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An evening with TIRAH: Black, Conservative and Decolonising the Curriculum

Conservatives always say to minority groups “look at what we’re doing for you, we’re representing you” – but representation is only good if it’s the right representation or representation being done in the right way

On the 20th of October, BathTime were invited to a discussion between the Politics Society and TIRAH about Black History Month to record the thoughts, discussions and ideas that were shared during the event.

TIRAH initially started as a conversational society at an inner-city London school. It was a place for students to have conversations about controversial things and having interesting conversations outside of the classroom. After the students left school, they came up with the idea of turning TIRAH into an organisation. They now go into schools and sixth forms and encourage critical thinking by pushing the bounds of what’s permissible to talk about in school. They also build community spirit and encourage young people to present their ideas in a public speaking competition and are teaching students leadership skills too!

TIRAH firstly set out the house rules that they establish before any conversation they engage in:

  1. TIRAH is about conversations, not debates. Debates come with the idea of having to be right but what we do is about learning something from each other, so we have conversations instead.  We’re listening to understand not to respond, as while it’s good to challenge things and ask questions, we need to be sure that we listen first
  2. Check our biases. A lot of conversations that TIRAH in engaged in are about race, gender and economics, all people have sensitivities so be mindful of that and check your biases and preconceptions before speaking to someone.
  3. Your voice matters. Being the loudest doesn’t meant you’re saying the right things. Especially in online conversations, it can be easy to not say anything, but your voice is important and deserves to be heard!
  4. Be sensitive!

The three main topics that came up were about decolonising the curriculum, being Black and Conservative and approaches to increasing representation of Black people and Black British history. Here are some of the ideas and thoughts that came up in these discussions.

Decolonising the Curriculum

Just regarding Black History Month, the first Black congresswoman Shirley Chisholm stated that “if they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring your own folding chair”. To me this encompasses what BHM is about. In the UK we don’t have conversations about race, decolonising our own knowledge production, checking our biases and so I think Black History Month gives us the chance to do so.

I did history GCSE, and it was all about Martin Luther King Junior and Malcolm X and who was a better leader. I felt like we were basically taught to say that MLK was better, but I also think that having American Black history at the centre of what we talk about is not innocent, it’s a way for Britain to remove themselves from racism.

The way Britain teaches is so incoherent and yet so calculated. For example, when you learn about the Industrial Revolution you don’t learn about the parallel of cotton that was being picked and used to make clothes and where that came from in the first place – this is history that isn’t just black history but its white history and its British history too, it feels like it’s left out to remove accountability.

To be honest, I thought for ages that the British curriculum didn’t teach Black history but there is so much in the curriculum! The issue is that none of the teachers can teach it because they don’t know how to teach it, so schools don’t choose the modules about Black British history. Instead, they go for the units that everyone knows like the Tudors. I’ve seen units on the history of migration about Windrush and a cold war unit which includes things about African independence, but the teachers just don’t have the knowledge to discuss it and talk about it. The system seems Americanised because that’s what teachers know and that’s what they teach to get you the good grades because that’s what they care about.

Being Black and Conservative

I want to know how different the Diane Abbots and the Kwasi Kwartengs are. There’s a huge ideological divide theoretically but just in terms of what it means in terms of representation, it’s a big deal to be the first Black chancellor. There was a Labour MP who said Kwarteng was “superficially Black” because he’s a Conservative, and this was fascinating to hear because there are a lot of people on the left of the political spectrum who think Black people need to have a certain way of thinking and certain viewpoint. I would argue that being a Black politician in the UK is very difficult than in the US because of the level of conforming that our politicians must do. 

In TIRAH we talk about Black mediocrity, in order to get where you want to be you have to be exceptional. People have had a go at Kwasi, but he has done everything and studied everywhere, and I feel like Kwarteng has been slandered by the media and discredited and it’s just so unfortunate that he’s in the position he’s in because he’s been discredited but his accolades speak for how intelligent he is.  If you’re in a position of power as a Black person, then you’re held to a higher standard than anyone else. Black people must be the most qualified to even enter the spaces we’re talking about. Kwasi has a lot of things going for him in a way that a lot of white politicians have to do, but when Boris was PM, he had been fired from every single job he’s had, he practically ‘failed upwards’, which is the same as Donald Trump – it seems to be a trend that white male politicians keep getting worse but still getting higher in the hierarchy.

Conservatives always say to minority groups “look at what we’re doing for you, we’re representing you” – but representation is only good if it’s the right representation or representation being done in the right way, and my sympathy for Kwasi Kwarteng is capped because we have ideological differences.

It’s funny when people are shocked that Black politicians agree with Conservative policies – is the conservative party the new face of representation? They can tick boxes for diversity in quotas and they can talk about how very diverse they are in queer representation, female and Black representation, whereas liberal parties aren’t ticking those boxes. But does it matter if that’s just a tickbox or does it matter how genuine it is? How do you measure how genuine it is? When we talk about representation we must talk about class as a lot of the time, these categories are very generalised, and they make it seem like everyone has the same experiences. When London Mayor Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey came to our school, I was so impressed by his achievements but we often we see a Black person in a position of power, like Shaun, and think we can emulate what they’ve done in their careers, but they might have a lot of class privileges that we haven’t had. What I’m getting at is saying that all ethnic minorities must be Labour supporters diminishes all agency that a Black person might have, because to some people there is a criterion of what you must be to ‘be Black’ and being Conservative isn’t included on that list.

I think it comes down to the idea of conformity and conforming to white standards. The Black politicians we see a lot are right wing and to the public they’re seen as a ‘good’ person who conforms to good British values. The public think ‘they’re appeasing my conservative idealism and I don’t see their race because they’re a ‘good’ Black person’.  To get to where you want to be as a Black person you have to conform, code switch, do your hair a certain way and try not to be too loud in public spaces. A lot of these Black politicians who are conforming to right wing ideology are doing so well in politics because they’re ‘one of us’  (us being white people), because they are viewed to put ideology before their race. 

My conviction is that it doesn’t matter if you’re Black and want to be a Conservative, but conservatism will always bring you down in the end as a Black person and you will not have the political longevity of Diane Abbot and David Lammy – not that they do anything amazing, but it’s almost like choosing the best of two evils because you will never get the 100% backing with Conservatives because even if you’re a ‘good Black person’ you’re still a Black person.

I find that the older generation of Black people are often socially conservative. The difference is, when black people came to the UK it was the Labour party who were more welcoming than the Conservatives, who had people giving speeches about ‘Rivers of Blood’. If you’re trying to survive in a land that isn’t your own, you’re going to pick to vote for the people who don’t want you to die – it’s a survival thing. In summary, sure ideologically a lot of Black people have Conservative ideas and views but if were talking about survival, I would argue loosely that the labour party does a slightly better job.

Bottom-up vs Top-Down: Approaches into Increasing Representation for Black people and Black British history 

I prefer bottom-up approaches! It’s immediately what came to my head. I know the amount of hate that a black PM would get, even though Obama wasn’t the best we saw how he was treated, and people constantly questioned him and questioned if he was even Black at one point because of his name. I’m not put off having black people in politics because I love representation but there’s so much negative representation which is really disheartening.

There was lots of effort in the past where my primary school would do a Black History night and we used to cook for everyone to celebrate culture. But now I’ve seen black history month dissipate into nothingness. I want people to find what Black History Month means for them.

50% of all the hate to MPs is for Diane Abbott so I don’t wish top-down representation on Black people, I don’t wish that pain and suffering on them. To be visible as a Black person in this country is dangerous. I think the UK is nowhere near ready having a Black or ethnic minority Prime Minister. Fundamentally we need to make the best of a bad situation, we’re dealt a bad card as Black people in the UK, so we can work from the bottom up to make sure that Black History modules get chosen and we can try to make these modules compulsory to teach young people about history which isn’t just Black history but is British history – our history.

Thank you very much to TIRAH for this insightful conversation and to the Politics society for facilitating the session!

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