19th June 1938: Girl Guides in their camp, peeling potatoes. (Photo by J. A. Hampton/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

It’s that nurse again

Both Mary Seacole and the Girl Guides deserve better

At 8am on 1 October the Girl Guides stood ready, keen and eager to tweet their support for Black History Month. They’ve decided, “it isn’t enough to not be racist, we must be actively anti-racist”! The Girl Guides stand in support of “Black girls, Black volunteers, Black staff, Black parents and carers, and all Black people”. The cynic might wonder why the preceding list then, and not just that last clause (“all black People” indeed)? But then cynicism, unfortunately, is habitually what we need when we hear worthy, often wonderful organisations engaging in witless marketing speak. Advertising patter and slogans, while formally empty, are also the things which people say without thinking, and sadly reveal all too clearly what’s actually on their minds. What’s on the minds of the Guides in that case?

This is ideological indoctrination

In an organisation for – and therefore overwhelmingly dominated by – children, “all have a role to play in being actively anti-racist”. All, the youngest of whom will be five and attending Rainbows, must “amplify the experiences of Black people”. Here are the resources the Girl Guides have pulled together for use in Black History Month. Rainbows (aged 5-6) get to study a worksheet about Mary Seacole. Brownies (aged 6-9) get to study a worksheet about Mary Seacole. My children studied Mary Seacole at primary school. My friends’ children studied Mary Seacole at primary schools. She has her own trust and statue and does very well out of the BBC: Brand Mary is booming, to the point of parody. Obviously keeping things familiar for young children, and the volunteers who help them in Guiding, has a lot of merit, but no one can honestly say much imagination has gone into the Seacolatory.

The Girl Guides say, “This activity is just about one person’s story”. And certainly, that’s true, but it seems a pity that there’s almost never, you know, a second person’s story. The Mary Seacole worksheet says, “Because she was a Black woman, Mary’s story was left untold and uncelebrated for almost a century, which is 100 years… Do you think it was fair that Mary’s story wasn’t celebrated for so long?” Even at the most banal level, this just isn’t true – certainly it’s not true in the sense that such historical oblivion was the outcome of active and malign racism. As opposed to what always happens for just about everyone. If you doubt me, go on then, name one of Guy Fawkes’ co-plotters: dead white men with beards, you should be talking about little else. It is hardly to deny the existence of racism to face up to the dismal truth that most of us will be forgotten most of the time. And this is why the framing of the Parable of Mary Seacole is so damaging and distorting: it wilfully argues for something that a moment’s thought will tell us in untrue.

The right approach is not to give up on the Girl Guides but to challenge the leadership

According to the Girl Guides, “It’s never too early to talk about race”. Well that’s a point of view. I notice that children at primary school hardly notice race – though of course they notice skin colour. In my experience, most kids notice race, and then start talking about it, and then start feeling awkward about it, when the adults mention it, not before. That’s my point of view. Perhaps I’m wrong. But, even if I am, it doesn’t make it actively and racialistically wrong. Yet this – the mere disagreement with the stuff the Guides, for example, now repeat wholesale to children – is now, for some, proof that I am racist. To disagree is to admit guilt. Once again, this is not a healthy way for a mature society to organise discussion, and when it seeps down to the level of small children, it’s not going to have beneficial results.

The Girl Guides say: “We know these conversations might sometimes feel challenging and uncomfortable. But by starting these conversations early, we can prepare young people for working towards racial justice and racial equality.” This is ideological indoctrination. There are many noble causes which will help make the world a better place. Placing a racial lens in front of, well, everything, isn’t one of them.

The Girl Guides provide a long list of external links. There is the BBC explaining white privilege. “It means that people with white skin have advantages in society that other people do not have – or do not have the same disadvantages.” Recommended books include Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. There are black LGBT books and black feminist books. That’s to be intersectional. In fact, intersectionality is explained: there’s a video called “The Urgency of Intersectionality” by Kimberle Crenshaw. Finally, there’s a link to an Implicit Bias test. Enjoy.

Mary Seacole deserved better in her own time, and she deserves not to become a woke platitude now

I’m tempted to say, “Keep your daughters away from the Girl Guides”. But we mustn’t become zealots too. And it is so sad. As much as they ever have, our communities need community groups. Places where kids can go after school and meet each other and do stuff together. My daughters attended Brownies. They will never forget the weekend trips. They went pond-dipping, and at night they sat out around campfires, looking at the stars – like all of our ancestors will have done. They also made friends. That’s what Brownies is for. It’s a wonderful organisation which has done so much good for so long. And the people who have done that kind, sweet-natured work have done it for nothing. We cannot say the same of the paid staff in Guiding’s HQ.

The right approach is not to give up on the Girl Guides but to challenge the leadership and their dreary, unimaginative, right-on narrative. I hope the great army of heroic volunteers who make up the Girl Guides will challenge the leadership, and, for the sake of our little girls, throw out the woke. This will take persistence and courage. According to the Girl Guides, when the British Army turned down Mary Seacole’s offer of nursing support for British soldiers, “she went to the Crimea on her own”. That must have taken a great deal of courage – as well as an adventurous and defiant spirit. Be like Mary Seacole: don’t give up, don’t be patronised by the connected people at the centre repeating fashionable platitudes: do what you think is right. Mary Seacole deserved better in her own time, and she deserves not to become a woke platitude now.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover