By Shekhar Mathur
Over the last few months, society has had an unprecedented amount of time to reflect inwardly. Horrifying events have triggered an influx in global interest regarding systemic racism, and the extent to which it is still so deeply ingrained within our society. The BLM movement has created monumental levels of awareness, and is certainly a step in the right direction. There is, however, a long way to go.
When dissecting this issue within the UK, a topic of inevitable relevance is colonialism, and the British Empire. Of late, headlines have been dominated by the controversy surrounding the existence of statues of colonial slave traders, and in particular the incident with that of Edward Colston in Bristol. It has simultaneously led to an inundation of far-right activists protecting the aforementioned statues, creating further disparity between the left and the right. Certain levels of education and understanding must be attained in order to resolve this immensely pertinent issue.
Having been brought up in the British school system, but with Indian parents, I have seen both sides of the coin. Whilst growing up, I was always made aware of the atrocities committed by the East India Company, and the suffering caused by colonial powers. Many of my ancestors were victim to said atrocities, and were at large made to feel hopeless in their native land. Moreover, colonial injustices were not only indigenous to India, but the other colonised nations as well (23% of the global population at the time). That said, had it not been for my parents, I would be as oblivious as my fellow schoolmates. At no point in the British curriculum, is colonialism even mentioned. The entire History syllabus simply glosses over this monumental chunk of history, as if it never happened. Concomitantly, a vast majority seem to be proud of the British Empire, particularly with it being at the forefront of British historical ‘success’, without any concrete knowledge or understanding of the entire picture. It seems peculiar, that a nation so proud of its history would choose not to teach arguably the most integral part of their past. Thus, the phrase ‘ignorance is bliss’, could not be more apt here.
Due to this lack of awareness, racism is still rampant. It is easy for people to say, ‘don’t be racist’, but harder to explain exactly why one ought not to be racist, and the historical connotations of casual remarks. It is a similar case with sexism—we are taught not to be sexist, but at large, as students, are not made aware of the historical connotations insinuated with sexist references. Most people are unaware of the ramifications and the psychological suffering caused by insults and slurs, whether they relate to gender, race or sexuality. They are largely more hurtful due to the historical pain associated with the comment, rather than the actual comment itself. Simultaneously, it is very hard for a white student to relate to the cultural confusion or pain of their BME counterparts, nor is it their fault either. Hence, the only way to bridge this gap is to radically modify the curriculum, in turn leading to consistent, long-term change. This is not to say that colonialism was a purely evil ideology, as it did help strengthen and grow many countries by the end, but it was at the expense of freedom, something upon which our society is currently supposedly built. To put this into perspective, it would be a similar example were a global power such as China or Russia to take over in the UK and ensure that we rigidly follow their way of life, with those in dispute either imprisoned or killed. Their regime may rapidly grow our society over 200 years, but for those suffering at the time, the injustices outweigh the long-term benefits. Both sides of the story need to be taught in order to instigate change, in tandem with longevity.
Similarly, I am of the view that these statues ought not to be torn down in the barbaric manner that they were in Bristol, but rather used to the advantage of the education system. Vandalism blurs the patent line between the victim and oppressor, and simply diminishes the opportunity to repaint. As the curriculum slowly evolves, and begins to catch up with the times, these figures will become instrumental in understanding Britain’s colonial past, as well as using them to influence the future, and the way we think about racism. In a society that claims to be democratic, is it fair to rip them down, and simply erase these men from history? Or do we owe it to the victims, as well as future generations, to study these historical figures, in an unbiased manner? The latter would enable us to learn about the mistakes of the past, understand them, and then make sure they aren’t made again in the future.
At the same time however, it is unfair to make the current generation apologise for atrocities committed by their predecessors, in the same way it would be preposterous to demand that Germans of today apologise for the crimes committed during WWI and WWII. Morality evolves and changes with time, and whilst of course the atrocities of the past are sinful, they ought to be contextualised. Many societal norms of the past would now be considered immoral, and vice versa. That said, we need to be made aware of the past, and learn from it, rather than it be simply ignored and brushed under the carpet.