Post-Racial Myths and Public History

Joe Hopkinson, University of Huddersfield

Multiculturalism emerged in Britain during the late-1960s and early-1970s, with education becoming a key site of conflict. My PhD is about the experiences of Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) people in British schools during this period. The story is complex, but the main conclusion is that many were discriminated against by teachers, other children, and wider society because of their skin colour.

My interest in the history of multicultural education began after a family member told me that he (along with his friends) would pelt the South Asian children with stones as they disembarked the bus outside his primary school. This prompted me to examine the experiences of BAME people who were bussed to school as part of a national policy to disperse people classified by the government as ‘immigrants’ around the schools in certain areas. The policy was underpinned by the idea that BAME pupils should be assimilated into white British society and a belief that BAME children were a problem in the classroom that needed to be dealt with.

I have heard shocking stories of overt discrimination. BAME children sometimes had openly prejudiced teachers and were often taught with racist material. For example, the first book in the Reading On series (an early years literacy book) described Africans as ‘backward races’. First published in 1958, the book was reprinted for the eleventh time in 1975.[1] Other popular children’s books, such as the Little People in Far-Off Lands series, adopted a more paternalistic form of racism.

Despite the immediacy of this history, there is a myth in Britain that we live in a post-racial society and that racism is no longer a problem in our country. This myth is a feature of ‘New Racism’, which refers to the rearticulation of racial prejudice in terms of culture and not skin colour. People may no longer use overtly racist language as frequently as they did, but racial prejudice towards BAME people still persists. We can see this in the conclusions of the 2017 Race Audit that BAME groups are under-represented and disadvantaged in all aspects of British society.

The post-racial illusion is partly formed by well-worn narratives that distance Britain from its racist past. People may accept that Britain had been a racist state at sometime in its history. But when, for example, Britain’s role in the abolition of slavery is highlighted without acknowledging the fact that Britain dominated the trade for many decades, we distance ourselves from our historic issues with racism.

In my research on multicultural education, I have found that some people are unwilling to admit that racism was a serious problem in British schools during the 1960s and 1970s. I came across such views while searching for interviewees in Facebook groups where people share memories and photographs of their local area. My posts generally explain that I’m interested in the early years of multicultural education and that, while I’m especially keen to speak with BAME people about their memories of school, I’m interested in speaking to anyone who feels that they might have something relevant to say. I never state that I’m writing about racism or that I want to speak to people who experienced it.

In one group that focuses on sharing memories about growing up in Liverpool, I received the following comments in reply to my request:

Although my post was liked by several people of Africa Caribbean heritage (one of whom approached me for an interview), the comments were predominantly from people who appeared to be middle-aged to elderly white men.

There are different possible explanations for why the authors of the comments did not believe that racism was an issue at school when they were growing up. Obviously, most people would find it hard to admit publicly that they themselves may have racially discriminated against others, or that they grew up in a racist society. But I argue that the main issue is that the extent of overt racism in our recent past, and covert racism in the present, is rarely acknowledged publicly.

In February 2019 a study carried out by a team at Oxford University found that Black pupils in England are disproportionately identified as having special needs, and that they subsequently receive a ‘dumbed down’ education. This echoes Bernard Coard’s discovery in the early 1970s that African Caribbean children in particular, but all BAME children in general, were more likely than white children to be placed in special schools for children who were classified then as ‘educationally subnormal’. It also mirrors revelations throughout the last few decades that African Caribbean children are more likely than others to be suspended or excluded from schools.

The national conversations that took place in the post-war period regarding multicultural education were hotly contested as different groups fought to impose their vision for Britain’s future. We’re living in that future and I think that it is unclear which group won. Those who fought for multicultural education practices to enter British schools seem to have succeeded, but on the other hand as one anonymous history teacher wrote in the Guardian in 2018:

I have found an inherent bias in the curriculum…Pupils are brought up learning about the strength and heroism of this country and its once “grand” empire rather than about how other countries have suffered under its rule. 

Teaching such a blinkered view diminishes our understanding of the long-term impact of colonialism and is arguably part of the reason why some people ardently believe that racism is no longer an issue in Britain today. Racial inequality in British schools therefore persists in part due to ignorance and an unwillingness to admit that it is a historic issue.

About the Author:

Joe Hopkinson is a Heritage Consortium-funded PhD candidate at the University of Huddersfield. He won the Royal Historical Society’s 2018 Postgraduate Public History Prize for his project ‘Dispersing the Problem: Immigrant Children in Huddersfield during the 1960s and 1970s’.

 

 

[1] Gillian Klein, Reading into Racism: Bias in Children’s Literature and Learning Materials (Oxford, 1985), p. 1.

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