Britain must learn to be ashamed of its colonial past to beat racism


“Racism is a global issue. Racism is a British issue. It is not one that is merely confined to the United States – it is everywhere, and it is systemic,” wrote Edward Enninful, editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine’s British edition.

With the toppling of the statue of 17th century slave trader, Edward Colston by Black Lives Matter protestors in Bristol, many Britons are becoming aware for the first time of the real history of the British Empire and the actions its subjects performed during its colonial days. This begs the question, why did many people not know of this before? Or at least not realise its relevance and impact on modern society? And how do we move forward and insist that racism is finally given the boot from our institutions and society at large?

Racism is woven into the fabric of British society.

The murder of George Floyd has brought racism in the American police force into question, and as most things do, the issue has crossed the Atlantic with protests throughout the United Kingdom. The Macpherson report from 1999 established that the Metropolitan Police was institutionally racist and progress might have been made since, but recent statistics still do not make for comfortable reading.

In London, black people are more than nine times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police. They are 4 times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts. Figures from the 2017-2018 period showed that Met officers were four times more likely to use force against black people than white people as a percentage of the population. Black people are twice as likely to die in police custody than white people.

As I wrote in my 2017 piece, why can’t we shift Structural & Institutional Racism?, racism in Britain is not as brash as in America, but it runs through our class system and the structures of our society, it infects our institutions like cancer.

The problem is the issue of poverty, exclusion, and accepted institutionalised and everyday racism. It is about the discriminatory practices that go under the radar, but are embedded into the fabric of society.

For years, racism has been defined by the violence of far-right extremists, but a more insidious kind of prejudice can be found where many least expect it – at the heart of respectable society – Reni Eddo-Lodge

The Trade Union Congress (TUC) commissioned the Racism at Work survey. It reported that 70% of ethnic minority workers said that they have experienced racial harassment at work in the last five years, and around 60% said that they had been subjected to unfair treatment by their employer because of their race.

It was reported that PWC, the global professional services firm, pays its black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) staff almost 12.8% less than its other UK employees. A study by the Chartered Management Institute and the British Academy of Management found that just 6% of management jobs are held by ethnic minorities.

British citizens from BAME backgrounds have to send, on average, 60% more job applications to get a positive response from employers compared to their white counterparts, according to researchers at Nuffield College’s Centre for Social Investigation (CSI). Inside Out London sent CVs from two candidates, “Adam” and “Mohamed”, who had identical skills and experience, in response to 100 job opportunities. Adam was offered 12 interviews, while Mohamed was offered four.

Black people make 12% of the prison population in England and Wales even though they make up just 3% of the population. More than half of young people in jail are of BME background. The Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy repeated concerns about the lack of diversity within the judiciary that was a driving factor behind this.

On top of all this, systemic inequality has left working-class BAME communities bearing some of the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. 95% of the doctors who died during the first month of the pandemic were from the BAME community.

Racist graffiti in Maidstone, Kent – March 2020

White privilege exists. Racism in the UK exists. If you can’t see this, then you’re choosing not to.

The debate around race has been toxic in the last few years

British social attitudes survey recorded a significant increase in the number of people who were happy to admit their own racism since 2001. The sharpest rise was among “white, professional men between the ages of 35 and 64, highly educated and earning a lot of money”. The dog whistle tactics of the EU referendum Leave campaign played upon this and has since exacerbated the problem. Group’s like Britain First have seen a resurgence of far-right fascism in the UK.

Whilst troubling that we have allowed this to be the case, this is not even the main challenge. If all racism was as easy to spot and denounce as white extremism is, the task of the anti-racist would be simple. It’s the subtle racism that will be really difficult to weed out – its roots run deep.

Politics in the UK is tribal, and especially after the EU referendum of 2016 many have picked their side and simply are not for the turning. They will overlook the errors of their side because much like the support of a football team they have developed a blind loyalty to that political side – even when that side purposely uses racism campaigning tools. We must ask what this says about us as a country that many are prepared to do this.

Britain’s colonial past is the key unlocking British racism

For most people who don’t know Bristol, the real shock was that the 21st-century city still had a statue of a slave trader on public display. Newsflash, that statue is not the only one. By toppling the statue of Edward Colston, and plunging it into the harbour, Black Lives Matter protesters have thrust the empire and its legacy into the spotlight. And this understanding of our colonial history is the key to unlocking the way forward.

A YouGov poll found 44% were proud of Britain’s history of colonialism, with 21 per cent regretting it happened and 23 per cent holding neither view – so tainted is the idea of the glory of empire, so few apparently know the truth about colonisation, or simply overlook the barbaric bits. The independent review into the Windrush scandal recommended that all Home Office staff should “learn about the history of the UK and its relationship with the rest of the world, including Britain’s colonial history”.

Our nation must confront the inconvenient facts of its controversial history rather than bask in glorious versions of an imperial past. This nostalgia over the age of empire must end. So let’s start talking about it, and realise that the history of this nation is marred with violence and injustice.

How many British people know that Britain was responsible for such atrocities as rounding up black Africans into “work camps” where torture and mass executions were common, allowing a famine to kill millions in India, massacring thousands of unarmed protesters. This is not an exhaustive list. Read more about the worst atrocities of the British Empire and about the black British history you may not know about.

Mau Mau suspects at one of the prison camps in 1953

Perhaps to most, the empire is largely something that happened to other people, and largely happened overseas. But the British Empire was brutal, and wildly racist. Conveniently only the glory of Britain seems to be covered in the history syllabus – we seem to leave all the bits that make us look evil out. Britain must change its national psyche and become ashamed of its colonial past, much like Germany is ashamed of the Nazi years.

Let’s start in schools. Let’s make room in the history syllabus for broader coverage of UK black history, and of the truly shocking nature of our colonial years and the pain we inflicted. Let’s teach children about Enoch Powell, Oswald Mosley and Britain’s flirtations with fascism. History lessons at school reflect the dominant narrative, a substantial shift is needed. Moving from Kings & Queens directly to the First World War is omitting an important part of our history that is essential for increasing tolerance and respect for our diverse communities.

Let’s make it common knowledge that we compensated the owners, and not the slaves, upon the abolition of slavery in 1833 – and that we all paid for this through our taxes, as the debt incurred was not paid off until 2015. Yes, we paid damages to people that owned slaves.

The lessons of the past have not been learnt. Need I remind you of the the “hostile environment” and the Windrush scandal? Of Grenfell Tower?

There are those that will speak against this, calling it unpatriotic to teach our children of history how it actually was. They don’t want to acknowledge the history of slavery and colonialism because the ignorance keeps them from having to do anything about how the BAME community are treated. Simply put, if you impulsively care about protecting our dark history so much, you’re probably on the wrong side of it.

History isn’t neutral, and having statues commemorating the men whose abhorrent actions caused misery and loss of life is, in essence, justifying their actions. All these people now seeking to protect these statues probably knew nothing about them before last week. It’s all part of the bigger picture.

No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate

Nelson Mandela

Pulling down such statues is not even “erasing history” as some have remarked – there are no statues of Hitler yet we have still not forgotten about the horrors he committed. These are the techniques of distraction. They are less worried about history, and more about preventing change in the present and the future. History is always in the making, and removing slave trader statues is a symbol that we are prepared to break with our old ways and change for the better. It is history in the making.

Without learning from the past, you are bound to make the same mistakes so the saying goes – this is universally agreed. Need I remind you of the the “hostile environment” and the Windrush scandal? A better understanding of our history, including the horrific crimes committed in Britain’s name, is essential for understanding the country we live in today.

Sometimes protests really are the only way to break through

Have you found yourself saying that people should not be protesting at this time? Yes, it is not ideal in the middle of a pandemic and with social distancing measures in place – but instead of crying out “It’s disgusting that people are protesting at this time” try to change your mindset to think “Isn’t it disgusting that people are having to protest for their basic human rights at all, never mind during a pandemic”. Walk a mile in their shoes. Understand the desperation.

The system hasn’t listened for far too long. The heavily lauded democratic processes have not worked. When people ask politely for things like a broader school or university curriculum, or the removal of statues of slave traders from city centres, or to get equal treatment regardless of the colour of their skin, they have been met with disdain. Sometimes, the only option is to get loud.

Would women have won the right to vote if Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragettes had not chained themselves to fences and if Emily Davison had not thrown herself in front of the King’s horse? I think not. Public protest is the political last resort.

The figure of Robert Milligan was taken down from its plinth at West India Quay in the Docklands on Tuesday – two days after campaigners tore down a statue of a slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol. London’s Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS foundation trust said that two statues at its hospitals would be taken out of public view due to their association with the slave trade. A statue of King Leopold II in the Belgian town of Antwerp was removed.

Protests work. Sometimes they are the only way to win change.

The stepping stones towards a society of inclusion and equality

So how do we move forwards? It’s going to be an uphill battle. Social media is littered with vile comments which shows how deeply the problem is ingrained into people’s physiological make-up, and I quote directly from comments on North Yorkshire Police’s recent Facebook post which I recently came across; “Get the CS gas and riot vans ready”, “its terrorism” and “All lives matter. They should bring the army in”. There are some vile individuals out there, filled with hatred and anger.

Though, as mentioned earlier, these type of folk are not the meat of the problem. Structural racism is multiple people with the same biases, unbeknown to them or not, joining together to make up one organisation. It is implicit biases, snap judgments made on assumptions of competency. There are pockets of society that will claim that there is no problem: they refuse to see, or lack the empathy to see past their own doorsteps. That will not be easy to dismantle.

So, take down all the statues of slave traders and put them in a museum, let that museum teach of the horrors of the British Empire, let it be a warning, much like Auschwitz is, that we must always be mindful of the past and learn from the mistakes of history. But make no assumptions that this alone will be enough – we mustn’t let people come to the belief that racism is a thing just of our past – we must also be taught and reflect upon how racism rears its ugly head in modern society. But the teaching of the horrors of the British Empire is the key that will get our foot in the door.

If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito in the room.

Anita Koddick

We must reprogram our minds. We must always be mindful of our actions, and ensure we root out any subconscious bias or prejudices. Race doesn’t make for comfortable conversation, but we must have those conversations. The virtue signalling of posting a picture or quote on your social media wall and then simply moving on with your day will achieve nothing.

Most people will never realise the types of racism that BAME people have to face throughout their lives. I’d recommend reading Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge – it’s a difficult but enlightening read. Take a look at Vogue’s Essential Anti-Racist Reading List. Then talk with your BAME friends and work colleagues about their experiences. For these people, the burden of living in an unequal world and fighting these battles is heavy, exhausting and inescapable. We must stand with them to demand change.

It is not enough to stay silent, it is not enough not to be racist, we must be actively anti-racist. We must face the past of our nation and the horrors of colonialism, and feel ashamed of it. We must be mindful, and we must demand better.