Britain can no longer afford to deny its racist past
The impact of the killing of an African American man, George Floyd, saw upheavals and ferment both in the US and the UK, indicating that, in both countries, there is an underlying unease about racial discrimination.
Anti-racism protesters went on rampage in Bristol and tore down the statue of Edward Colston, a 17th century slave trader, opening up another perturbing dimension of colonial period racism.
Priti Patel, the British home secretary, denounced the pulling down of the statue, calling it disgraceful, though she never explained why a country which relentlessly projects itself as a crusader of human rights should have a slave trader exhibited in public with a plaque calling the man a “virtuous son of the city.”
The movement across the world after George Floyd’s death due to police brutality began as a protest against ruthless behaviour by law enforcers, but has since morphed into something much bigger. The issue now is entrenched racism which has insidiously survived within the deeper layers of society, with roots leading to the colonial and imperial periods.
While events of the past like victory in two World Wars are commemorated with much solemnity plus elaborate programs, the moment the issue of racism during imperial times is brought up, governments of countries which were once colonial powers become highly agitated. In responding to imperial era crimes, they either try to obfuscate the issue or put up a camouflage of current-day development work carried out in former colonies.
But the current outburst has shown that, unless colonial period racism -- doggedly employed by all imperial states as a tool to rule over others and inject in them a feeling of inferiority -- is addressed, the present scourge of discrimination within society cannot be extirpated.
To tackle a social problem which has links to the past, the macabre aspects of imperialism need to be opened up.
PM Boris Johnson’s fatuous logic
While expressing his views on the toppling of the statue in Bristol and the ongoing defacement of other monuments from Britain’s colonial past, PM Boris Johnson reportedly said: “We cannot now try to edit or censor out past. We cannot pretend to have a different history. The statues teach us about our past, with all its faults.”
Well, to be blunt, Britain has been erasing, airbrushing, glossing up the past for decades. Sorry, but the PM’s statement totally contradicts with what has been happening for ages.
Hardly any British textbook talks about colonial brutality, the perfidy and the skullduggery employed to rule over and exploit others. Neither does any British politician ever speak of how Britain grew wealthy on the riches plundered from others.
In fact, many Britons, young and old, are still under the illusion that imperial rule was benevolent and made the lives of people better and the Raj in India was mostly about technological advancement and progress.
This is because a sanitized, expurgated version of history has been propagated over the decades through movies, literature, and popular culture.
Boris Johnson also said: “The statues teach us about our past.” Really? How many statues can he show which honestly depict the vices of the historical figures along with the virtues? In the case of Colston, the plaque forgot to mention that of the 84,000 slaves he transported, around 20,000 perished, either at sea or due to disease and starvation.
The plaque did not denounce slavery either but extolled the man for his generosity towards Bristol. So, if this is how the past is described, then perhaps the whole process of learning from history needs a thorough re-assessment.
As Boris Johnson added: “We cannot pretend to have a different history.” Exactly! But, unfortunately, the pretense of an altruistic past has been maintained with such vigour that the real “sordid” past is lost.
Do British school children know that, for several hundred years, Britain pursued a policy based on the strict assertion of racial superiority? In India, the colonial ideology was built and pursued on the notion that the rulers were like gods and must be obeyed.
Through show of pomp and pageantry, military hardware and imperial hauteur, a belief about racial superiority was consolidated. That vicious doctrine was never officially repudiated by Britain, allowing morsels of this toxic creed to insidiously penetrate post-colonial British society.
Admit the past, teach the truth
Boris Johnson also observed in his tweet that tearing down the statues would be to lie about history and diminish education for future generations. Well, education which is half-truth or is cautiously governed by obscurantism is hardly an education.
By concealing such unsavoury facts, the education imparted is flawed and can lead to the formation of diabolically wrong concepts. As George Bernard Shaw said: Beware of false knowledge, it’s more dangerous than ignorance.
If the truth had been taught, then Priti Patel would have calibrated her reaction to the toppling of the statute differently and with more aplomb; if the facts of empire were told candidly, along with the savagery, the massacres, plus the endless chicanery, then the plaque on Edward Colston’s statue would have contained lines denouncing slavery and the abominable indignation of humanity it involved. If these were mentioned, maybe the statue would not have been brought down in the first place.
To repeat what Boris Johnson said: “We cannot edit or censor out past.” Well, then don’t. Admit that the imperial past involved acts which are abhorrent and undermined human dignity.
As far as I understand, the current rage across Britain is an outburst against profound social aberrations linked to imperial period racial prejudices which were never officially renounced.
It seems Britain’s chickens have come home to roost.
To end with Shakespeare: Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides, who covers faults at last shame them derides!
Towheed Feroze is a journalist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.