History is famously written by the victors, but there is often neither a fair fight nor any discussion of what the victors have edited, especially when it comes to minority groups.
There are countless theories and reasons for the current divisions and tensions we are witnessing in society, with possibilities including the role of social media in creating ‘echo chambers’, political polarisation, and disinformation. As technology continues to develop and societal divisions only seem to be getting worse, one phenomenon that has always remained constant is very differing perspectives on historical events. This conflict between groups on fundamental fact also worsens mutual mistrust and antagonisation, particularly with minoritised ethnic communities.
So, what is the ‘real’ history?
In straightforward terms, history is what is written in history books and taught by history teachers.
In less straightforward terms, history is the one-sided story of the past as seen through the perspective that is most advantageous for “the victors” — the group that controls the institutions of power, regardless how that control was won.
Of course, history is inevitably one-sided, and will always be determined by cultural norms, but, in an increasingly multicultural world, serious discussions are taking place about what mainstream ‘Western’ (or British or American) history has rewritten or redacted from what the objective, original version would say.
Debates include Americans questioning what exactly they are celebrating when they mark Thanksgiving; reigniting efforts to seek justice for Black Americans murdered one hundred years ago, in a massacre that has largely been forgotten; the controversy surrounding the government’s actions towards the Windrush generation; and confirming that victims of the British army in the 1970s were in fact completely innocent.
What links these examples — and countless other examples — is that they represent a re-evaluation of what is ‘accepted fact’, in what some call revisionism, though the term also has a negative use to describe people who deny that atrocities like the Holocaust took place.
At its crux is an emphasis on considering the impact of white privilege and a marked unease felt by those with privilege who find their beliefs being called into question.
However, whilst those who are currently alive cannot be held personally liable for the oppression of their ancestors, suppressing the history of oppressed minorities will only serve to oppress them more in the present, as doing so perpetuates the myth that the entire country was built on the blood, sweat, and tears of native citizens — and native citizens only — who ought to be revered at all costs.
In the UK, for example, evidence of Black Tudors and an ethnically diverse crew on the Mary Rose (King Henry VIII’s sunken ship) contradict the idea that multi-ethnic immigration is a relatively new phenomenon that threatens British traditions. Similarly, hundreds of thousands of Sikh and Muslim soldiers having fought and died for the British Empire during WWI, as with WWII, questions the validity of the nostalgia felt by many people towards the Second World War. These people, who tend to be more suspicious of ethnic diversity, frame wartime Britain as a solo, victorious nation, ostensibly with little or no assistance from other nations or cultures.
Despite popular opinion, there is an ever-growing body of evidence that this country was much more diverse than we were ever taught or ever imagined.
There is an ever-growing body of evidence that this country was also built on the blood, sweat, and tears of people from different countries, different races, and different cultures, often under deplorable circumstances.
Whilst it will understandably take time for a balanced view of history to make its way into the national curriculum and collective consciousness, suppressing the roles played by those groups who did not come out on top only serves to further suppress their achievements, and contribute towards their oppression through promoting the viewpoint that minoritised groups have had little impactful role to play in British history.
If we allow this to continue, extremist groups that seek to divide the country will continue to freely spread their ideology of only one nationality — which in and of itself is a loaded concept — or only one ethnic or religious group belonging here. It is not that we have only recently become a diverse country — though perhaps not to this extent — but it is more that we have only recently begun to tell the stories of people whose massive achievements were forgotten because it suited the dominant political interests to shift the narrative.
Distorted ideas of history have contributed to the isolation felt by many of our vulnerable beneficiaries, so we seek to help them regain the confidence needed to play an active part in their local communities. We know that history will always be somewhat biased, but at JAN Trust we work against the disinformation and hate sown by extremist groups by empowering young women and girls, and mothers to be able to spot the dangers and counter such threats.
History is, for many minority communities, ‘their-story’, but we can work together to make it our collective story.