Britain’s lack of dialogue with its past – Sharin Raja

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Britain’s lack of dialogue with its past – Sharin Raja

Britain’s lack of dialogue with its past.

I recently re-posted something on my IG story which said ‘If I could summarise British racism in one sentence it would be: British people are more appalled by accusations of racism than they are of actual racism happening before their very eyes’. Definitely a controversial statement – but one that I believe on the whole, to be a true statement. A white-British friend took some offence at this as she found it too much of a generalisation to say that everyone in Britain is this way, and that only a small number of people (aka racists) are actually this way. Perhaps missing the point, but I accepted this as her opinion. However, it did lead me to think about why she was so outraged at the idea that some people believe Britain has a problem with racism.

At the same time I posted this story, I was reading the book ‘Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India’. I grew up being aware of the British Empire, specifically the damage it did to India, and I expanded this knowledge through my own reading in recent years. However, it’s easy to forget how little the majority of Britain know about their own colonial history. It’s a strange feeling to know more about the country where my parents and grandparents were so unwelcome when they first arrived, than those with generations of British ancestry.

The atrocities of the empire spun from looting many countries dry, to millions being savagely killed. So how is it not something we and generations before us learn about in school? Why are we not open about the violence and injustice that occurred in our history? Things may be changing for those in school now, but for myself and generations before me we went through our whole education with 100+ years of British history skipped over. By not teaching Britain’s darker past and the damage it did, what impact does this have on society?

I strongly believe that years of whitewashing history and the selective amnesia of the nation is the reason why a lot of British people are shocked when their country is accused of being racist. As far as a large majority of Britain is concerned, the country has never had much of an issue with racism. Let’s not forget that only 19% of British people recently surveyed think the empire is something to be ashamed of and more people said they would like their country to still have an empire than any other ex-colonial power. But who can really blame them? Unless you have stumbled across this information on your own accord or have actively researched the topic yourself, you simply wouldn’t know if it was a bad or good thing – the history is too well hidden.

For whatever reason, be it avoiding the admission of fault or the country’s tendency towards nostalgia, the fact is that the government and those in positions of power don’t want the public to know the ugly details of Britain’s colonial past. A few months ago I wrote to parliament to address this and ask about diversifying reading lists, compulsory teaching about the empire and highlighting the contribution of Asian and black people in the world wars. The response from the Education Minister was vague and glossed over the need to change the national curriculum.

There’s also the reluctance to remove ‘empire’ from the UK honours system and change it to ‘excellence’. We still award people MBEs and OBEs under an empire which hasn’t existed for 55 years. The danger of still using ‘empire’ in the name, is that it implies it is something to be celebrated – indirectly communicating a whitewashed version of history to a public who don’t know any different, as they haven’t been told by politicians, the media or through the education system.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom! If there’s one thing 2020 has been good for it’s raising awareness of issues surrounding race relations. I’ve seen more on social media, more on mainstream television, and more on the news than ever before. The pulling down of statues of slave traders, TV programs discussing how evil Churchill really was, and wider discussions surrounding colonialism are all contributing to a discussion that is now in full flow with no sign of stopping. So let’s keep it going, let’s educate ourselves and spread that acquired knowledge. We sure as hell know the powers at be aren’t going to change so it’s over to us to take this opportunity and roll with it, and hope that a nation more educated about its past wrong-doings can work on a better, anti-racist future.

By Sharin Raja

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