When I was a boy, growing up in Northamptonshire in the middle of England, I learned a lot of history from my own family. It was at home I learned about the cruel tenure of colonialism and the British Empire, not at school. My parents and grandparents told me of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and times where there was insignia to No Irish, No Black, No Dogs on shopfronts. They told me of “Keep Britain white” and Neil Kenlock’s iconic photograph. How Britain made the Windrush and their children, (both children of the British Empire unwelcome). Recently I saw This is England for the first time, and couldn’t help but feel we be might going back to an imitation of Powell, the NF, and his rivers of blood. I’m afraid. However, the difference between now and then is that today it’s everyone versus racism.
Like many of my Black and brown colleagues, we are never more fearful than when we are in a room full of white men. That stench of white male privilege is foul. Now, that’s some funk! I was made to relive my public school days when I saw the scenes of fascists fighting the police. When I saw these men defending another fascist, Winston Churchill, I was made to relive the trauma of school, where I was monkeychanted and called wog. Told to “eff off, you Black bastard” and that’s putting it kindly. These Neo-Nazis reminded me of people I went to school with. And since Black Lives Matter have come out once again, I have been called all kinds of things.
“Go back to your own country”… “ape” … “nigger lips” – this is what happens when you fight racists online, most of my racial trauma as an adult comes from the worldwide web
In my heart of hearts, I hope we do not go back to that time where Stephen Graham’s Combo is a commonality. London’s scenes showed me the zeitgeist of Britain’s swaggering xenophobia. That Britain is more Bill Sykes than Liz Bennett. The fact this country has a history of racism and you can go through the education system and not be taught about race once just shows you the level of brainwashing. And more importantly, the denial of our past and present. That aspiring teachers can go through initial teacher education [ITE] and not do anything on race equality, including the differences between teaching white and Black children (equity > equality). That when I am called those horrific names, I know they come from racism embedded in the unconscious, historically popularised by men like Edward Long, slave trader-historian, but he was also a devotee to pseudoscientific racism.
The Windrush Scandal: they were colonised, enslaved and then repatriated; so will we implement this history onto curricula in the years to come? I won’t hold my breath.
For me, those images of white men fighting police cast my mind to The Battle of Cable Street in 1936, but also that whole era of anti-fascism and Black shirts that lead up to the beginning of the Second World War. That in our pursuit to impliment Black history on the curriculum, this can’t detract from the fact we have histories of working-class narratives that need to be told as well. From Stonewall (1969) to Thatcherism and the Miners’ Strikes in the 1980s to the Irish and the Jews brining an end to Oswald Mosely in 1936, to the Bristol Bus Boycott (1963) and the Notting Hill Riots in 1958.
The late Peter Fryer wrote “nowhere within the British Empire were black people passive victims. On the contrary, they were everywhere active resisters” and I would push that quote on to working class people in general. From the role of Black teachers in white schools of thought to the women of Grunwick in South Africa, passivity in times of oppression does not come natural to the human spirit. Now, when we push back against the status quo, a small minority of white men think we’re curtailing their rights. We are not taking away Englishness, simply putting back what was taken.
We have a history of radical political thought in this country, on both sides of the political spectrum. And the rise of the far-right in both parliament and the population shows a Britain in conflict. Yet, seeing how Britain’s diversity is pushing back against the Boris Johnsons and the Britain Firsts of this world does make me proud to be a born-and-bred Briton. That Tommy Robinson’s hooligans causing trouble do not speak for my white friends and this new wave of thought is in the tint of C. L. R James and George Padmore. That Black Lives Matter follows in the footsteps of Garvey, King and X.
It is chilling to say the least, that our ancestors fought facism before, winning with far fewer resources than what we have now – and “we know that history records the achievements of empires and imperial civilization more than it does the humanizing and civilizing contributions of emancipation movements” (Gopal, 2019: 27). What makes history interesting to me is the diversity of characters, pertinent to the story of this country. Whether we’re talking Indians during Votes for Women, Afro-Romans on Hadrians Wall or the life and times of role models like WW2
codebreaker Alan Turing, part of our national story and his sexuality is honestly the least interesting thing about him.
To fight police without thought of consequence is reserved to privileged straight white men. When the Suffragetes did it, there were consequences. When people of colour have done it there have been consequences (esp. Black people). Breonna Taylor was killed whilst she slept. Emmett Till was considered a threat a fourteen years old. 184 Black and minority ethnic people have died in police custody since 1990 (Inquest). The only people in society who have the gall to take on police without thought of consequence is able-bodied, white, cisgendered, straight men. Why? You only have to look at the British history books and how they are written, in their image.
When the worst war criminals in human history are white men glorified as heroes (i.e Churchill), is it any surprise white male privilege ran riot when those fascists violently retaliated against the Black Lives Matter movement?
Works of Note
Fryer, P. (1988). Black People in the British Empire. London: Pluto.
Gopal, P. (2019) Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent. London: Verso.
Brilliant piece!! Thanks!
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