And the fact that there isn’t really any condemnation of that! On the contrary, there’s outright denial, and that’s a really worrying backdrop to politics now. It’s like saying, ‘Me and my friends punched you in the face, but we stopped, didn’t we?’ Meanwhile you give the attackers a plaster for their knuckles afterwards and leave your victim wounded. And they’re not allowed to ever talk about it.
KO: Loads of constituents started writing to me after the murder of George Floyd and said, ‘What can we do?’ These were young people that wouldn’t normally write to me about anything. They said we need to make sure we are educating our young people in Edmonton, giving them purpose, making them recognise that Blackness is beautiful. It was a very emotional interaction. I decided to meet with them and talk – Lavinya (from The Black Curriculum) was part of that discussion. I wrote to local schools with the concerns of the people in Edmonton. It was very local. I called it the Black Lives Matter Charter because it’s a charter for change. We need these children to know that there were people living a life before white people turned up and enslaved them, and this is how they lived. When I put the charter up on my website we spoke about race in a way that we’ve never done before. There are tens of thousands of signatures on a change.org petition to include Black British history in the curriculum. What are the barriers stopping this from happening?
LS: We started a campaign in June called #TBH365 to teach Black history, and that was targeted at (education secretary) Gavin Williamson MP. We’ve seen for years the lack of action from petitions, so we got people to email him directly. We had more than 200,000 people email him requesting a meeting. He didn’t respond. The problem is that the government has adopted a laissez-faire approach where schools and education are quite decentralised. Yes, there is flexibility in what you can teach, but some schools just don’t have the resources or training.
KO: Critical mass will help if there are barriers, because what we’ve seen is that, when this government is put under pressure, they will respond. Right now, with their majority, they can do whatever they want. We have to remember that Michael Gove made it his job, in 2014, to remove mandatory teaching of race and diversity in our curriculum. He’s still there, in a senior position. We’re trying to ask for change from the people who made this problem possible. If more MPs start doing what’s been done in my patch, for example, you show it can be done elsewhere. You’ve got power in your voice, use it.
NW: The way things currently are is exactly how this government wants them to be; they don’t want to change things. We’ve got to force it to happen.
AG: I disagree, all governments do what’s easiest. Schools have to be held accountable for how they educate. If we’re talking about resources, we have to give credit to the work that’s been done already. There are resources through the Runnymede Trust on migration; the Historical Association, who (focus on) African kingdoms; there’s The Black Curriculum. There’s a lot of work being done and a lot of resources available. Let’s not forget academies, private schools, independent schools – we don’t have to follow the national curriculum. If anything, I would also be a bit wary about having too deep an association with Black Lives Matter, because that’s divisive. Is Black Lives Matter inherently divisive? Or is it seen as divisive because people are woefully uneducated on how structural racism works and white privilege manifests?
AG: We need to find a way for a rural school in Yorkshire with only white students and staff to understand that representation in the curriculum is as important (there) as it is for a multicultural school in London. That’s when we’ll know that we’ve been successful in changing what education is about. How do we engage everyone?
DAZED AUTUMN 2020
KO: But if you’re saying that the majority of teachers are white and we need to bear in mind that they may be sensitive or fragile – I’m stretching your words here, I’m not saying that’s what you said – what has that got to do with teaching us all who we are? Why haven’t we got Black teachers? There’s room for discussion and I think we shouldn’t be scared. Polite people don’t often change history – the people who are a nuisance do.
NW: Yes, we also need to resist any attempts to sanitise history. None of the rights that we’ve ever won have been handed to us, they’ve been fought for and seized – this is going to be exactly the same. It’s not a surprise that BLM is viewed as controversial, but that is reflective of why the movement itself is so important. Saying that Black people should have equal rights and that we shouldn’t have a system of structural racism shouldn’t be controversial. It’s controversial because it upsets the world order. In 1971, teacher Bernard Coard attempted to highlight how schools omit and distort histories and how this impacts the identity and self-esteem of children who aren’t white.
LS: Knowledge is power, really and truly. When I was doing African studies at Soas last year, I came across things I’d never heard before. While I felt really empowered, I just thought, ‘What about other people who lived on my road and have similar backgrounds but don’t know anything about their history?’ We founded The Black Curriculum for young people who don’t always get to go to university and don’t have the money (to). It gives people a space to talk about their race in the education system and be open and free. One Black boy, who was 15 years old, set up his own Black British book club straight after a session. How important is POC solidarity in making the British curriculum more representative for all children?
AAH: Our focus is on colonial history, because we want to decolonise the curriculum. The natural first step is that everyone needs to learn about colonialism and what happened – to understand how some people were enriched by this endeavour and others were damaged (by it) and you can still see the legacy of that today. I just realised I felt so blank, and that’s where the name (Fill in the Blanks) came from. How can a good knowledge of history fill that void?
NW: Black, Asian and POC solidarity and allyship is really important here. The Black and Asian history that we learn about is so superficial. We never learned about things like the Grunwick strike or the Bristol bus boycott. They make you think the last Black man who made a difference was Martin Luther King, or the only Indian liberation figure was Gandhi. There are many others.
It’s important for Asian people to amplify the voices of Black people in particular. When I was in school, I had one teacher who wasn’t white; I was in year ten and she was Jamaican. I’m Indian, but seeing someone who was a woman of colour, who understood my life experiences, was liberating. It’s not a popular thing to talk about, but a lot of people’s first real experiences of racism come from teachers. We’ve come a long way as a generation but, sadly, it’s been through educating ourselves and each other through alternative media like gal-dem, rather than through our schooling. My role as an MP is to amplify these voices and pass the mic.
YOU’VE GOT POWER IN YOUR VOICE