UoM Modern British Historians Respond to the RHS Race Report

University of Manchester Modern British Historians

Response to the Royal Historical Society report on Race, Ethnicity and Equality in UK History 

Context: The History Department at the University of Manchester has welcomed the findings of a recent Royal Historical Society Report highlighting the severe underrepresentation of BME students and staff in UK University History departments, including its condemnation of the ‘institutional racism’ BME historians encounter in standard history curricula, teaching, and research practices. As a department, we are working to address the criticisms raised through a major programme of curriculum reform, schools outreach activities, decolonising our curriculum, reviewing our student societies’ processes of inclusion and exclusion, and creating spaces for conversations with all our students about the RHS findings. This also requires rethinking our work at the sub-disciplinary level, since the Report noted specific issues with teaching and research of Modern British History:

‘3. Address the absences of Black British history: A 2013 study found that over 40% of all UK-based academic historians work in British history, a higher proportion of ‘own nation’ specialists than is found in the USA or Canada.43 The histories of BME communities in Britain are, however, often absent from school and university curricula. Even when those histories are present, a seemingly relentless focus on enslavement, abolition and exploitation is viewed by students as intellectually limiting and, at times, alienating. In diversifying the curriculum, it is especially important to go beyond these limited vantage points.’ RHS Race Report, 2018.

We are eager to find pro-active short- and long-term ways to effect positive change in response to this issue, and, in keeping with the constructive tone of the Report, a group of Modern British History lecturers and students with current and past experience of taking their courses (representing Levels 1 to 3, Masters and PhD) worked together during a series of meetings from November 2018 to brainstorm our ideas on this subject. Two student members of our group shared their perspectives on these meetings, noting that:

 ‘…lecturers valued student opinion and allowed a platform for many to speak in a safe environment. No one was belittled, no ideas were discredited etc. It was an open and honest space where past experiences and current problems within the curriculum were evaluated. I think it is good to highlight that staff and students collaborated; there was no teacher-pupil relationship in meetings (whereby the lecturer led the proceedings – we all felt equal).’

‘The meeting was really constructive, not only in terms of discussing the types of racism and under-representation that we have witnessed, but also in discussing the ways it can be addressed. We talked about the most crude forms of this ‘institutional racism’ within the system, which most of us were aware of, but throughout the discussion people shed light on the more hidden forms that it took and I think everyone left realising that the problems are far more entrenched than originally thought.’

We have co-authored this document, which represents our current plan of action as well as reflections on our experiences of being taught, studying and researching Modern British History to date. We are sharing this publicly in the hope of contributing to the nationwide conversation amongst academics instigated by the RHS Report, and to invite responses from staff and students (and ideally, prospective students!) of Modern British History at other history departments, both in the UK and internationally, so that we might collectively continue our work to promote inclusivity on a subject we care passionately about.

  1. Modern British History at School.

Critiques: We are concerned at the geographically-narrow history curriculum taught in schools, all-too-often examining Britain in ‘splendid isolation’ from other countries except when engaged in colonisation or warfare. ‘Snippet views’ of countries in Asia such as Japan, ‘either bombing Pearl Harbour, engaged in torture, or being bombed by nuclear weapons,’ clearly demonstrate a world-view that students found excessively partial and discriminatory. This world view of race often made it appear as though, firstly, Britain does not have a race issue, and secondly, that race and histories of BME populations are absent from Britain’s past. BME students also recalled instances in school when, on the rare occasion of learning about the history of the Commonwealth (in which BME citizens were primarily discussed in terms of contribution rather than as victims or aggressors), it was pointedly remarked as having been added to the curriculum ‘for their benefit,’ singling students out for ‘othering’ among their peers in a manner that caused considerable distress. Furthermore, Black History Month was the only window where histories of race were discussed, but even then this was outside of lesson time, usually discussed in assemblies, as opposed to within class. We viewed University as a place where opportunities to study history (including the history of Britain) through the lens of a broader set of geographies and historical actors were particularly attractive and exciting. Yet, on the transition to University, we also identified how the intersectional issues of race and class had a legacy for students’ comprehension and enjoyment of these courses. Students from state schools felt less equipped with important contextual knowledge of broader historical geographies and global politics than their peers who had attended private schools, and experienced embarrassment at this discrepancy.

 

Action: We recognise that schools are often hamstrung by the curricula that are imposed upon them, as well as the current lack of awareness of/access to resources with which to teach modern British history in a way that incorporates the perspectives of BME citizens in suitably complex ways. Those of us with experience of Schools Outreach work have found that schools are understandably reluctant to accept the delivery of workshops that significantly deviate from the curriculum they are teaching students, given the pressures they are under to furnish students with the knowledge required to pass assessments within time and budgetary constraints. Given what’s at stake, however, we issue a strong call for greater flexibility and embrace of diversity within the national history curriculum, and for UK funding councils to immediately allocate grant schemes for the identification, development, and translation of resources on Black British history appropriate for use in schools to create the conditions for curriculum reform. We also recommend that level 1 courses in modern British History at University integrate diverse perspectives from within Britain and beyond, and, where engaging with Britain’s international relationships, be conscientious in allocating time to introductory sessions that give context to the politics and culture of other countries before their encounters with Britain. This is also a recommendation that we put to all course leaders teaching the histories of countries with which students will not necessarily have been familiar at school.

 

  1. Modern British History at University.

Critiques: There continues to be noticeable ‘spotlighting’ of BME students by tutors within the classroom on subjects dealing explicitly with themes of race, a form of treatment with which all students were unhappily familiar at both school and University. This is coupled with the use of race as a ‘tag-on’ topic, addressed in only a single, or at most, two, seminars and lectures. Common ways of integrating the theme of race into a standard undergraduate modern British history course comprise a session on immigration and a session on Enoch Powell and the race riots of the post-war era. We echo the RHS Report’s findings on the need to decolonise our curricula and reading lists. The lack of diversity among staff further reinforces the ‘whiteness’ of modern British history, and is part of the ‘vicious circle’ of BME students viewing this sub-discipline as unattractive due to a lack of historical actors or current practitioners with whom to identify. Further, race tends to be coupled with politics (the ‘politics of race’) in a manner that suggests everyday experiences of race are less intrinsic to our national story.

 

Action: Teaching histories of race in modern Britain exclusively through historical events that were overwhelmingly adversarial in nature — colonisation, hostility encountered following immigration, riots, and discrimination — reinforces a culture of adversity in the classroom. In terms of teaching Black British History specifically we can and should have a multiprong approach. We need courses that (1) centre the lived experience of people of African and Caribbean ancestry; as well as (2) revised surveys that put that experience meaningfully into conversation with the major historical events and developments of the 19th and 20th century. Relatedly, we need to recognize that the Black experience and race are distinct, though interconnected matters. Examining how ideologies and structures of racial oppression have developed and operated over time (including key developments like slavery and colonialism) should always be a central focus of what we teach in our surveys and seminars. That said, there also needs to be a conscious decision to pay attention to the experiences of Black and Asian communities and their broader lived experiences, cultural production, and other contributions to society. The subtotal of Black experience is not racism, though racism is an important part of that experience. Separately, we also need to critically evaluate not just what is taught but who is taught, so that we incorporate readings – on a variety of topics – by scholars of colour.

 

Race, class, and gender are intersectional categories that must be meaningfully integrated into the central narrative of modern British history, and register themes of resistance, agency, and contribution systematically. At postgraduate level, MA courses that deal with theoretical trends in modern British history like cultural history, ‘history from below’ etc. might similarly take race as a theoretical category, since the lack of theorisation currently communicates assumptions of biological rootedness within this sub-discipline. Too often, our postgraduate courses demonstrate comfort teaching concepts around class, gender, and sexuality, but subsume race under topics such as ‘National Identity.’ Thus again, People of Colour are viewed as the ‘other’ and this emphasis is read alongside post-war ‘British’ identity. We urge lecturers to pay attention to the titles of modern British History courses, to ensure that if race is a theme of the course that this is signalled clearly to students. While we were discussing current course offerings, we began to develop an idea for a new Black British History course that would be rooted in the collections held at the local Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre in Manchester Central Library. We discussed how modern British historians can feel reluctant to study and research topics where there is a less established secondary literature, and posited that such a course might assist in building that literature through bringing the AIU collections to wider notice. For the course itself, we explored how we might teach it using a comparative literature and set of perspectives, so that where there were current ‘gaps’ in the literature on Britain we could nonetheless take inspiration from how scholars dealt with race in other national and international contexts. Several lecturers present at our meeting are currently engaged in developing new monograph projects that examine themes of race in modern Britain, and as such, this proposed course gives students the opportunity to help shape the direction of that research in ways that were exciting for all present.

 

We also envisaged a change in the culture of how we communicate race in the classroom and in academia more broadly. Scholarship and seminar activities focussed on debates about histories of race and racism that set up ‘opposing’ (often rather simplistic) positions do not permit nuanced discussions and a sense of community among learners and staff. It also tends to stigmatise intellectual positions as either ‘racist/not racist’ rather than exploring subtler gradations of ‘a liberal position’, a ‘conservative position’ etc. It will also permit reflection on and expression of ‘controversial’ positions within an overarching framework of mutual respect. This can be accomplished by utilising a set of ‘ground rules’ and a vocabulary for discussing histories of race that can be established at the start of the course by the lecturer. Stating that students should feel free to explore race as a theme, and that it is important we continually reflect on this important category of identity, will ensure that learners do not feel inhibited to raise race-related points by a fear of ‘giving offense’. Explaining the appropriate terminology (BAME, BME, People/Person of Colour), identifying terminology used in the past that is offensive, and exploring the historical specificity of those terms to understand why, are necessary and simple steps to ensure students are equipped to discuss race in a respectful and critical manner. We intend to work with students and Equality and Diversity specialists to develop a specific set of tools to help staff and students to have these discussions in class, explaining what a student should do if inappropriate language is used in group discussions, particularly if the tutor is unaware that this is happening.

 

Staff and students must, of course, feel comfortable and empowered to identify racism and assert a zero-tolerance policy towards any comments and behaviours that are racist, both within and outside the classroom. Where these appear to be unintentional and the product of ignorance, it is hoped that the above ‘ground rules’ will facilitate a critical conversation about why something has caused offense, proceeding towards greater understanding and apology. Where they appear intentional and designed to inflict hurt, a greater awareness of University policy on racism and the steps that students and staff can take to draw attention to the matter and escalate it appropriately need to be made clearer and be communicated verbally at the beginning of courses (outlines of policies in handbooks, like the handbooks themselves, tend to get lost).

 

  1. Final thoughts from our student members:

‘From UG, PGT and my own personal perspective, Race hasn’t heavily featured in my academic journey (until third year!). There should be a greater intersection in all modules; a greater awareness of race and its presence. By having these conversations, assessing where the issues originate and looking to take action, we are slowly beginning to understand that something has to change. More PGT students should be trained to incorporate race history into all core modules; giving MA students opportunities to research new areas of racial history that have been undiscovered.’

‘I have personally felt that for a very long time the subject of race was ‘too big to broach’ – I felt there was too much discourse, which discouraged me from tackling the subject. I’m almost certain lots of historians feel the same way. In this sense, the power resides in the hands of the University. It only takes one member of staff to alter and inspire a student and shape their experience of the discipline of history. Staff must remove the shroud over race and racial theory (especially at MA and PhD level) to show students the subject is not mined field. Furthermore, I also think many white students feel it is ‘not their place’ to explore BME history, that it is ‘not their story to tell’. Tutors must encourage all students to explore histories of race and join them in the process of discovery. Dissertation tutors (both at Level 3 and Masters) should actively encourage students of MBH to incorporate the experiences and history of BME subjects into their research, not as a separate subject, but as an essential subject.’

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