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Change the past? Why don’t we focus on reinventing the future

These Woke critics of the way we tell stories about our past are coming for you, says Jo Knowsley.

First they pulled down statues. Next the names of colleges, gardens and streets were changed if they celebrated anyone who had any connection to the slave trade. (My local council has a team of people working on this one.)

Now these Woke critics of the way we tell stories about our past are coming for you: wanting to rewrite history, ‘decolonise the curriculum’ and metaphorically bludgeon anyone who may have benefited from being part of the umbrella group ‘White Privilege.’

Proponents of this fierce revisiting of our history – and the books we should be allowed to read when reflecting on it – have, in one school, swapped out John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in favour of The Bluest Eye, a novel by a black American Nobel prize-winning author Toni Morrison about a young black girl who prays for blue eyes. But why can the two not co-exist? 

History should be revised and revisited. How else do we learn from the past? But cancelling one thing in favour of another is surely just as discriminatory when it tells only one side of the story – albeit the other side of that event.

Even school mottos are up for grabs. ‘Work hard and be kind’ is a motto at the Michaela Community school in Brent, north London, based on the Kipp charter schools in America (‘work hard and be nice’). Kipp has obligingly retired it because it was said to encourage ‘black and brown bodies’ to be ‘compliant and submissive’ according to an excellent report on this subject in the Sunday Times by writer Sian Griffiths.

Here in Britain, however, Michaela’s head Katharine Birbalsingh, who is of Jamaican and Guayanese heritage is determined to keep it. She acknowledges that racism exists but says you need to build up children to ‘go out there and win’. Otherwise, she adds, you’ll end up at 85 on your deathbed saying ‘well I was black, I could not do anything with my life.’

She touches on something that’s been a sore point with me for decades: the notion that there should be no ‘winners and losers’ in school games and competitions so as to build up children’s confidence. Everyone should receive a prize.

But it’s shallow to pretend there are no winners and losers in real life. When these children go out into the world they’re in for a hard, sharp shock, and any benefit from that mollycoddling will evaporate like a will’o’the’wisp. Wouldn’t it be better to concentrate on an individual’s strengths, rather than pretending that everyone has some talent for everything?

More importantly I fear that the current trend for focusing on racism is over-compensating for the great damage done to black people and people of colour in the past. Does it help them, or us, to build a better future? What does the term ‘White Privilege’ actually mean? And surely it disempowers white working-class people, struggling to make ends meet, who don’t fit into this category at all. This is how Donald Trump came to power in America – by tapping into the fears of poor, white people who felt their voices went unheard in an increasingly PC America.

In New Zealand a row has broken out over the teaching of how that country was created with some critics insisting that the Maori folklore of how the country’s islands were hauled from the sea by their god Maui, should be given equal weight to what we currently know, scientifically, about how it came to be. A scientist who pointed out while the folklore should be respected but that science should be treated as ‘fact’ was pilloried, with some Woke commentators then suggesting that science, too, should be suspect as it had come from colonialism and men of White Privilege.

Where will it all end? When I posted on FB that history should not be cancelled (in a post that had pictures of great figures of our past) a former colleague and friend suggested that there are always two sides of the story. He is right. But cancelling one in favour of another takes me back to my original argument and a drum I have been banging for some time – that it should all be taught and discussed in vehement debate.

There are few absolute truths. And as this friend pointed out, history is always written by the victor. Looking at the other side of the coin is important and illuminating – but it is also not conclusive, and can never tell the whole picture.

Quite how Boris Johnson will be treated by historians will be an interesting lesson. Will he be portrayed as a fantasist and liar, or the man who Got Brexit Done and rolled out Covid-19 vaccinations with such alacrity it rescued Britain from the pandemic? (not to mention his own much-criticised Prime Ministership).

Or will school children be quizzed about how many empty bottles were in the bins in Downing Street after those elusive parties/work events? Boris certainly falls under the category of White Privilege. So at least, one hopes, those bottles would carry some top labels.

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Jo Knowsley

Jo has held senior staff writing roles on some of Britain’s leading newspapers including the Sunday Telegraph and The Mail on Sunday, and is now a freelance writer. She has reported on major breaking stories around the world and has written for magazines and newspapers in Britain, Australia and New Zealand in publications as diverse as Marie Claire, the Daily Mail, Metro, Saga and Grazia. In the past she focused primarily on news-lead reports and interviews. Today she writes across a number of platforms on subjects ranging from property and travel to theatre and features. She grew up in New Zealand and has made her home and career in London since 1990.

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