Teaching and Learning

Racism, diversity and contested histories: some reflections on Christmas (just) Past

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The Cratchits sit down to Christmas dinner 

If, like me, you tuned in to watch the BBC’s latest adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol, I’m sure it will have left a lasting impression.  Over three nights a star-studded cast presented a much darker version of the tale of Scrooge than we are used to. It was uncomfortable at times, rude, crude even, but funny and also very poignant and political.

I’m not an expert on Dickens and have only recently read the novella that bears limited similarity to the scripted version I watched over Christmas. This seemed to annoy some people, who took to social media to complain that students studying it at school today would have been confused by Steven Knight’s retelling of an old classic. Personally, I loved it. I found Guy Pearce’s Scrooge a more complex character than Dickens had presented him and Vinette Robinson’s Mary Cratchit was a study in controlled anger.

Most of all I think Dickens would have approved as it had a powerful message about the concerns of the day, combining as it did themes of poverty and inequality, abuse, exploitation, and the callous nature of unrestrained and immoral capitalism.

But what really seemed to upset some keyboard warriors was that the Cratchits were presented as a mixed race family. This was compounded when the BBC released a modern version of Worzel Gummidge complete with two black children as the central characters (below right). For some this was diversity gone mad, a deliberate attempt by ‘auntie’ to meddle with our cultural past and present. Unknown

I’ve been musing on this for a few days now. At the time I responded to a tweet I saw by @WhoresofYore (aka Dr Kate Lister) which had shared several images of interracial marriage to challenge the claim (by some) that the BBC’s drama presentation of the  Cratchits was ‘PC nonsense and historically inaccurate’.

I wrote:

‘Some people would like to believe Britain was entirely white before 1950. It wasn’t. It’s just that we’ve written black people out of history’.

That tweet had had over 2000 ‘likes’ and nearly 200 retweets but it also drew a few people to comment that they had never seen black people when they were growing up. ‘If a black of Asian man ever came down the street [in 1950s Birmingham]’, one wrote, ‘people ran out of their houses to look at him. They’d never seen one, except in pictures’. Another commented that ‘it largely was white’ adding, ‘now my home town has 300 languages and there are very few white school kids’.

It didn’t take much searching on twitter to find some pretty disgusting racist comments about the dramas and the BBC’s use of black faces in them. Which begs the question for me at least, why are people so unhappy about the depiction of diversity on our television screens?

After all history can tell us (should tell us) that Britain has had a very diverse population for hundreds of years. There have been people from all parts of the world in England from Roman times to the present; in medieval England, in Tudor England, in the 1700s and nineteenth century, and right through the twentieth. Moreover all of these immigrants to Britain have contributed to the success of these islands, economically, culturally and politically.

Black troops fought in the last world war, and the one before that, directly contributing to the defeat of Nazi Germany and the survival of our ‘British’ way of life. Estimates suggest also that around a third of Nelson’s crew on HMS Victory were not white. The records of the Old Bailey (London’s central criminal court) reveal the presence of Black Londoners in significant numbers throughout the 1700s and 1800s. In many cases of course contemporary prejudice and notions of racial superiority mean that Black voices have been silenced or muted, or erased completely but this does not mean they didn’t exist at all.

We know this. History has been telling us this for decades at least so why do some people have such a problem accepting it?

Sadly I think it is because Britain is a country where racism remains endemic. When the grime artist Stormzy was asked if there was racism in Britain he replied: ‘definitely. 100 percent’. Reactions to that comment and its misreporting pretty much sum up the problem we have.

UnknownStormzy was condemned for labeling Britain as ‘100 percent racist’, which he never did. All sorts of people who should have known better leapt to the country’s defense accusing him of all sorts of outrages without stopping to read or listen to what he had actually said. There is racism in Britain, I agree with that statement completely (100%). Not everyone in Britain is a racist, and Stormzy never suggested that they were.

A day later racist abuse was directed at a black footballer, as he played for Chelsea in a local London derby at Tottenham. When I ‘liked’ a tweet from Jolyon Rubinstein, comedian and TV producer, that condemned the racism at his club and then added a comment that it needed to be challenged everywhere, a handful of comments took issue with me. There was no racism at ‘our club’ some said; please don’t condemn us all with the same brush.

It seems like this and the Stormzy incident are part of the same problem. Some people are more outraged at being called racist than they are at racism existing in our society. Some are so scared of seeing black faces on the TV screens that they feel the need to complain that the BBC is misrepresenting the nation and its history.

The reality is that actors are actors and it doesn’t matter what colour their skins is anyway. We’ve been used to white actors playing black characters, to Americans playing Germans, to able bodies actors portraying disabled people, and to all sorts of dramatic interpretations and adaptations of texts from the past.

The reason some people got their collective knickers in a twist about Stormzy, and the BBC’s A Christmas  Carol  and Worzel Gummidge is because they are either ignorant or prejudiced, or both. I’m sorry but that is self-evident.

What worries me is what we are doing to combat this. How do we educate people so that that this racism dies a death now, in the 2020s, along with all the other intolerances that continue to blight our society?

Diversity is a good thing, not something to be afraid of and we have to get that message out there from nursery, to primary and secondary school to university, though the shop floor, in all forms of the media, in sport, culture, and, most of all, in politics.

Racism has no place in our society, none whatsoever, and it is the responsibility of all of us to call it out wherever we see it.

Drew Gray, Subject Lead Humanities

 

 

 

 

Taking Research to the Secondary School Classroom

Kerry Love is one of our wonderful PhD students! She has written a blog for us about her experiences in a school classroom. 

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Takahata highschool 10; under Creative Commons licence

To me, the desire to teach is a basic extension of having passion for your subject. As an undergraduate, one of the most common career goal assumptions you’ll be faced with is ‘so you want to be a history teacher?’ and the enthusiasm with which you’ll defend your interest in it is definitely one needed to teach. During my MA I started to build up some experience as a GCSE and A-Level history tutor, mainly to get some ‘education’ experience. I was considering applying for a PGCE, so it seemed to be a logical step. A lot of it was in a summer school, so during that summer for the first time in my life I’d switched places and was standing alone in a room full of teenagers needing a rapid-fire revision of the Cold War. Whilst intimidating at first, I enjoyed the experience and it made me realise I wanted a career in education in some form. This way I could convince reluctant students that it was a subject that they could do well in and enjoy exploring further. In a way, I think it might have pushed me towards further study as well, as without realising it this was also the time I started to explore applying to start a PhD on the basis that if I learn more I could teach better!

The one thing I picked up on from my time tutoring was the familiar, but fairly restrictive curriculum. The range and depth of topics taught at university differs so much from those taught at level 1, 2 and 3. I didn’t entirely decide on history until I started to study it at university to be honest – it was more of a ‘why not?’ when choosing my own degree subject at that time. Naturally, when I did some research for my own work experience, and found the university’s UniClub tutor team whereby PhD students develop and run their own module based on their research, I thought it was perfect as I had free reign to teach exactly what I enjoy the most!

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Educating Generation Z

Recently lecturer in history Dr Rachel Moss was invited to speak at Times Higher Education’s LIVE event, a major conference celebrating UK Higher Education and addressing the problems it faces. This is the text of her talk (with a few modifications for online clarity), given in a session titled Educating Generation Z. Part of this text is based on an article published in THE. 

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Sessions at THE Live 2019 

 

 

After many years of haranguing millennials like me for being self-indulgent consumerist snowflakes, it seems that media outlets suddenly realised that many millennials are actually in their mid-to-late thirties, many of us reaching mid-career stage as we start families and acquire mortgages, and that we have the expanding waistlines and thinning hairlines to show for it. It was easy for them to transfer their bilious op eds to Generation Z, and so I have a lot of sympathy for my students – we were criticised for exactly the same reasons that they receive public condemnation. We’re apparently all over-sensitive slackers who buy too many coffees and avocado toast.

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