What you’re taught in secondary school history shows how white the curriculum is

Enough with only learning about the bloody world wars

The Black Lives Matter movement has reached a global fever pitch in the last week after the death of George Floyd following brutal treatment at the hands of Minnesota police officers. Riots and protests in America have sparked a wave of solidarity protests in major UK cities as well, with some having already taken place in London and Manchester, despite current social distancing regulations.

Racial injustice on British soil has also been brought to light. Recently, the family of Belly Mujinga – a black, frontline transport worker in London who contracted COVID-19 after being targeted and spat on – has seen the investigation into Belly’s death dropped without charges.

There have since been calls and petitions to overhaul the national history curriculum to make sure British citizens understand the historical oppression of black people to this day. Whether courses completely erase non-white history, or whether they acknowledge different cultures but through a white, imperialist lens, the system needs reforming ASAP. We looked back through the history syllabus for each of some of the main exam boards – AQA, OCR and Edexcel – to see what the current state of play is when it comes to kids learning about racism in 2020:

The racism seen in the US today shows how little we learn about it

The whitewash that is the British history curriculum is obvious from the way American history is taught. AQA summarises the history of slavery as one aspect of “the background of the American civil war” in its 19th century American GCSE course. Considering the system of slavery literally built the wealth of the United States for over two centuries, it can hardly be reduced to just being the background context of a war that only lasted for four years.

Where’s the deep coverage of an institution that oppressed black people for 200 years? More importantly for British education, where’s the link between enslavement in the US and the merchants who propped it up in the UK?

And can we talk about the fact AQA requires British history to “form a minimum of 40 per cent of the assessed content over the full course”? Sure, the justification here is making sure British students know the history of the society they’re growing up in, but how are they going to demand such a focus on the UK’s past and barely mention its role in something so monumental as transatlantic slavery?

All exam boards leave out black history in some form or another

The GCSE history syllabus for OCR has a similar story, where the black history of America is focused from 1945 onwards, leaving little room for coverage of the atrocities of slavery itself before it was abolished. Edexcel seem to have the opposite problem; their syllabus covers slavery up to 1783, but there appears to be no mention of life after abolition for black people in America. Actually, the abolition of slavery isn’t even mentioned at all, anywhere.

Teachers shouldn’t have to choose between a curriculum only teaching slavery or a curriculum only teaching its aftermath. You cannot understand one without the other. Any degree-level history student will tell you that (although even universities don’t teach black history exhaustively).

The British empire was not as glorious as you were taught it was

If we go beyond the scope of American slavery to British colonialism in general, exam boards seem to super downplay it. Edexcel’s GCSE course on British warfare since 1250 is euro-centric, making no mention of how the UK triggered conflicts in Africa or Asia by trying, and succeeding, to steal land.

On the other hand, where OCR does draw attention to the “involvement of the British population in the slave trade” and other colonial endeavours, the focus is on how this affected the UK itself, leaving out the history of the countries who suffered from British rule.

Studying racism in history is meant to prevent it in the present, so why aren’t people getting the message?

AQA suffers from this inward perspective too, with the “legacy of empire” section of its GCSE course looking at how colonialism has affected populations and cultures within the UK, erasing how former colonies have been recovering from years of British, imperial rule over recent decades.

In the few areas where the realities of Britain’s racist history are brought to light, they seem to be hindered by a whitewashed perspective of how British people have experienced them. There aren’t many references in each exam board’s syllabus to the truth about British imperialism, full stop. Is it then really surprising if generations of British people don’t understand how their ancestors brought about the racial tensions that plague the USA today?

As many white people have come to terms with this in the past week, we’ve seen our social media spreading the messages that privilege = power and silence = compliance. The black community’s calls on their white counterparts to do better have led to viral posts about the UK’s own problematic history and the need to relearn our whitewashed perspective of it.

Imagine not having to re-educate yourself as an adult because you had a head start, because your national curriculum taught you all histories equally and truthfully. Imagine people weren’t so afraid to confront the brutality or suffering of our ancestors. Maybe there would be fewer deaths of innocent people because of the colour of their skin.

You can sign this petition to demand maximum justice for George Floyd’s death, this petition to demand the UK government stop the sale of riot gear to American police forces, and this petition to demand an overhaul of the British curriculum.

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