We’ve Got to Teach Students About Race and Racism in History Lessons

Failing to teach students about the history of race and racism robs them of a more sophisticated understanding of history and it excludes and marginalises BME students. This must change.

Children in Brixton lining up to see Queen Mary in 1938

I was teaching History to a group of 11 year olds. The topic was the Norman Conquest. I’d just got to the point of the story where the Normans invade when a black boy put his hand up and asked:

“Were there any black people in Britain at that point, Sir?”

I didn’t have a ready answer, but I guessed (correctly as it happens) that, since the Roman Empire included northern Africa, then there must have been black Britons in Roman times. I therefore reasoned that it was possible that there were small numbers of black Britons in 1066.

As I reflected about this, I came to the conclusion that the point of the question was much deeper than I had at first considered. What he really seemed to be asking was:

“Where do I fit into this story you’re telling?”

It was a jarring moment for me, exposing my own ignorance about an important part of the story of Britain. Because of this, it has remained with me ever since.

Thinking back to that moment reminds me that it’s important that race is not treated as something to be bolted onto the curriculum as an afterthought. It can’t be dealt with by celebrating Black History Month every year and thinking that this is sufficient. It has to suffuse the curriculum. Failing to do this does several things that are damaging:

Firstly, our choices about what we teach and what we don’t send out implicit messages to our students about what we think is important. For example, I am conscious that I too often reach for examples from other contexts (e.g. Jim Crow & Aparthied) when I talk about racism because of the availability heuristic. This isn’t because I don’t know of UK examples, but because I don’t think of them as readily. Unfortunately, when we do this as teachers, it sends an implicit message that we don’t think racism is a problem here.

Secondly, history constructs a narrative about who we are as a nation. If this narrative excludes diverse perspectives it paints a distorted and exclusionary picture of our history. In telling a story of ‘us’ it implicitly exclude a ‘them’. It tells us who is and who is not worthy of being remembered as a part of our national story. For example, if we tell the story of the abolition of slavery by focusing on the work of white abolitionists (e.g. William Wilberforce) we exclude the black people who fought and died for their own liberation (e.g. during the Haitian Revolution, 1791–1804). It would be like teaching the story of how we got the vote without teaching about the Peterloo Massacre or the Chartist movement. This is particularly important because BME teachers are underrepresented in the profession, which means it’s often white teachers who are standing at the front of the room. If the history they are teaching is exclusionary, the teacher’s position is rendered doubly problematic.

Thirdly, race and racism are fundamental to our history. Without understanding European attitudes to race and how these developed over time, it’s impossible to understand key historical events and processes, from European colonialism to the rise of fascism. It’s also impossible to understand modern day racism without understanding its history. Racism didn’t emerge out of nowhere and tackling it requires some understanding of how discourses around race developed and changed over time.

The richness and complexity of history is why students love the subject and narratives about race and racism are one part of this intricate and constantly shifting picture. Failing to teach about the history of race in our classrooms is robbing our students of a full understanding of that history and this must change.

Teacher of Politics who has taught Politics, Economics and Philosophy at A-Level and has had a very varied career in the teaching profession

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