This year, Black History Month seems to have greater resonance, given the killing of George Floyd in America, and the subsequent global protests and the publicity given to the Black Lives Matter campaign. The prominence of these events has, I feel, led to a greater level of introspection about how society functions. It wasn’t that long ago that some commentators were talking about a post-racial society, but as Kalwant Bhopal eloquently argues in her book ‘White privilege: the myth of a post-racial society’, racism, in all its subtle and less subtle forms, still exists.
On the one hand there seems to be a clear awareness of racial inequities and inequalities, yet on the other hand, fueled by popular nationalism and divisions caused by events such as Brexit, there seems to be a backlash against ideas that could be seen as undermining the position and status of the white majority. Recently, the Women and Equalities Minister, Kemi Badenoch, stated in the House of Commons that teaching young people that white privilege and ideas such as ‘critical race theory’ as fact is illegal. This seems to be an attempt to polarise a debate – no school or teacher I am aware of would teach these as ‘facts’, they are ideas that rightly have a place in a healthy democracy.
In the same speech, the minister, also said there is no need to decolonise the school curriculum because it is not colonised. She highlighted the range of topics that could be taught in the history curriculum. In one sense she is correct. Teachers do have considerable scope for teaching a much broader, diverse and representative curriculum. But in another sense she is being misleading. Some schools take advantage of their freedom to select a diverse curriculum, but many don’t. Also, there is a tendency for history departments to examine issues such as racism and civil rights by focusing on other parts of the world, thereby implying the issues haven’t exist here. For example, many schools teach about the Civil Rights movement in the USA, rather than in the UK, so young people here are more likely to know about the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and Rosa Parks, than they are about the Bristol Bus Boycotts and the role of Paul Stephenson. This is not to blame teachers – the curriculum as it exists has been constructed over a period of time, has become deeply established and change can be difficult.
Over the summer I was amazed by the number of history teachers reflecting deeply about the curriculum, and there were some excellent online debates and training sessions, where teachers were grappling with how to develop the history they teach, to take into account the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter campaign. At the heart of this issue, teachers need the subject knowledge to teach more diverse topics, and also need the resources to do so. For example, one exam board offers a unit on West African history at A level, but only a handful of history departments choose this option due to limitations around materials and subject knowledge. Teachers also need support to recognise there is a difference between diversifying and decolonising the curriculum. Diversifying means broadening the scope of what is taught. Decolonising is different in that it is about a change in mindset and perspective; at one level I feel this requires teachers to appreciate their white privilege and understand how that shapes the way they see the past. It also requires them to look at the past from different perspectives, which in turn is based on developing their subject knowledge. Miranda Kaufman’s ‘Black Tudors’, David Olusoga’s ‘Black and British: a forgotten history’ and Olivette Otele’s ‘African Europeans: an untold history’ can help to open up different perspectives.
I also believe that the history curriculum that is taught is a top-down, events-driven view of the past. By focusing on ‘big’ political events the curriculum naturally tends to focus on the actions of a few people in positions of power. If, however, there was more focus on the lives of peoples, the movement of peoples and their trade and interaction, the history we teach in schools could more naturally encompass the diversity of the past. It would also mean that the diversity of the past would permeate the history curriculum through the entire year, rather than be a focus for one month in the year. Hopefully, one day, we won’t need Black History Month, because what we teach will be an appropriately representative curriculum through the whole year – at the moment however it serves as an important statement of issues that still need to be addressed as a matter of priority.
Richard Harris is a professor in the Institute of Education.