In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, there have been calls for black history to be taught in our schools. I’m broadly in favour of this, but I’m unconvinced that it’s the most important step in the fight against racism: it’s all too easy for the racists to brush it off as “someone else’s story”.
To confront racism head on, I believe that the most important step is to teach the history of empire and colonialism the way it was, which includes not only white-on-black violence but also white-on-yellow, white-on-brown and white-on-white. Only in that way can we persuade children to repudiate the racist behaviour of our forebears at a time where they held supreme power over swathes of the globe.
Most Chinese remember the British Empire not for any of its beneficent qualities but for Opium Wars, in which we burnt down their capital to support our drug runners in the havoc they wrought on Chinese society. Many Indians remember us not for their railways but for the Salt Tax and the Amritsar Massacre; Ireland remembers us for the Potato Famine. And that’s without mentioning our genocides of the Aborigines or Maoris or our invention of the concentration camp during the Boer Wars.
Inasmuch as British imperialism is taught in schools, it tends to be in the context of “we may have done a few bad things, but we glorified our nation and brought good to the world”. This way of representing the past must no longer be permitted: from an early age, potential racists must be made to understand the consequences of the evil wrought in the days where racism was normality pure and simple. Racist instincts may be built into all of us in some shape or form, but the mark of a truly civilised society is the ability to overcome those instincts. And that starts with being taught that they are evil and have always been so. Humanity should trump glory every time.
By the way, it’s not like we British are uniquely dreadful in this. The Americans with their native population, the French in Algeria, the Belgians in Congo, the Spanish in South America, the Japanese in Korea – I find it hard to think of a rich nation that’s untainted and that has ceased to glorify these episodes in their murky past. Of course, it’s more comfortable to focus on the good things in our past and erase our misdeeds. But that’s not the way to fight the cancer of racism today.