. You would therefore imagine that their experiences of education would be starkly different, no?
Both Akala and Olusoga, despite English being their first language, were sent to special needs schools for kids who didn’t speak english. And this wasn’t a unique occurrence. Teachers told them over and over that they wouldn’t be good enough to achieve anything worthwhile academically. Teachers didn’t even bother to hide their racism, they taught toxic stereotypes of black people, discouraged black students from aiming high and openly showed favouritism in the classroom. While nowadays this racism may not be overt, the education system continues to discourage black children and place them lower than their abilities. For example, a 2018 research paper by Tes revealed that black children are two-and-a-half times more likely to be wrongly placed in a lower ability set for maths.
This figure makes me look back at my own high school experience. Despite scoring top marks in all my in-class work, and achieving an A* in my GCSE Maths, I was moved to a lower set in my third year of high school. Could this have been a result of racial stereotyping? To this day, I often see a reaction of shock when I reveal that I went to a prestigious University. As a black girl, no one expects you to be ‘that’ clever. The problem is that the education system omits the successes of black people in scientific, historic and academic breakthroughs. We hear of Einstein, Nightingale and Shakespeare, but what of Mae Jemison, Mary Seacole or Ignatius Sancho? Have you ever thought about where English Breakfast Tea or Yorkshire Tea actually comes from? Olusoga pointed out that there definitely aren’t any vast tea plantations in the North of England. Similarly, we are taught about the Industrial Revolution, including every single detail of how the textile industry began to boom. But there is never any mention of where the cotton for these fabrics came from or where the money to build up the machinery suddenly appeared. Society continues to skip the parts of history that involve non-white people. We don’t hear about the people slaving away on cotton plantations to support the UK textile industry, or the resources that Britain robbed from Africa to sustain their revolution.
Despite the education system’s lack of opportunity and support for black students, for centuries we have still managed to overcome the stereotypes that our curriculum purports. Olusoga speaks of his experience as a mixed-race child, saying that as a child he thought there was never a reason why he couldn’t succeed. Similarly, Akala explained that his confidence was instilled by his family and attending the supplementary school which made sure that he believed he could achieve anything he wanted. Black children have to instill a sense of invisibility when going through the education system, making sure to work hard, keep their heads down and try their best not to personify the negative stereotypes of black children in society. Black students have to get their confidence elsewhere. Their parents, families and communities are their biggest support in a system that puts them up to fail. It’s from these black spaces that black children rely on receiving an alternative education that celebrates the successes of black people throughout history.
Are you British? Or an Immigrant?
An additional hurdle that black children are faced with is the constant questioning of their Britishness and cultural identity. It is often forgotten that people who lived in the colonies as of 1948 were considered British Citizens, not immigrants. Following the World Wars, there were campaigns to bring people over from the colonies to help rebuild the country. Britain literally begged for people to move here. Yet, once these black British citizens arrived, they were essentially told that they weren’t actually British. To be British means to be white. In the postwar era, there was an attempt to whitewash Britain by encouraging immigration from European countries such as Italy and Germany. At the same time, Olusoga explained that 1.5 million white working class people were sent to the Commonwealth with the belief that by exporting ‘poor’ white people, British culture would remain dominant in the Commonwealth as these ‘expats’ wouldn’t lose their inherent Britishness.
When analysing the language we use today, the descendants from the Italians, Germans, and white Europeans are no longer considered immigrants. Similarly, the Brits living abroad are seen as ‘expats’, not ‘immigrants’. Their whiteness entitles them to a British passport and frees them from the label ‘immigrant’, no questions asked. However, when talking about the descendants of Black Britons, we use terms such as third-generation-immigrant, despite the fact that the official Oxford Dictionary definition of ‘immigrant’ is “A person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.” It makes literally no sense to call someone who was born and grew up in Britain an immigrant. The whitewashing agenda continues, as black people in Britain are still denied full ‘Britishness’. There was an attempt to rectify the recent Windrush scandal by granting those affected the right to remain in the UK. However, this plan forgets the fact that these people have always been British citizens who shouldn’t have required a visa to stay in the country. So why not hand over the British passports that they’re entitled to?
With all this in mind, every black parent is faced with the dreaded conversation. Not the sex talk. But the conversation where they have to reveal to their children that the world is unfair and the structures we have in society are built to negatively impact black people. Olusoga explained that ‘the Empire created and shaped the structures we have now’. It was built to benefit the white society, and disadvantage black people. Parents have to look their children in the eye and tell them that:
They have to behave twice as good as their white classmates, because black children are three times more likely to be excluded from school than white children.
They’re twice as likely to be unemployed in the future than their white classmates, so they need to start thinking of their career and getting experience earlier.
They’re going to have to work twice as hard to get to the same position as their white friends. And even then, they can expect to be paid on average 14% less than their white counterparts.
These are just a few of the injustices that parents have to explain to their children. I haven’t even mentioned the fact that black boys have to learn how to react to the police so they don’t face brutality, or children have to learn how to respond to racial abuse without endangering their lives. Olusoga and Akala brought to mind the idea that this conversation needs to be more open, rather than held behind closed doors.
Perhaps if you have these conversations early on in the educational sphere, all children will understand what privileges and disadvantages they’ve been dealt with. And maybe if teachers gave the whole story, rather than a Britain-centric history that claims Britain did no wrong, there would be a greater understanding of why structural and institutional changes are required to make sure that society doesn’t disadvantage anyone. While this would probably never happen in our lifetime, we can start by having these conversations with all the children in our lives, no matter their race, ensuring that they have a full understanding of Britain’s multicultural history.
Article by VERVE Operative & Blogger Chanju Mwanza