We can’t build our multiracial future until we deal with our past
I’m the Scottish son of South Asian immigrants and have suffered my share of racism over the years, particularly in childhood.
Much of what has been in the news these last few weeks has resonated with my personal history. Many white people have told me that they feel some guilt at their inaction on racism before this moment. However, it’s not just white people. I also feel guilt.
There’s more to this than racial hierarchies and how black people have it worse. In the last few weeks we have all had important discussions about racism in our countries. This is right and important. But racism in Europe and North America is not just about what is going on within our own borders. It’s a global story of colonialism and slavery.
Racism over many centuries helped justify European conquests in the Africa, the Americas and Asia. These conquests then further fuelled racism. This legacy lives with us today physically, with the presence of minorities, and psychologically.
When I read the story of a lady in India dying in childbirth after being rejected by hospital after hospital due to being full of coronavirus patients, I feel an extra pang of emotion. When I hear Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan talk about his dilemma that he cannot enforce a lockdown that might save lives because it definitely means people will die of hunger, it feels close to home. These are people who look like me and I feel I must do more to help.
But every British person also has a relationship with these nations — and many more nations. We’ve divorced today’s global realities from the looting our country benefited from. When Britain colonised India in 1600, the latter accounted for a quarter of the world economy. By the time the Brits left in 1947, India was only 3%. Britain and India’s fortunes reversed. As Jason Hickel notes in The Divide, poor countries have developed rich countries since the 1500s.
The physical cruelty of slavery is known. What we deal with less is the extraction of wealth that took place from black people to white people. The legacy of this transfer lives on until the current day.
Instead of recognising how our country enriched itself, we instead explain it through a subsconscious, and in some cases stated, racial superiority complex. Ignoring this helps create the direct and structural racial problems we’ve been alive to these last few weeks. We should feel guilt, but the only way to move beyond it is to talk about it and deal with the past.
So here is my four-point plan to help us have the conversations we need, to confront the traumas of the past, and move beyond them:
1. Set better exams
History at school places an emphasis on the world wars. This positions our nation as a heroic global actor, a feeling that lasts a lifetime within citizens. We must spend at least as much time talking about our country’s murder and plunder in other continents. These things were going on in the same era and also involved ending and disrupting tens of millions of lives. It was criminal and it’s criminal that we still don’t teach this.
This isn’t just about producing some well-meaning teaching packs. Education ministers must now direct this will be examined in history and in modern studies. The teaching of colonialism must move into school classrooms and not be left as the preserve of leftwing university professors.
2. Commission better movies and television
Every TV and movie studio should to be thinking about this. We had the era of the westerns, glorifying white colonialism. Now we need to show how wild the western world was. Movies like Schindler’s List and The Pianist have proven that there is an audience for movies based on the point of view of the victims, and that they shape culture. We now need to viscerally and emotionally witness the sufferings of people of colour at the hands of white European societies.
Movies have helped shape a sense of ourselves in the Brexit era through productions like Dunkirk, 1917, and Darkest Hour. It’s time for a proliferation of historical movies which create a more rounded perspective of our historical record. There must be more in our canon of colonial culture than Lawrence of Arabia, Zulu and Gandhi. Rhodes’s statue should fall but he could rise again as a movie villain. The recent Nightingale was good. But there need to be more of these plus blockbusters with big budgets.
3. Build better statues and monuments
The legacy of our current monuments has been a lightning rod for debate these past few weeks. But we need an urgent conversation about the type of symbols we should have in our public places instead. Who are the people to celebrate? Which are the struggles for freedom and equality that we now lionise?
Why are the world wars so large in our national psyche? There are rituals. The annual two-minute silence. The laying of wreaths. The poppies. All good, and all right. But it’s easier to condemn someone else’s crimes, and easier to mark your own dead, than acknowledge what we ourselves have done.
So, let’s start by making the list of shame. James Felton has given us a start. We need physical commemoration for all of that. We need a fitting monument to the Indian soldiers shipped over to fight for us in WW2. Yes to a colonialism museum. Yes to a slavery museum (although the one in Liverpool is outstanding). Yes to national holidays for contemplation. And we need to send someone like Prince William on a global tour of apology. It needs to be sincere and heartfelt. Then the catharsis can begin.
4. Calculate reparations
We enjoy global status and privilege because of the crimes of our forefathers. We must put those right, not least because today’s poverty and inequality lives on because of it, and that’s now on us.
So, agree a group of experts to make the calculation on what we owe, and make a plan on how it can be redistributed. Some institutions like my alma mater Glasgow University have started this. But every institution needs to explore this, starting with government.
In the process, we will discover genocides and atrocities we did not know before. This is crucial for us to know to better inform out interaction with many people of different races who live among us now. It will also have a profound effect on international relations.
In government, the concept of aid and international development must be reframed. We may need a Department for International Reparations instead. We need to settle our accounts and soothe our souls.
Some people are racial supremacists. For others, racism is a mentality borne out of centuries of oppression and injustice. We can live in harmonious multiracial societies. But this starts with learning about the overhang of our shared past, talking about it constantly, and fixing it.