History Textbooks in British Schools Leave Out the Dark Side of Colonialism. A Black Student Is Trying to Change That

20-year-old Joshua Bailey is leading a campaign to include the atrocities of colonial rule and the slave trade in Britain's history curriculum.
Mumbai, IN
June 12, 2020, 8:40am
History Textbooks in British Schools Leave Out the Dark Side of Colonialism and Slavery
Photo courtesy of James Eades / Unsplash

One of the most visually striking aspects of the worldwide anger against racism has been the sight of protesters tearing down or vandalising statues. Whether it was the statue of slave trader Edward Colston chucked into Bristol river, or the beheading of the towering figure of explorer Christopher Columbus in Boston, taking down these controversial relics of the past has become a way for anti-racism protesters to channel their anger against the very systems that bolstered racism and oppression.

But while reminding people that “Churchill was a racist” through spray paint protest art could be a good way to quickly gain momentum, its potential might be limited to fleeting social media posts. The real takedown begins through conversations that raise awareness and educate people about why it's important to oppose systemic oppression and uproot the systems that encourage it. Some choose to cultivate conversations through Instagrammable protest art. Others, like 20-year-old literature student Joshua Bailey based in Loughborough in England, are calling for tangible change in the way some education systems function.

Bailey is leading an online campaign through a petition that aims to school Britain’s education system about the evils of imperialism and slavery. His aim is to get 300,000 people to back him. As of writing, he had already managed to secure 220,000 supporters.

Inspired by organisations like the Black Curriculum, an advocacy group founded in 2019 that aims to reform the education system and make it inclusive of Black history, Bailey is trying to get heard by British Education Secretary and Member of Parliament, Gavin Williamson. While Bailey isn’t the first to come up with a campaign to reform the system, his petition goes to show just how much the movement for unlearning racial inequality through education has intensified.

A 2019 study on the British history syllabus by the University of Liverpool’s Travel, Transculturality and Identity (TIDE) department in collaboration with the Runnymede trust found that Britain does not provide an adequate representation of its imperialistic history and the migration triggered by it. Alongside, some studies have found that teachers often choose to not discuss controversial topics with schoolchildren. However, as a result of this, one third of the population of U.K. believes that British colonies were “better off” for being a part of the empire—as revealed by a recent survey by YouGov. Experts found these results “alarming” since it conveys the ignorance of the British population when it comes to the deep-seated impact of colonialism on people of colour.

“Racism comes from slavery which originated through colonialism. And to oppose anything, you have to first understand its root cause,” Bailey told VICE over the phone. Bailey is a Black student who grew up in a predominantly white neighbourhood in the U.K. Though his predecessors come from Jamaica, his parents were also born in Britain, making Bailey a third-generation immigrant. As a minority, he stood out at schools dominated by white students and faculty. “I went to a grammar school in Buckinghamshire, and was the only Black kid in my class. Growing up, I had to face many casual microaggressions. I was constantly gaslit, called the ‘N’ word, and bullied, after which people would try to pass it off as a joke.”

Bailey believes that the one-sided version of the history of colonialism that the British education system’s curriculum disseminates is responsible, in part, for racist attitudes that belittle Black people or group them as outsiders. “From grades 7 to 11, we learn a lot about the wars Britain fought, how they ruled over many countries and prompted the industrial revolution. However, the slave trade they established is merely introductory and doesn’t elaborate on Britain’s legacy in Africa or how they sent Black people in Caribbean ships to work as slaves in other parts of the world and established the apartheid.”

Bailey feels that the history curriculum glorifies the country as a dominating power and only highlights its triumphs, while slyly glossing over how they were responsible for instituting the idea that Black people were inferior by looting their countries, and triggering poverty and famines in former colonies like Africa and India. “If you look at other historical injustices which had a large institutional scale, like the Holocaust, schoolchildren are taught exactly what happened to ensure that it won’t happen again. But the people in power in the U.K. have this sense of cultural arrogance. So they try to promote the British empire as a redeemable force, absolving it of all its evils in institutionalising slavery and thus, racism.”

Bailey stresses that this creates a cultural chasm in a way that makes white kids feel they are superior and more worthy, which then leads to microaggressions against and stereotyping of Black people. “It’s a very conscious choice to leave out the unsavoury bits and a refusal to accept responsibility for what the British did by omitting these aspects from textbooks.”

By calling for an upheaval of the history curriculum to stress on the dark side of imperialism and what it leads to, Bailey hopes to present young, impressionable minds with facts that can guide their morals. “Racism is a deep-rooted issue and one way to unlearn it is by teaching children about how wrong it is. To do that, you need to first teach them about where it comes from.”

Bailey himself realised how biased his history syllabus was, and began to learn about his origins and ancestors through conversations with his father, as well as websites like Black History, that curate their own curriculum to educate people about the evils of imperialism, and how racial inequality stems from colonialist ideology and practices. He also follows Black history fact-spitting Instagram accounts @bob_in_uk and @blackbritishparent to get a holistic idea of the history he’s trying to broadcast.

“I wrote a rap song a while ago that I realised is kind of prophetic of what I’m trying to do and deeply resonates with the Black Lives Matter movement. It says: “I’ll let that ruminate, and be in school for saying degrees are not what success makes, the education system needs renovation." I started this movement so the next generation doesn’t make the same mistakes previous ones did.”

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