SIXTH FORM ENRICHMENT: Shaping a better world

Deputy head of sixth form JUDI FELL talks about how we can use time in lockdown to spend time reading, thinking and becoming better informed in order to help shape a better world. In her latest Friday enrichment session address to sixth form students, she says: 'We all have a role to play in creating a better tomorrow' 

Dear all,

Although it may feel like the current restrictions and the scale of the healthcare and socio-cultural crisis we are in highlights the relative powerlessness of individuals, the time we have to read, think, and become better informed, offers us the chance to really make a difference, and to seize the opportunity presented by the events of 2020 to shape a better future.

Following on from Mr Long's comprehensive and heartfelt exploration of the American context of systemic racism, we would now like to turn the lens onto Britain. Mr Long's passionate call to action asked you to be open, to learn, and to empathise, seeking to better understand the context of some of the issues that have been raised following the tragic death of George Floyd.

Just like the history of African-Americans, a great deal of the history of Britain's black population is one of exploitation and oppression by white British people. Much of the wealth of some of our biggest cities - London, Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester, came either directly from the slave trade, or from the trade in sugar, cotton and other cash crops that formed part of the infamous 'slave trade triangle', in which British ships carried at least 3.4 million African slaves to the Americas, in terrible conditions in what was known as the Middle Passage. This brief extract from a BBC documentary highlights the inhumanity of this trade in people:

For those of you who are keen to understand this in more detail, I can recommend this documentary: Unfinished Business (

The historic racism that underpinned and justified the slave trade in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries certainly did not disappear with the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807 and the abolition of slavery within the Empire in 1833, despite the work of black and white activists such as Equiano, Sancho, Benezet, Wilberforce, and Sharp, who sought to undermine the principles on which slavery was predicated, by proving the equal humanity of enslaved people. Ultimately, many historians argue that abolition occurred not because the British establishment became less racist, but because the economics of slavery no longer benefited them.

Indeed, the so-called 'Scramble for Africa' in the later 19th century was predicated on those same ideas of white supremacy which allowed the exploitative nature of imperialism to be justified on the basis of a 'civilising mission'. Those of you who studied History GCSE at RGS will remember the phrase used to describe this moral cloak: the so-called 'white man's burden' to civilise, convert and educate. In reality, Western colonists, in Africa and elsewhere, imposed their systems of government, education, religion and social organisation on already complex and highly civilised societies, for the most part without any concern or interest in the impact it had on the local indigenous populations, beyond seeking to maintain their control over their colonies. This has, and continues to cast, a long shadow over Africa. Decolonisation, far from healing the scars, has highlighted the divisions that were deliberately fomented by white colonists between ethnic and cultural groups. Even looking at the map of Africa today, the straight borders between countries is a visible reminder of the decisions taken in Berlin in the 1880s, and described here:

My personal insight into the impact of this history of colonisation comes from a period in my childhood living in Senegal, a former French colony in West Africa. The use of French as the official language, and the currency name (CFA Franc) were just the obvious reminders of the role France had played in shaping Senegal. Less obvious to me as a young child, but more significant looking back on this now, was how the economy in the 20th century, well after decolonisation, depended on wealthy black families and white expatriate families employing local black families as domestic staff in order to reduce the endemic unemployment that kept so many in poverty. The tensions between the groups of different ethnic and religious backgrounds within Senegal is also now a much clearer indication of the hugely damaging, long-term consequences of colonialism.

GCSE historians will also remember the discussion about the 'Rhodes Must Fall' campaign which originally began in Capetown, in South Africa, and later spread to, among other places, Oxford. This campaign has been revitalised in recent days, and has spread beyond Rhodes to encompass other figures associated with colonialism, the British slave trade and racist attitudes more generally. This debate, over whether statues such as those removed over the course of the last week (some in acts of popular activism described by some as vandalism, others in response to more traditional and peaceful means of protest) are unacceptable celebrations of a racist past, or whether they are timely reminders of our history. Some argue that to remove them risks the whitewashing of a period of our history with which we need to engage actively, constructively and with critical judgement. I welcome your thoughts on this debate!

Britain’s increasingly multicultural population saw an associated increase in suspicion and misunderstanding directed at immigrants of all backgrounds. This underlying suspicion of anyone different was exacerbated by the presence of the American segregated military in Britain in the 1940s, giving the whits British population a language and rhetoric with which to articulate their suspicion. With the labour shortage following the war, an open invitation was issued by the post-WW2 Labour government and many, often referred to as the Windrush Generation, began to take their central place in British culture and economy, taking up much needed roles in, among many fields, the newly formed NHS. Facing that same suspicion and popular racism, despite their official invitation, these popular attitudes endured and were magnified into the 1970s and 1980s, as recalled by one of my favourite TV historians, David Olusoga, in this article about his experience: What it means to be Black in Britain today His excellent BBC series ‘Black and British - a Forgotten History’ is being aired once more (Red button Broadcast Details), beginning on Monday at 3pm and I strongly encourage you to watch it and/or read the accompanying book.

It is important to remember that these are not merely inhumane episodes in our past history, but the underlying, systemic and sometimes unconscious bias that we have already discussed in Enrichment are very much still present within modern British society. The murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 and the subsequent investigation and later official enquiry (more information here: led to an official acceptance that institutional racism existed within the police force. The 'War on Terror' in the 21st century has led to a resurgence of racial profiling, particularly in association with police 'Stop and Search' powers, highlighting the continuing problems around institutional racism. The data here I think makes stark reading:

Stop and search - GOV.UK Ethnicity facts and figuresStop and search rates are given to the nearest whole number. But all comparisons and differences have been worked out using unrounded data. From 2017/18, stop and search figures have included stops under section 47a of the Terrorism

I would also like to thank Romola for her suggestion to bring the stories of Shukri Abdi and Belly Mujinga to your attention, as examples of recent victims of racist action and I would encourage you to read about them here:

Belly Mujinga: CPS to review Covid-19 death of station worker - BBC NewsThe Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has been asked to review evidence into the death of a railway worker who was reportedly spat at by a man claiming to have coronavirus. British Transport Police

As a final thought in this already lengthy email (well done to those of you still with me!), I would like to take the opportunity to celebrate the cultural wealth that comes from the multiculturalism that is also part of the legacy of empire. This article highlights the vibrancy of multicultural culture: and I would encourage you to follow @_hiddenpages on Instagram for some fascinating and often untold stories of some captivating figures in our history.

Here is also an invitation to take part in a global programme seeking the views of young people to help reimagine education and society in a post-Covid world. We have a truly unexpected opportunity to make a real difference to the world we inhabit, and I strongly encourage you to be one of the forces for change.

On the 16th June, at 4pm, tune in live to watch the launch of this programme, and have your say:,11K33,7PPEPV,3Z9J4,1

My final words are borrowed from Frederick Douglass, a hugely impressive, erudite and exceptional individual. These words were written as advice to his grandson, by a Douglass disheartened by the failure of the Reconstruction Period after the US Civil War to truly liberate America's black population - to the end, he preached hope, and activism: 'be strong, be cheerful, be brave'.

We all have a role to play, together, in creating a better tomorrow for all of us.

Take care,

Mrs Fell