Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
It is very easy to look across the pond to the United States, see the deep-rooted societal issues around race relations and say: ‘that is tragic, but at least it doesn’t happen in the UK’. Take a closer look, however, and this statement could not be further from the truth. Police brutality cases in the UK are on the rise. Black people are eight times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police across this country, and the Metropolitan police are four times as likely to use force against black people.
However, the systemic racism in the UK goes much deeper than just overt aggression from state institutions, with broadly overlooked micro-aggressions and racial biases plaguing the country. In a survey, The Guardian found that 43% of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) citizens feel that they had been unfairly overlooked for a promotion at work, and 38% said they had been wrongly suspected of shoplifting. It is clear this not just an ‘American problem’. Yet, how do we identify the roots of British racism?
The true legacy of the British Empire is not taught in our schools. Very few people know about the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, for example, which saw 11,000 Kenyans killed. Nor about the millions of Bengalis who starved to death when Winston Churchill diverted food supplies to British soldiers in 1943. In Australia, aboriginal people were hunted by authorities without any repercussions as late as 1926. Churchill is hailed as a great wartime leader while his crimes against humanity and blatant racism towards Indian people are conveniently ignored. The horrors of the British Empire have been wiped from the collective memory of those who benefit from the current system of oppression through ‘collective amnesia’. This lack of awareness of the most grotesque parts of our history means that we cannot learn from or remedy the harm they have caused.
The post-war era was marked by new legislation which gave people from the Commonwealth the right to live and work in the UK – the so-called Windrush generation. Whilst this may have seemed to be a step in the right direction for the UK, the real purpose was to import low-wage workers into the country to help with economic recovery. Those arriving were met with discrimination and violence. Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 warned of the dangers of immigration and vilified blacks as the ‘other’, stoking the fires of white supremacy within Britain. This triggered the rise of the National Front in the 1970s, which hounded the black people with violence and threats, in turn setting the scene for the 1981 Brixton riots in which black youths clashed with white police officers and white supremacists. This era was the convergence of centuries of colonial rhetoric emphasising white British superiority and vilifying minority immigrants — a legacy that is still felt today.
After reading this, you may feel hopeless about the future of the UK. You may feel angry, sad, or offended. These feelings are born from guilt over the fact that you may not have known about many of the horrors of the British Empire. This is no one individual’s fault but rather an education system that creates this ‘collective amnesia’ and sanitises our knowledge of Britain’s history. The only way that we, as a nation, can take positive steps in creating a more equitable and just society is to recognise the harm caused by our predecessors to heal the relationship between all races: one people, one planet.