Written by:
Taj Ali

Decolonising history is not 'censorship' - in fact it is the opposite

Read time:
5 minutes

In the latest in the government’s confected culture wars, the government has turned its attention to University students and staff seeking to promote an inclusive curriculum. Recently, Universities Minister Michelle Donelan compared ‘decolonisation of history’ to ‘Soviet-Union-Style’ censorship. Donelan suggested books were being removed from reading lists in an effort to prevent students from being forced to confront “hate speech”.

According to Donelan, "a lot of the talk" surrounding the issue is about removing elements of history rather than adding alternative viewpoints. "It otherwise becomes fiction, if you start editing it, taking bits out that we view as stains.” says Donelan. If you start editing history and taking bits out, it absolutely does become fiction. That is exactly and precisely why calls to decolonise the curriculum have received so much traction. Donelan’s assertion that decolonising the curriculum is akin to censorship is ironic considering that the history of the empire has often been censored from our curriculum, and our history as ethnic minority communities has traditionally been sidelined.

Forget small bits; entire chunks of history have not just been censored but completely wiped out. During Operation Legacy, the British government burned, sunk and hid documents from over 37 colonies. Part of the criteria for removing such documents included if they would “embarrass her Majesty's government” or “embarrass police and military forces”. Decolonising the curriculum is not about rewriting history, it is about broadening our understanding of history. That means critically understanding empire and colonial conquest and the impact this has had on the modern world. Such efforts are not exactly radically new. Academia has always been a place where there have been contestations over the politics of knowledge and challenges to the intellectual status quo.

The study of history has always involved re-evaluating the past. History has been re-written primarily through a Eurocentric lens and at the expense of Non-Europeans. Decolonisation seeks to challenge the exclusion of significant parts of our history as people of colour. It is about critically examining how history has been written and questioning why the contributions of non-Europeans are often relegated to mere footnotes. Such erasure has consequences. It alienates many people of colour and provides a limited understanding of our history.

Donelan’s comments are not just misleading but they are also deeply insulting to many ethnic minority students who have spent years trying to make the curriculum more inclusive. I spent two years as an advocate for the Warwick University Decolonise Project, a project dedicated to promoting a curriculum which reflects the diversity of the student body and promoting critical thinking. We sought not to abolish the reading list but rather to expand it in scope. Decolonising history is not about erasing history; it is the very opposite – challenging the erasure of the Global South from the curriculum.

We carried out a research project to gauge the view of students through online surveys, focus groups and in-depth interviews. It was very apparent that there was a strong appetite for change. Many students highlighted the need for more varied module content and a more global understanding of history. Such an appetite for change is not restricted to Warwick. Across the country, from Sheffield to Sussex, University students and staff are not just calling for change but actively leading on it themselves. Instead of getting in the way of such efforts, ministers should be getting fully behind them. Broadening the scope of analysis can only be a positive thing.

Last year, a YouGov poll revealed that British people are more nostalgic for the empire than any other former colonial power. A third of people in the UK believe Britain’s colonies were better off for being part of the empire and 27% still want Britain to have an empire. This is a shameful indictment of our education system, which often fails to adequately educate the British public about the brutal history of the empire, and its relationship with contemporary racism in Britain.

Decolonising history should not be merely restricted to higher education. Whilst the empire is on the national curriculum, the growing academisation of British schools has meant over 70% of British schools are no longer legally required to teach colonial history in schools. Last year, education charity Teach First conducted research which found that that pupils could complete their GCSEs and leave secondary school without having studied a single literary work by a non-white author. The failure to teach colonial history and include non-white authors within the curriculum gives a very narrow understanding of our modern diverse society.

Growing up, Winston Churchill was often celebrated as a wartime hero within my school curriculum. What was conveniently missing from the curriculum was Churchill’s role in the Bengal famine, which led to the deaths of three million Indians, and his well-documented hatred for Indians, who he considered a “beastly people”. Myself and my peers (at a school with a predominantly South Asian demographic) were not taught our own history, and I am therefore not surprised that a degree in history was not seen as an attractive proposal to many of my friends. The current curriculum simply does not reflect our modern diverse society adequately enough.

It wasn’t until my second year at university that I had the opportunity to study the history of South Asians in Britain. Why should ethnic minority students have to study History at University and be lucky enough to be able to study a module on race in order to learn what should be common knowledge about British history?

When ethnic minority communities in this country share their lived experience of racism and discrimination in this country; we are often met with a culture of denialism. Teaching Britain's colonial legacy would go a long way in changing people’s perceptions of ethnic minority communities in the UK, and understanding their unique heritage and historical relationship with Britain.

The story of post-war Britain cannot be adequately told without highlighting the contributions of commonwealth migrants from Britain’s former colonies, who rebuilt the country in the face of widespread racism and discrimination. It is through education that we can challenge racism and prejudice. The story of modern Britain is a story of racial and ethnic diversity.

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