To mark the start of Black History Month 2021, Almaz Ohene meets inspiring leaders of the younger generation fighting the government’s “culture war”.
The release of the government-commissioned Sewell report on racial and ethnic disparities in March saw politically conscious people consumed in disbelief and anger at the findings, which, over 250 pages, appeared to negate pre-existing evidence of institutional racism in Britain.
It came just weeks after then Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced plans to appoint a “free speech champion,” whose mandate would be to include a warning to agencies. and institutions – such as the National Trust, Historic England and the British Museum – against taking steps to decolonize British history.
Unfortunately, it has become very clear that the government is cracking down on the development of forward thinking ideas with its fictitious “culture war”. Through propaganda, he takes steps to entrench the identity politics that divides establishment mentalities. Appealing to liberal values with concepts such as freedom of speech is a carefully crafted approach that uses the language of democracy as a crafty control mechanism.
Inadvertently, through these actions, Boris Johnson’s administration has demonstrated its awareness of the power of language, as well as its urgent attempts to ensure that it continues to work on their behalf.
But Gen Z are working to change that.
Last November, the Petitions and Women and Equalities Committees hosted a meeting on ‘Black History and Cultural Diversity on the Agenda’, which saw a multitude of views presented regarding approaches to gender equality. history – views which have argued that we should not always center white Britishness in our teaching.
I spoke to four young women in attendance to hear their thoughts on why learning about colonialism is important.
Cynthia Muthoni is a 23-year-old student from the University of East Anglia who started the petition to “add diversity and racism education to all school curricula” last June. She went on to win this year’s Petition Campaign of the Year award.
“As a young black woman who grew up in the UK, I have lived and witnessed racism throughout my life,” she says. “When I was 15, I got really interested in politics and I continued to study it at university. This allowed me to gain knowledge about different systems and processes, such as petitions, while exposing me to more cases of racial inequality and resources.
“The catalyst for my petition was the tragic murder of George Floyd. I wanted to attend a local Black Lives Matter protest, but I am classified as vulnerable to COVID-19, so I didn’t think it would be wise in the height of the pandemic. My friend said you should start a petition on this, and I did.
“In my school we studied Jane eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847) alongside Broad Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966), which serves as a prequel Jane eyre and gives a better understanding of Caribbean and Creole culture. The way Jean Rhys was able to take this classic novel and provide a nuanced perspective by making the underdeveloped, underdeveloped character of Bertha (the first Mrs. Rochester) the protagonist of his novel, was absolutely inspirational.
Equality Minister Kemi Badenoch fueled a bitter debate over critical race theory last October when she said the government did not want white children to be made aware of “white privilege and their inherited racial guilt.” “.
Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson and Nell Bevan, both 20, are the founders of Impact of Omission, an initiative that campaigns to bring British Empire education to schools. They are also the duo behind the ‘teach Britain’s colonial past as part of the UK’s compulsory curriculum’ petition.
“I think Kemi Badenoch’s comments are interesting, as most people have a huge problem with hypothetical white children who feel hypothetically upset in classrooms, but to date have not spared a thought for the real black kids who sit in classrooms every day and feel real sadness, and really feel different, because of the way education, as it is now, centers on ‘white child,’ says Jikiemi-Pearson.
One example that highlights this is the teaching of war stories. The victory of the Allied forces in World War II is often placed at the forefront both in the national agenda and in popular culture in general. But some historical facts about the Commonwealth battalions that also served in the name of “the crown and the country” are repeatedly omitted from the speech.
Blockbuster movies such as Dunkirk (2017), who claim to have been meticulously researched, present a whitewashed interpretation of historic warfare. For many young people, popular culture shapes their perception of the world alongside what they get from textbooks and history lessons.
One of the recommendations of the Sewell Report was the educational resource “Making of Modern Britain”, which “examines the influence of the United Kingdom, particularly during the Empire period.” The report said it wanted to see “how Britishness influenced the Commonwealth and local communities, and how the Commonwealth and local communities influenced what we now know as modern Britain”. However, upon further investigation, these documents are only available as a supplement to the AQA ‘A’ Level History Program.
“One of the facts that I think has been told to me over and over again is how Thomas Edison invented the light bulb,” says Jikiemi-Pearson. “And it would be so easy to tell kids about Lewis Latimer’s contribution, like the one who invented the carbon filament used in the light bulb. And to mention James Edward Maceo West, who co-invented the microphone, in the same breath as Alexander Graham Bell. Mary Seacole is starting to get the recognition she deserves, but she should now be on par with Florence Nightingale in terms of kids knowing her story.
Nell Bevan is of Caucasian descent and is able to frame her experience of a white-centered education without guilt clouding the strong feelings she has regarding these complex issues. She disagrees with Badenoch’s comments.
“As a white person, I’m more angry and upset that I didn’t learn about black stories, history and culture in school, than I’m guilty,” she says. “In Germany, the atrocities of the Holocaust are taught to children not to make them feel guilty, but to show them how far we have come and, above all, how far we must go. How do we get kids to fight racism and be anti-racist if we don’t even teach them why it exists? “
The Black Curriculum is a grassroots organization that was founded in response to the unmistakable focus of white Britishness in British schools. The impetus of its founder Lavinya Stennett to launch the initiative came from a trip to New Zealand to study. There she admired the New Zealanders’ commitment to engage with the natives Maori culture, and she wanted to do something similar when she returned to Britain.
She decided to create The Black Curriculum a few days after her return in January 2019, with the help of graduates Bethany Thomas and Lisa Kennedy.
The Black Curriculum has a YouTube channel that features short animated educational films highlighting lesser-known historical figures such as abolitionist Mary Prince; Lilian Bader, who was one of the first black women to join the British armed forces; and Fanny Eaton, who was a model for many Pre-Raphaelite painters.
Eleshea Williams, former head of media and communications for The Black Curriculum, says: “All of us, teachers included, are the product of our own education. So if teachers haven’t learned black history, then they won’t necessarily feel so confident about teaching these subjects. And I think that by declaring black history – which is an integral part of British history – to be optional, it is teaching our young people that their history is not valued, or that they do not have not important. ”
Often, having experienced marginalization allows politically-minded women to recognize other sites of oppression and ultimately work to expose complicity through activism and new ways of working. Each of the young women I spoke to acknowledged that because of their place behind men in patriarchal society, they are used to experiencing inequality.
The richness and simplicity of the solutions proposed by the young women really excited me for the next generation of schoolchildren. Seeing themselves, and the collective importance of their history, reflected in the school curriculum could increase the self-esteem of so many children.
The government’s ongoing culture war and emphasis on how history is apparently being ‘rewritten’ shows that it has recognized the radical importance of a decolonized education system – but the younger generations Britain are making huge strides in leading the conversation, and its politicians are on the defensive.
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