August 2017

A United Kingdom?: Teaching Against Imperialism in the UK

Ignorance can be counteracted within schools and the education system by teaching the truth of Britain and Empire. The people of tomorrow aren’t just white British, but are multicultural.

by Ms. Cheryl Diane Parkinson

Empire. In today’s modern world of Trump and Brexit, the historical roots of Empire are more relevant than ever, affecting every aspect of our lives. At the heart of any civilized society lies the community: police, healthcare, and education. Imperial tutelage protected a system that elevated white subjects and communities above black ones, creating disharmony and discord. Tied up within Empire is slavery, colonialism, and the misconception of race; where racism as a concept was born.

And although black men and women are no longer in chains, they are still shackled to old ideas that keep them below their white counterparts. Through the marginalization of black people, the system (police, healthcare, and education) is intricately designed to serve white interests at the expense of black wealth, safety, and social mobility.

However, ignorance can be counteracted within schools and the education system by teaching the truth of Britain and Empire, allowing all of Britain to have a voice within the British Educational system, which will help shape the British people of tomorrow. For the people of tomorrow aren’t just white British, but are multicultural.

Imperial tutelage protected a system that elevated white subjects and communities above black ones, creating disharmony and discord. Tied up within Empire is slavery, colonialism, and the misconception of race; where racism as a concept was born.

When Britain became an imperial force, it also opened its doors to those it invaded. The highly profitable slave trade contributed heavily to making Britain ‘Great.’ Central London, as well as other places, was built with the money from plantations Britain owned in the West Indies. The English language is now across the globe, itself a product of Empire. So when white British argue that black Britons, as well as the brown immigrant, do not belong in Britain, it can leave a bitter aftertaste to those whose ancestors helped build Britain. It also displays astonishing ignorance. Immigrants have done, and still do, contribute to the growth of Great Britain.

But British people are not taught all of their history. It can therefore be suggested that some White British have a misplaced sense of entitlement over Britain and the English Language—a language peppered with ‘foreign’ words like the word ‘pyjamas.’ This word has its roots in the 1800s and is from the Urdu ‘pāy-jāma.’ This misplaced entitlement over the ‘British’ culture is also prevalent in the ownership of the quintessentially ‘British’ drink of tea—that originates from India. The education system in Britain appears not only to value the White British voice, but misunderstands what the British voice is. It appears what it really does is value the white voice through the white gaze.

Arguably there are texts in the National Curriculum which comment on blackness or other voices that are not white, but these texts are optional. Whereas during Slavery and Empire (and arguably, still in some arenas today) there was a domination over the black body, now there is domination over the black voice. Novels such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Pigeon English have been on the National Curriculum, but are written by white authors.

Image courtesy Wikimedia.

Pigeon English is told from the point of view of Harrison Opoku, an eleven-year-old Ghanaian immigrant living on a tough London estate—a classic example of the black voice told through the white gaze. Due to changes in the National Curriculum, To Kill a Mockingbird has been dropped in favor of more ‘British Literature.’ To Kill a Mockingbird—an American novel—deals with sexual violence against women, as well as a black man who is wrongly accused of a rape that was physically impossible for him to do. Black men’s entanglement within the judicial system seems very relevant to occurrences in today’s modern world, especially in light of the Rashan Charles case.

However, it isn’t as simple as choosing good literature by black authors. With a lack of representation from Black and Ethnic Minority (BAME) authors, the pool of well-written novels is limited due to the the publishing industry being white.

Although in the past, BAME authors have had books published, more recently there has been a turn of events whereby only the ‘token’ black writer manages to break through

Image courtesy Public Book Shelf.

the reinforced glass ceiling. Within the education system, there’s also been a turn from a more holistic view of multicultural Britain to a more white view. Poems from non-Anglo cultures were studied under the National Curriculum, giving a voice to the voiceless. These poems were from authors who were tied to Britain through Imperial roots, therefore developing a mixed cultural heritage which is part of Modern Britain. However, with the election of a new government in 2010, this has been eradicated in preference for authors Jane Austen at the insistence of the then-education secretary Michael Gove.

Gove made sure students were studying more what he deemed as ‘British’ literature, effectively eradicating the small voice that the non-white Briton had.

Education is the key to moving forward. Britain is built upon the contributions of different cultures, ingrained within the language and forged in a culture. There is a misconception of what it is to be British. The Jutes, Angles, and Saxons, came to Britain and established control over modern-day England. The peoples now called the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ largely came from Scandinavia and northern Germany, first landing in Eastern Britain. The Vikings, Romans, and Normans all contributed to and built Britain. Which of these groups is the most British?

Britain’s imperial links are attached to the collective British psyche. To neglect a part of Britain’s history is to neglect a part of her people.

Yet the education system does not fully teach how Britain was built. It elevates the white voice whilst devaluing the black/non-white voice as if it were nothing. This gives the youth a false representation of a ‘British’ white supremacy as well as the inferiority of blackness which has contributed to the feeling of white ownership over multicultural Britain that inspired the Brexit/protectionist vote.

Britain’s imperial links are attached to the collective British psyche. To neglect a part of Britain’s history is to neglect a part of her people. Elevating one voice above others can have severe repercussions for all. Teaching Jane Austen is a part of the British identity is a positive thing, but so is teaching Indian, Pakistani, and West Indian writers who are also a part of Britain’s national identity. Britain needs to move forward—all of Britain, and that means giving everyone a voice so that we no longer need to tolerate each other, but can appreciate and understand each other and every facet of what makes us British. After all, it is within diversity, within the mixing up of the gene pool, that makes one strong enough to ward of the damaging disease of the rise of the far right. The likes of La Pen, Trump, and Farage would promote a protectionism that excludes others and elevates the white individual above all.

We forge our future by learning from the fire in our past. If we can heed the warning that comes from past bloodshed and world wars, which tell us that the disease of the far right is highly contagious, then we ought to do all we can to inoculate ourselves from the dangers of ignorance, exclusion and marginalization—the misplaced fear of what is ‘other’. The United Kingdom, a Kingdom forged from many, can truly be united if we recognize, accept, and appreciate all aspects of our national identity.

CherylMs. Cheryl Diane Parkinson is an educator in a secondary school in East London, teaching English Literature and Language GCSE and A Level. Her publishing history includes an article on racism within our schools in The National Union of Teachers newsletter, March 2012, “The Sexualisation of Black Women” in The Fem Magazine, 2016, and articles in The Voice Online, 2017. She is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at Birmingham University exploring the Black British Identity and making connections with Dissociative Identity Disorder whilst using the medium of magical realism.

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4 comments on “A United Kingdom?: Teaching Against Imperialism in the UK

  1. Pingback: A United Kingdom – Faith and I

  2. I was in school in the fifties and sixties and was happy to learn the origin of words like pyjamas and the great cultures that contributed towards Britain. I am one of those who voted for Brexit but my choice was not made with the idea of white superiority in mind nor with preventing refugees from coming to our country. It was solely based on my beliefs that rule by Brussels is not in the UK’s best interests. Given how many seats are held by UKIP must surely show you that their following and the effect of their racism is negligible.
    I’m quite happy to live in a multicultural society. I have a beloved son in law whose ethnicity was Nigerian and two wonderful coffee coloured grandchildren. I’m happy to read anything by any author if it’s in a genre I like. At one time I was apologetic for Britain’s past in Imperialism until I realised it wasn’t me, I wasn’t there and I’m lucky to live in the country that past created. I’d say children in the school you teach at are going to be lucky too as you’re taking Britain where it needs to go and hopefully bringing us all together even more as Brits regardless of colour.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Amazing article as to how the black voice is being suppressed in our society when we all have played a part in making Britain great!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very interesting post, great work!


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