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The UK is not Innocent: “Babylon, for True” #SubnormalABritishScandal

Last December I watched the final entry of Small Axe entitled ‘Education‘, the best entry in my opinion and thus I delivered a blog on the film too. The finale articulated the history behind the schools for the ‘Educationally Subnormal’ [ESN] or ‘special schools’, and it took me back to when I was a nine year-old boy being treated as if I was intellectually inferior or incapable, by my White teachers in comparison to the White children. It turns out I was dyspraxic. The story of Maisie Barrett, however, in the recent documentary Subnormal: A British Scandal resonated. My schooling experience differs from most Black children in Britain today (since I was at private, not state) but the story of Maisie Barrett resonates because she was dyslexic (word blindness in the 1960s/1970s) and simply, like my teachers with my dyspraxia, they did not know how to teach her or me. She was placed in one of those ‘special schools’ really because she happened to be Black and her dyslexia translated as “difficult” to the teachers of the time.

In the 1960s and 1970s, hundreds of Black children in Britain were caught in an education scandal where many were sent to schools designed for the ‘educationally subnormal’. Some children were labelled as “subnormal” by the state, as they were seen to have low intelligence and not fit for the mainstream school system. A decision by the state that would see many (if not all) of these children to grow into adults traumatised by their experience with that childhood trauma impacting their adult lives. What happened in the 1960s and 1970s disproportionately to Black British children of Caribbean descent has an enduring legacy today, where battles are still being fought in the name of race and racism, from Early Years all the way up to higher education [HE] in universities. In the 1944 Education Act, the term “educationally subnormal” entered British lexicon to describe children that the state deemed intellectually deficient.

Subnormal: A British Scandal (2021)

The people that we now know in the colloquial sense as the Windrush Generation (Caribbeans that came here between 1948-1970), came here to work. This scandal impacted their children and is really an aftershock of the hostility to Caribbean arrival in 1948. My own great-grandparents themselves came to this country from the Caribbean in the late 1950s, early 1960s with some of their children (including my grandmother) coming on her parents’ passports. And I know my maternal great-grandparents were factory workers when they first came. I’m told they went to work at Long and Hambly, a Northamptonshire-based plastics manufacturer. However, these ESN schools should not be relegated to history as the education sector continues to fail Black and Brown students at every level. Whilst back then the state called them ‘special schools’, now we have Pupil Referral Units [PRU] where Black students in schools continue to be placed when they become “too difficult” for the mainstream system of education.

Watching Subnormal, it struck me that whilst it claims this scandal started in the 1960s with the arrival of the Windrush Generation and whilst I earlier claimed it as an aftershock of 1948, I would take this back further. Why were / are Black students being treated as if they were / are less intelligent? In the documentary, Prof. Gus John states “there were many academics who were equating race with lack of intellectual ability [with] the reason for Black underachievement as those children were Black” … academics like Professor Hans Eysenck, a key figure in discourses around race and intelligence in the 1970s. He believed genetics played a role in influenceing intelligence and that “entire racial groups might be genetically condemned to lower intelligence” (Subnormal). These ideas lead to beliefs that Black children were not as capable of academic success as White children. With people like Prof. Eysenck leading on this, it made ESNs not really a national scandal but justifiable … essentially justifying racism with “science.”

Yet, going back to the 18th and 19th centuries we also know that similar ‘race science’ was used to used to justify colonialisms and also enslavement as well as the subjugation of Black people in the Caribbean and the African continent. In her book Superior, Angela Saini traces the origins of race really showing the racial hierachies that existed in that era with White European people at the top and Black people of African descent at the bottom and “what Europeans saw as cultural shortcomings in other populations in the early nineteenth century soon become conflated with how they looked” (p11). So-called ‘race scientists’ drew on physical differences to emphasise us and them and I believe the ideas perpetuated by the Government in constructing the ESNs do not sound too far from the pseudoscientific racial theories that underpinned colonial racial thinking of the 18th and 19th century. Very much followed by the Nazis themselves, inspired by UK-US eugenics creating policies also discriminating based on disabilities, that would have included neurodivergent conditions like dyslexia (or as they called it in the 1970s … word blindness).

Bernard Coard’s seminal 1971 text that hasn’t aged a day

Black people being seen as intellectually inferior is a stereotype that goes back to the days of White masters and Black enslaved people. The justifications made for the ESNs were simply an afterthought of the “academic reasonings” made to subjugate Black people on slave plantations. Simply, the UK government were standing on the shoulders of old stereotypes created in the slave polity. When you link this with the hostility to Caribbean arrival, we can then see that the conditions of anti-Blackness have been in Britain since the 16th century. In watching the film, what we saw is ‘race science’ playing out in a contemporary context, as well as eugenics, which was also pioneered by men like Winston Churchill, who the British public saw fit to vote as the Best Briton in 2002, and then have on the £5-note in 2016.

In British schools and universities, we continue to see these same stereotypes playing out (the return of race science, to put it bluntly) but more importantly, this is White supremacy in action. Whilst I enjoyed (if that’s the term), the documentary as it had lots to take away, I felt it was not critical enough. Much alike lots of the documentaries we have received from especially the BBC since the George Floyd killing, they go as far as to say ‘racism is bad and we need to talk about it’ but fall short in naming White supremacy as a social and political system (Mills, 2004). Further to the fact of how institutional Whiteness (White Spaces) allows our structures to continue to centre and frame the emotions of White people in dealing with racist incidents. The scandal that culminated in Bernard Coard’s book How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System, was well articulated by the BBC as well as showing the role of Black parents, community leaders and activists, but falls short at showing the overarching system leading us to believe this as an isolated tragedy and not part of complex system that was orchestrated from dot.

We had lots of testimony from the victims as well as parents, community leaders, activists and the like but much akin to so much of the trauma narratives of late, the people that helped facilitate these crimes are nowhere to be seen … we have a victim-focussed narrative with no analysis on the mechanics of the oppression itself. 50 years on, more awareness for sure … but no accountability. The BBC is the establishment broadcaster and it shows. Babylon, for true!


References

Coard, B. (1971) How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System. In: Richardson, B. Tell it like it is: How our schools fail Black children. Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books.  

Mills, C (2004) Racial Exploitation and the Wages of Whiteness. In: Yancy, G (ed). What White Looks Like: African American Philosophers on the Whiteness Question. Abingdon: Routledge.  

Saini, Angela (2019) Superior: The Return of Race Science. London: 4th Estate.

Ventour, T (2021) The Alternative History Behind the Windrush Scandal. Medium [online]

White Spaces. Institutional Witnesses. White Spaces [online].

“My Favourite Things”: Natalie Humphrey (President of the UoN Criminology Society)

My favourite TV show - Gogglebox. There is nothing I love more on a Friday night than watching others watch TV, especially if a Chinese takeaway is involved. I do have my binge tv shows too, such as Brooklyn 99 and I love a Louis Theroux documentary

My favourite place to go - During term time, it's to go to the pool at the local gym and de-stress. It helps when I’m getting stressed about uni work or even work itself. I always come out refreshed, ready to take on the day. However, I can’t go to the pool for the foreseeable future, which is a downside to liking a sport you cannot do from home. At the moment, sitting in the garden is a good way to get away and have some me time

My favourite city - Barcelona. It so full of culture and bright colours. It has the most beautiful architecture and a stunning beach front. I will definitely be giving it another visit after lockdown and hope to visit Barcelona many more times

My favourite thing to do in my free time - be with my family, go on long dog walks and just relax

My favourite athlete/sports personality - I suppose it would have to be Rebecca Adlington. I think she is an inspirational person and her passion for swimming inspired me to take it up, however I don’t think I’ll be going pro

My favourite actor - This is a hard one, I love most genres of films. Robin Williams would be very top of that list. He was such an inspirational person, and Mrs Doubtfire is one of my favourite classic films. I also absolutely love Aladdin, and his part as the genie is just amazing, there was nothing that man couldn’t do

My favourite author - I have been very slack with my reading in recent years. As a child, Jacqueline Wilson was my absolute favourite. They are brilliant books, even to me now, with such meaningful messages behind the story

My favourite drink - If we are going with alcoholic, it has to be raspberry gin and pink lemonade. Nothing like it on a warm summers evening and a BBQ

My favourite food - This is a tricky one because I love so much food. I’d probably have to go with a burger. But I also love Chinese, Indian, pizza, pasta, the list could go on and on. The only food I’m not too bothered about is sweet food. I much prefer savoury. But on special occasions a sticky toffee pudding goes down very well

My favourite place to eat - The Cherry Tree in Olney. They do the best burgers around and have so many great gins. The bar area is lovely and cosy which is important because the dog goes everywhere with us. They have a biscuit tin for dogs and he loves that, its his favourite place to go to

I like people who - tell it how it is and like me for who I am. These are the best kind of people 

I don’t like it when people - are not truthful and patronise me 

My favourite book - I don’t really read, but now I have quite a lot of time on my hands it is something I have started doing. I am about halfway through The Handmaid's Tail and is one of the best books I have read so far

My favourite book character - Hetty Feather, a well-known character from Jacqueline Wilson, who is very defiant and strong willed. She has not come from much but is determined to make something of herself. I admire her for that

My favourite film - Probably the High School Musical trilogy, they remind me of my childhood, and I will forever love Zac Efron. Although I do enjoy a true story, such as The Darkest Hour and Saving Private Ryan. I also enjoy a cheesy rom-com, I think I’ve seen the majority of them on Netflix

My favourite poem - The Caged Bird by Maya Angelou. I studied Maya Angelou during A level English Literature and found her to be an inspiring woman with an extraordinary story to tell. The poem compares the lives of those who are free and those who are not, and I believe this to be an important message in our society

My favourite artist/band - Def Leppard are probably my number 1, although I like so many more 

My favourite song - This changes on a monthly basis, at the moment its anything by Harry Styles

My favourite art - Girl with a pearl earring. Its just such an iconic painting and I would love to see it one day

My favourite person from history - Princess Diana. Nothing more needed to say. Such an inspirational woman with so much to give the world

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