Why have British schools white-washed history?

Seun Matiluko
·7-min read
Photo credit: Alice Cowling
Photo credit: Alice Cowling

From Cosmopolitan

At secondary school I remember learning about King Henry VIII and his six wives. Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. Then there was World War One and World War Two: I spent many nights in the library bent over a textbook, yellow highlighter in hand, circling the names of British and American soldiers.

Knowing about our history is important; our modern society didn't happen by accident, it's the result of a series of events and it's vital that we know about them.

But what about all the history we weren't taught? The more I studied, the more I began to notice something: there were gaps in my knowledge - and that of my classmates - that my teachers weren't addressing. I was confused as I knew that Nigeria (my parents' country) only gained independence from Britain in 1960. Surely Nigerian soldiers will have fought and sacrificed their lives too? Why wasn't I learning their names?

I was right. Nigerian people - and others from all over the Empire - fought for Britain (whilst getting very little in return), but it was Google who schooled me on that fact. Not my history lessons.

When I brought this up with my classmates, suggesting that we need to learn about “everyone who fought in the war,” one of them laughed at me and said “yeah they’re called the World Wars Seun, everybody knows that.” But we didn’t, not really.

Photo credit: EyeWolf - Getty Images
Photo credit: EyeWolf - Getty Images

We learnt a lot about the pernicious evil of American racism - from slavery, to Jim Crow to the fight for Civil Rights. Even in those lessons I cringed, as one girl remarked: "Why are coloured people always so behind everyone else?"

As a Black person who was born and grew up in Britain, I never learnt anything about my own history from school. I learnt that race was an American problem, yet that contradicted the daily experiences I would have in my majority-white schools, where derogatory remarks about Black people could be heard in the corridors. The narrative was that British history was a history of white people. Black people like my dad, who was born a British subject, were erased from the story.

I felt I could not relate to anything the teachers were teaching me. I was good at history as a subject... yet I dropped it before A-Level. It was only online, mostly through Wikipedia, that I was able to learn more.

I realised that instead of Black people "suddenly emerging" in the late-twentieth and early twenty-first century, Black people have long been making a splash in Britain. There’s Claudia Jones, who was one of the founders of the Notting Hill Carnival, and came up with the concept of "triple oppression"- that a person can be discriminated against due to their race + their gender + their class. It was this idea that helped give way to the popular concept of "intersectionality" that we're so familiar with today.

"The narrative was that British history was a history of white people. Black people like my dad were erased from the story"

There’s Olive Jones and the women of OWAAD (Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent), who campaigned for the British government to stop carrying out the sexually exploitative "virginity testing" on female South Asian immigrants. These are names that should be common knowledge in Britain, but it aren’t.

All of this shouldn't be up to us to learn individually. Some teachers do a brilliant job at ensuring their students are taught it but everyone needs to learn about these people and events. Without it on our syllabus we are telling our pupils that Black British people are external from our national heritage. This could contribute to the rise in racist bullying across primary and secondary schools in the UK from pupils who tell their fellow classmates to "go back to your own country," not realising that due to centuries of contributions from non-white people to these very British Isles, this is very much our country, too.

We associate so much of Black civil rights history with America. But this means, while we stand in solidarity with African-Americans against the racism that they endure, we are woefully ignorant of our own histories and historical legacies. This is what “rewriting history” looks like, not tearing down statues.

Photo credit: EyeWolf - Getty Images
Photo credit: EyeWolf - Getty Images

While some may think that Black British people have only been going out to protest due to the death of George Floyd in America, the reality is that Black British people were also protesting against the deaths of Black people at the hands of the state in the UK too. Many protestors believe that there is an issue with police brutality in the UK towards the Black population, in part backed up by statistics that show that Black people across England and Wales are three times more likely to be “involved in taser incidents” than whites.

While many of us know that Black people were enslaved in America, how many know that it was English colonists who first brought African slaves to North America in 1619? Yep, English colonists. Britain abolished the trade in 1807, and abolished slavery full stop in 1833, but it came at a price. A cost you’ve probably felt personally. When slavery ended, slave owners were reimbursed for their "loss of property" and that debt was so high it was still being paid off up until 2015 through our taxes (meaning that Black British descendants of enslaved people were helping to pay off the people who owned their ancestors). Does that sit right with you?

There's so many brilliant moments in history that we should know about, take The Bristol Bus Boycott? Black people and their allies in Bristol boycotted the Bristol Bus company until they stopped imposing a "colour-bar" and refusing to hire Black employees. Or how about the story of how Britain became the first country in Europe to have explicit anti-race discrimination laws when it came to housing and employment the 1960s? This was down to the activism of groups like Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD). Need another example? How about the New Cross Fire, where 13 Black people died in a fire at a house party in 1981. No one was charged, leading to the 'Black People’s Day of Action' where over 20,000 people marched from Fordham Park to Hyde Park. Or the story of the Mangrove Nine (which, at the time, attracted support from the iconic actress Vanessa Redgrave), about how the popular Mangrove Restaurant, where everybody from Marvin Gaye to Diana Ross dined, was once the epicentre of major anti-racism protests.

How is it that we don’t have exams or classroom discussions about any of this? Black history can be taught as part of the history and English curriculum in secondary schools, but whether pupils get to study it depends on the modules chosen by schools. Academies, which are not controlled by local authorities, are also not required to follow the national curriculum.

But as the Black Lives Matter movement gained further momentum this year, people began waking up to the fact that this is not okay. Campaigners collected signatures for an open letter to be sent to the education secretary Gavin Williamson earlier this year, calling on him to make the teaching of Black history compulsory in primary and secondary school across a range of different subjects. While no change has been made just yet, the more people keep talking about the issue in public, the more chance there is that the message of its importance will filter through.

So, while it seems that change may be on the horizon - it still can’t come quick enough.

In the meantime, those of us who have aged out of the educational system can continue to read. We can read Natives by Akala or Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. We can read Black and British by David Olusoga. a and Grime Kids by DJ Target. We can listen to historical podcasts sounds like the untold story of The British Black Panthers or hear about the British Empire's legacy through audiobooks.

Together, we can learn more about our history.


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