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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

 

 

 

 

‘Future focused’ not stuck in the past: Study History because we don’t know what’s going to happen next

As we approach the end of another year I thought I’d reflect on what, if anything we might learn from the events of 2017. This has been (another) tumultuous annum with terrorism, the threat of nuclear war, and political turmoil at home and abroad. What I’d like to discuss though, is the value of History as a discipline and the dangers posed by the circulation of fake news and other forms of misinformation.

I’d like to start however, with something I heard on the radio last week. This was an interview aired on Radio Four’s PM show with Sebastian Balfour, historian and Emeritus Professor of Contemporary Spanish Studies at LSE. In the course of Eddie Mair’s interview Professor Balfour explained that told his undergraduates that ‘history is about the future, politics is about the past’.

He suggests, a little tongue in cheek perhaps, that social sciences (like sociology, anthropology and political science) have largely based their studies on looking at the past, at past societies, which is then used a way of predicting the future. History, he argues, ‘warns as that the future is not predictable in any way’. The great events of the past are the result of the ‘coming together’ of so many unforeseeable and ‘totally unexpected processes’ and ‘individual decisions’.

I like his analysis because it seems to chime loudly in the modern world. Few political pundits predicted that Donald Trump could actually win the presidency because they weren’t looking in the right places for the clues. David Cameron’s attempt to solve a ‘little local difficulty’ in the Conservative Party gave millions of previously disenfranchised Britons the opportunity to stick it to the metropolitan elites and the European bureaucrats. Across the world we have seen the rise of the Far Right, of extremist religion and populism, all defying the rational logic of very well educated and very well-paid commentators and ‘experts’.

Indeed 2016 and 2017 have been synonymous with the marginalisation of the expert. The psephologists got it wrong in 2015 and 2017 and (mostly) in Brexit and indeed abroad. Guessing the results of elections had assumed the status of a science but recent events have relegated it back to being an art, akin to predicting the outcome of a horse race or even the effects of the planets on our love life.

Of course, there will be some reading this who will claim to know all of this was going to happen. I thought Trump would get in because I have a deep seated (and possibly unfair) low opinion of Americans. Hilary was poor candidate and a woman. Trump was white, sexist, offensive, and racist; a shoe-in in some parts of the USA.

None of what has happened was predictable however and Historians should know that. I think my study of the past (spent mostly it has to be said in the courtrooms of the 18th and 19th centuries) tells me a lot about how people interacted and what they valued and feared. This in turn reveals that while our Georgian or Victorian ancestors didn’t have television, the internet or mobile phones they shared very much more with ourselves than we often consider to be the case.

The people that turned up in the metropolitan police courts that I write about daily, as defendants, victims, police officers or witnesses, were largely just like you and I. They were generally trying to survive in a changing and sometimes scary world, where bad people did bad things, and good people tried to stop them. They had hopes and fears, and they loved and lost, laughed and cried.

The vast majority of people were significantly worse off than the small minority who owned most of the wealth. Society was deeply unequal just as it remains today. History helps me understand the present and its problems very well because it shows me that humanity has been exploiting each other for centuries. Prejudice and xenophobia – both rife in modern Britain – were present in the 1800s as well. Waves of immigrants (from Ireland and Eastern Europe in particular) were marginalised, caricatured, and discriminated against.

The poor were demonised because they were, well, poor basically. They were a burden on the parish (today it is the tax payer’s state) and their poverty and need seen as a personal failing. The only way to incentivise the poor men like Owen Chadwick believed, was to threaten them with the workhouse if they had the audacity to ask for help. Today the ‘benefit scrounger’ will only be ‘helped’ if we remove his benefits and force him to take any job, however menial.

However, if you want to incentivise a rich person you need to pay him more for doing exactly the same as he was doing before. This is capitalist logic.

Marx (Karl not Groucho) argued (and I paraphrase) that it is in the economic interest of the capitalist to pay his workers as little as possible, just enough, in fact, to keep them alive and productive.

I’m not a Marxist (no one is since the Berlin Wall came down – not even John MacDonald and Jeremy Corbyn, despite what the Daily Mail  tells us). But I do think Marx’s explanation of the economic system he saw operating and developing in the nineteenth century is valid today. Even the growth of the ‘gig economy’ and zero-hour contracts is explained by Marx’s critique of capital.

Finally then I want to turn to the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ and misinformation. None of this is new of course. This year the BBC unveiled a statue of George Orwell outside Broadcasting House in London. Orwell understood the value of propaganda and misinformation. He had lived through the Second World War and seen Hitler and Stalin’s propaganda machines in full flow, he even worked for one himself, the good old BBC. Orwell’s 1984 was a chilling vision of the future when it was published in 1948, it’s almost become a handbook for misleading the people today.

There is so much news now and so many ways to disseminate and receive it that it is becoming harder and harder for those that want to, to control it. More and more (as Boris Johnson’s trip to Moscow this week shows) it is becoming ‘weaponised’; a tool in the armoury of warring states and political activists. Isis use fake news, the Russian state uses fake news, the Far Right uses fake news, and now it has permeated ordinary daily life. The British press daily carry false news stories, just as the American press does. Donald Trump selects which bits of news he wants to believe or to ignore, the revelations about cabinet ministers and their extra-curricular activities are dismissed as inventions by the police, or held up as evidence of corruption and nepotism in high office.

So who are we to believe? Believe no one? Trust nobody?

That would make for a very scary world (if a world with Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump could get any scarier that is). I think we have to educate ourselves and our children so that we are equipped with the tools we need to make sense of what we are being told. The study of History as a discipline gives students the tools they need to unpick the words of tyrants and demagogues; to cut through the rhetoric of clever wordsmiths and orators; to work out who is telling us stuff and why they want us to believe it (as Hilary Mantel recently noted).

So if you have a son or daughter who is thinking of going to university to study a subject that will help them survive and prosper in the 21st Century send them to me and my team at the University of Northampton’s History department and I promise that they will get the chance to question the world around them, understand what they are being told, and learn the skills they need to make up their own minds about what the future might bring.

Merry Christmas and a Happy (if unpredictable) New Year 2018!

                                      Drew Gray (Head of History, University of Northampton)

 

*other History departments are available.