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Artillery Row

A race to the bottom

“Decolonisation” ideology distorts and condescends

Sitting in the basement of the Museum of London with a group of young black curatorial students a few months ago alerted me to the worst fears I had about British cultural institutions’ latest buzzword “decolonisation”. Roughly translated, as it has no formal definition, it seems to mean a perpetual focus on Transatlantic Slavery above all else.

Look, a piece of art — slavery! Money — yes, that’s slavery. Museums — definitely slavery.

The group admitted having never heard about the first Black Caesar, Emperor Septimius Severus, who helped found Londinium (latterly London) whilst displaying their work literally underneath the floor that told his history. Just two decades ago people in Britain knew who Severus was when the BBC aired 100 Great Black Britons, which placed him at number 25 on that list, but for this generation the only story of interest was that of African transatlantic slavery — and only when it was presented through the lens of “Evil Britain” which is of course the entire essence of the decolonisation project.

Not their fault though. This is all they had been taught and in focussing so myopically on the nation’s involvement in slavery it had eradicated their true cultural history, intrinsically altered their view on Britain and in turn degraded their opportunities in the county of their birth, all whilst perpetuating the worst racist trope of all time, that Black people are all the same.

This matters, because if, as a Black British citizen, this is all you’re told. Then Black voices that don’t agree with this position can be easily silenced by White ones. Just look at the removal of an honorary degree from Tony Sewell by an academic institution, the University of Nottingham, which was allegedly “teaching” students on critical thinking yet took away Sewell’s honour for no other reason than they simply didn’t agree with the conclusions in his race report. Famed Black head teacher Katharine Birbalsingh — who, for me, has done more for this country in “Levelling Up” working class black children in education than anyone else in the UK — is constantly under attack for not buying into the Black victim arguments. The founder of the Equiano Project, and Black Broadcaster Inaya Folarin Iman, discovered many contrarian Black voices who haven’t once been presented on the mainstream media.

This thinking can corrupt facts. In Marcus Ryder’s book Black British Lives Matter, nearly every one of the chapters, with a different Black author writing each one, cites the “Black women are four times more likely to die in childbirth” mantra. This is because the media headlines all ran it. Not a single journalist, or indeed the authors, looked at the data behind that claim. Had they done so, as I did, having studied statistics at Cardiff Business School as part of my Business Degree, they would have found that out of 2.1 million pregnancies between 2018 and 2020, 109 ended with the deaths of mothers, only eight of whom were black. It’s difficult to see how you can draw firm conclusions based on such small numbers  — that’s 0.0001% of the sample to be exact. 

The students at the London museum were somewhat taken aback when I said that I had experienced “proper” racism growing up in the nearly all White village of Ystrad Mynach in the South Wales Valleys in the 1980s, but had barely encountered any at all living in London since 2000. Their interest was piqued further when I explained that the majority of Black people in the UK live in the Capital, a fact that they had never considered before. It is one of the problems with using British national statistics against Black British ones.

We live in a capital city that was born out of multiculturalism

They blanched at the idea that I don’t define myself by my skin colour, gender or nationality — but later warmed up when I explained that I simply define myself as a Londoner. That means something to everyone on the planet. It translates as that I’m free thinking, pursue enlightenment, love culture and protect history. I could have come from anywhere in the world, with any ideas, and identify as a Londoner. That says something about me as a person, whereas the location of my birth or the colour of my skin does not.

We live in a capital city that was born out of multiculturalism — and that means something, even though it is never explicitly stated. I explained to them that it was Italians, Africans, Germans, Asians and French that made up the Roman force that founded Londinium. The group didn’t know how London was created even whilst sitting and promoting their work in the basement of the museum that exists to show such things. Nope, sadly, Transatlantic slavery was the only thing that was important here.

This creep of bias into our institutions, and the subsequent stupidity it promotes, is everywhere. I found myself clashing with the curator of the Bank of England’s slavery exhibition when she said how appalling it was that the bank had been involved in slavery. Why? Not only is it difficult to apply morality to history, but much of the “involvement” on display was tenuous at best. A banker had been given a plantation to pay off a debt. A bank manager had inherited the title to slaves. The guinea was named after the country where the gold was slave mined et cetera.

The hypocrisy of applying moral superiority to the past, whilst being totally comfortable with the same thing happening in the present, was brilliantly elucidated with the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol. This was filmed by demonstrators with mobile phones and clothes that had been created with the use of slaves.

Today, prawn fishermen whose catches are bound for supermarkets are killed to scare others from trying to escape. Children are forced by gunpoint or drugged to claw cobalt from Congolese mines to keep our mobiles, cars and laptops working. Where is the outrage? 3.1 million people were shipped across the Atlantic during the centuries of the slave trade whilst 50 million people are estimated to be living in modern slavery today.

Some examples leave you blinking in the headlights of rationality — like the Africa fashion exhibition in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The opening description board literally states, as an unevidenced and unopposed fact, that the institution is racist. This by any measure is pure propaganda, and it has no place in an educational setting. 

Mary Seacole’s statue on the Southbank is the worst example of decolonisation of all. The corruption of her narrative — after the lie of being “written out of history”, when everything we know about her comes from British records — is laughable, but the corruption of her actual story is astonishing, especially as much of what we know about her was written by her own hand. Her statue is in the grounds of the namesake of Florence Nightingale’s world’s first original nursing teaching hospital, St. Thomas’, now in Waterloo. Seacole had absolutely no involvement with this hospital whatsoever, but it is sculpted striding towards Westminster, as if she campaigned like Nightingale to get Nursing recognised as a profession. It now stands as an icon to the distortion of history. Nightingale invented modern nursing; Seacole nursed.

Even in my hatters, Lock & Co, I see the damaging effects of “decolonisation”. There, during last year’s Christmas party, I met a part-time worker who was studying at St. Martin’s. She had been told that day that the V&A stole its collection from the countries in the Empire, specifically Africa, when first founded. Being a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, this was infuriating.

My first question to her was, did you check this was true? To me, such a seemingly ludicrous statement would have to have been challenged — but again, it was simply taken blindly as fact. I explained the speaker had been wrong on pretty much everything he’d said. The Great Exhibition of course was driven by fellow (then just a member) Henry Cole —  it was his idea. The RSA, with Prince Albert at the helm, raised the funds to produce and manage it in Hyde Park. It was the contents of the Crystal Palace and its fundraising that created the South Kensington Museum, not yet named the V&A. All the 10,000 items that had been on display had been acquired or donated legitimately.

I was so concerned about this corruption in London museums that I put myself forward for the Museum of Docklands Sugar and Slavery Gallery advisory group earlier this year. My video diary is in the permanent collection of the Museum of London — but as expected, following discussions with the director, Douglas Gilmore, I wasn’t invited to join.

I often say to my friends, “Don’t do the logic thing” when they ask me why some institution has done one thing or another — as there is invariably no logic to these decisions. They are knee jerk, reactionary and emotive.

Modern British Black people are victims of slavery? Really? All of us? I mean, there’s quite a lot of us who originate on the African continent that had nothing to do with slavery whatsoever. This is emphatically not the case in the USA, but that’s an altogether different story. Part of the problem is that the British Race industry has adopted that story as their own.

Decolonisation, which in truth is meant to affect all things related to the British Empire, is not bringing other voices into museums as it has claimed. Instead, it is destroying Britain’s own culture. 

This aspect of decolonisation is racist. It’s the perfect White Saviour charge. It says, look, poor Black person — look what we, the White middle classes, are going to teach you, which is that your skin colour, and only your skin colour, defines who you are. If you’re Black in Britain, regardless of what’s happened to you or where in the world you derive from, everything is about the impacts of slavery. Without us you couldn’t possibly become successful in Britain, they say. We need to tell other White people to pity you.

I, for one, am not buying this whitewash.

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