For #Merky editor Jude Yawson, reform begins with the curriculum

A man standing in the street.

Writer, poet and Stormzy’s co-author on why honesty and education are our most powerful weapons for fighting institutional racism

By Jude Yawson Thur, Jul 16, 2020

‘If a system is corrupt, then the people who adhere to the system, and are incentivised by that system, are not criminals. They are victims. The system itself must be tried. But… the only way we can figure out what the system is, is if everyone says what they did. Tell them how you participated.’ (Dave Chappelle, 2018)

We are all victims of a system refined, orchestrated and propagated before we even existed. This system is one of racism and white supremacy. It offers nowhere to hide; its proponents are people submerged in its swamp-like logic. It is infectious and toxic and we wonder, as Black people, how we can stop it. 

I often consider if White people are victims of this system too. For instance, take the far-right, ‘anti-BLM’ protestors from a few weeks ago, many of whom were working-class English Defence League (EDL) supporters: I see their existence as a nuisance, but no more than a domino effect. A sequel of livelihood in a country built off the back of colonialism and its racialised legacy. Although benefitting from White supremacy, these people are not taught to fight against it. Self-interest is embedded in human nature, and to preserve the self is an endeavour most people can take to. Nevertheless, in this racialised existence, to ask White people to compile the reality of their supremacy and help to destroy this system of racism is wishful thinking. 

It is asking them to identify a problem in the first place. It is to hope they believe in systematic discrimination. It is also to hope they do not have ulterior aims, such as to entertain the politically correct whose actions do not actively work against the system. 

Instead, we should question why there is a convenient gap of knowledge regarding British history. From The Crusades, Vikings, Tudors and Victorians, we arrive at WWI and WWII, then Americanise racism through the civil rights movement. There is no chronological understanding of race relations in the UK national consciousness; no contemporary recognition of Britain’s subjugation of Ireland and colonial exploits across Africa and parts of Asia. 

Black History Month, for me, was reduced to watching 'Roots' or random workshops that bridge none of these gaps. We hear of William Wilberforce, but what of the Black abolitionists – Ignatius Sancho, Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince, among many others – who fought for us, but have since faded from the narrative? Investigating them surely builds representation, and reveals we do not have to wait for morality to wake within leaders to action change. 

We should learn about Kwame Nkrumah, and the independence of Ghana; about the politics that inspired change throughout these former colonies. We are aware of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers Of Blood’ speech, but what of Darcus Howe? Why is he not proudly upheld, and the British Black Panther movement welded into national consciousness? Why did the Windrush generation have to fight to have their plight recognised? Why must another name join Kelso Cochrane, Stephen Lawrence, Sarah Reed, Shukri Abdi, Belly Mujinga and Trevor Belle in the already extensive list of Black people who have died at the hands of systemic racism. How can a problem not exist in the face of all this, and why does the media act like racism is new?
A vintage photo of children in a car park.
A young Jude pictured with family. Image courtesy of Jude Yawson

‘Imagine being able to have honest conversations about race relations at an earlier age; living in a time where everyone works to set things right and reparations do not sound morally outmoded since the dilemma has not ended, but evolved’

There have long been calls for a change in the curriculum regarding how we conceive racism, and we live with countless examples of White supremacy and our history of colonialism every day in the form of statues, monuments and institutions that have been named after slavers and self-proclaimed racists, including Edward Colston and Winston Churchill. Yet we still question whether this country is even racist. 

I recently featured on BBC Radio 4’s 'Moral Maze' and, to my astonishment, experienced journalists, authors and lecturers denied that Britain was a racist country. What they failed to realise is this system in its entirety – or perhaps it was just convenient to look away. It shocked me that people with such accolades in their respective fields would opt to highlight positives found in surveys on racial tolerance and statistics in educational achievement of Black African children, then contrast them to America’s racial tensions in order to downplay our own. 

Aspects of self-interest and preservation – where to dig too deep is to unsettle the White supremacy they live in adoration of – led them to question the methodology behind the ‘violence’ in removing Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, which showed me our moral compasses were not aligned. Such discussions and virtue signalling around BLM content offer no solutions. 

The greatest aspect of this movement is the social and culture power we can amass to change the future in terms of race relations. On his Instagram Live talk last week, Akala made the point that The Baptist War/Sam Sharpe Rebellion in Jamaica, 1831, is as much a part of British history as it is Black. Black history in this context is also British history. White students need to learn the realities of our efforts against oppression; to fully understand the horrors committed by the British Empire – not just its Whitewashed victories adopted for pride. They need to understand how the Sam Sharpe Rebellion influenced the emancipation of slaves and Slavery Abolition Act of 1833; and recognise that British modernity could not be without the interactions of our people. Indeed, there is no British history independent of African, Caribbean and Asian presence when it comes to colonialism and our intertwined stories.
A vintage photo of a young boy sitting on a red chair.
The writer as a young boy. Image courtesy of Jude Yawson
It took a lifetime of research for me to know what I do now about British colonialism, imperialism, and contemporary history regarding African and Asian diaspora. I seethe when I imagine what it could have done for us as a nation if we had learned this together in a curriculum that didn’t try to deny racism – and I doubt I would have suffered so much personal anguish at the lack of representation in the ‘Britishness’ we uphold. 

I know now that Ghana, Nigeria, Jamaica, India, South Africa, Hong Kong, Bangladesh, and many more countries have been swept out of relevance in the mainstay of British history, but if I had been taught this sooner, perhaps I would not harbour such hatred for the system that subjugates us. 

Children’s history lessons today should include examples of systematic oppression. Imagine being able to have honest conversations about race relations at an earlier age; living in a time where everyone works to set things right and reparations do not sound morally outmoded since the dilemma has not ended, but evolved. Imagine not shying away from the volume of trauma involved; of people not denying our presence as if we never existed; or flying White Lives Matter banners overs stadiums because they feel underrepresented in their own system. 

Just imagine what a new curriculum could do if we learned about our intertwined histories with the aim of achieving equality, while also living in respect of the past.

Jude Yawson is an author and poet. He edited and co-wrote 'Rise Up: The #Merky Story So Far', published by #Merky Books/Penguin Random House
Interested in becoming a member?