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  • Judy Ryde

Acknowledging our History

We are in very fast-moving times where received opinion is being questioned and challenged by many. This challenging is not just the usual confrontation between different ‘blocks’ of opinion such as the ‘left’ challenging the ‘right’. We are also seeing individuals and organisations challenging themselves. More white people seem to understand that taken-for-granted attitudes give them a privilege over those who are not white. In particular, young people, are now more likely to accept the idea that they are privileged and books on this subject, including my own, are suddenly selling many more copies. I have found that I am being asked to talk about white privilege much more often

At the same time, the idea that we need to take radical and decisive action to put right wrongs perpetrated in the past is gaining much more traction as the impact of history on today’s world is becoming clear. Many more white people understand that we need to radically re-vision how history is taught so that all populations can engage with what happened in their past.

It has become a truism that history is told by the victors. I was taught, for example, that English history starting in 1066 when William the Conqueror won the battle of Hastings, and that history before that was ‘the dark ages’ – hardly worth a glance. History, as taught to most white people, misses altogether the great sophistication of the accomplishments of those in other parts of the world. We are given the impression from childhood that all inventions and advances in literature, science, philosophy etc were to be found in the ‘white’ countries of Europe.

So how would it be if we insist that history is researched and told by all sections of society and shared amongst the whole population? Having a clear-eyed vision of our past, and the way it has shaped us, would go a long way to bring a greater understanding in society as a whole. I would like to see Universities spear heading this approach – an approach that already exists in Universities to some extent - but tends to be written up only in highly academic papers. I would like to see this disseminated into schools and be mainstream in the curriculumWe are in very fast-moving times where received opinion is being questioned and challenged by many. This challenging is not just the usual confrontation between different ‘blocks’ of opinion such as the ‘left’ challenging the ‘right’. We are also seeing individuals and organisations challenging themselves. More white people seem to understand that taken-for-granted attitudes give them a privilege over those who are not white. In particular, young people, are now more likely to accept the idea that they are privileged and books on this subject, including my own, are suddenly selling many more copies. I have found that I am being asked to talk about white privilege much more often

At the same time, the idea that we need to take radical and decisive action to put right wrongs perpetrated in the past is gaining much more traction as the impact of history on today’s world is becoming clear. Many more white people understand that we need to radically re-vision how history is taught so that all populations can engage with what happened in their past.

It has become a truism that history is told by the victors. I was taught, for example, that English history starting in 1066 when William the Conqueror won the battle of Hastings, and that history before that was ‘the dark ages’ – hardly worth a glance. History, as taught to most white people, misses altogether the great sophistication of the accomplishments of those in other parts of the world. We are given the impression from childhood that all inventions and advances in literature, science, philosophy etc were to be found in the ‘white’ countries of Europe.

So how would it be if we insist that history is researched and told by all sections of society and shared amongst the whole population? Having a clear-eyed vision of our past, and the way it has shaped us, would go a long way to bring a greater understanding in society as a whole. I would like to see Universities spear heading this approach – an approach that already exists in Universities to some extent - but tends to be written up only in highly academic papers. I would like to see this disseminated into schools and be mainstream in the curriculum. Children from all communities would then find themselves within the history they learn and really understand how it has influenced present day life. This history will include things they can rightly be proud of as well as things that are more shameful. Children could themselves become researchers, finding out about their own history, starting with their family and broadening out to their communities and beyond.

As a start, white people need to face up to the shame of their actions of the past and work to make sure that the cruel exploitation of those they often unconsciously regard as lesser human beings, does not still shape attitudes today. Our history has a deep and underlying effect on our culture which is rooted in our history - a culture that shapes us and our self-identity. Those whose self-identity is in tune with and confirmed by their history and culture tend to develop the greatest self-confidence. White people and, particularly, white middleclass men, tend to feel this confidence, particularly as white culture is so dominant world-wide. The attitudes that flow from this, lead to the systemic racism of which we are becoming a little more aware.

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