Meet the teenagers decolonizing British education.
By Cyrus Jarvis.
In early January, seven teenagers woke up extra early before school to carry out something they’d been planning for months: They collectively dropped 5,000 mock versions of London’s most widely distributed newspaper at 20 underground stations for unsuspecting commuters to pick up and read on their way to work. Being from the U.K.’s former colonies, they wanted to spark a public discussion around the British national curriculum and its failure to educate children about the British Empire.
Headlines like “Boris backs empire education,” and “Blac Chyna pulls her skin bleaching line” reflected a vision of world where colonization and imperialism were adequately addressed.
The effort is just one way in which they are promoting decolonizing education, while highlighting a plethora of issues that glossed-over British history curriculum ignores.
One of the campaigners behind the newspaper stunt was Iman, an 18-year-old film student. She got involved when she signed up for the Advocacy Academy, a social justice fellowship program for young people in South London. There, she met others who eventually formed Fill in the Blanks (FITB), a campaign to get Britain’s colonial history in the curriculum. “I grew up knowing little to nothing about empire and Black history outside of the transatlantic slave trade … and we feel like there are missing gaps in history that need to filled – hence the name Fill in the Blanks,” she says. “So FITB speaks to me, and others, on so many levels. And it’s crazy that we even have to campaign to get such a big part of history taught in schools.”
In the U.K., schools are not obliged to teach students about the history of the British Empire, and are therefore able to ignore any atrocities committed. This means that Brits of many heritages are largely unaware of a crucial part of their history that still produces tangible effects, like the bigotry that comes with some not recognizing why those of non-white British heritage are here in the first place. Iman believes a part of this ignorance is due to lack of education around the empire.
Iman fondly remembers how the students behind FITB felt when their newspaper stunt was met with so much attention. “The biggest thing that shocked us and sat with us was how many people resonated with the campaign, felt connected to the campaign and felt seen by the campaign.” she says. “I think that’s an amazing feeling that can’t be replaced, honestly, and we’re only one of many [groups] working in the decolonization space.”
Despite their campaign’s focus on decolonizing education, their focus extends well beyond school hours. “I want there to be mandatory, critical teaching of [the British] empire on the KS3 curriculum. But I also want there to be better and more Muslim and Black representation in film and TV, that accurately represents these communities,” she says. Iman’s personal ambitions as a film student often intersect with her advocacy. Some of her filmmaking role models include Michaela Coel and Ava DuVernay, although she still sees large gaps in the industry. “Starting with the current Black representation we have that often revolves around either this white savior narrative or the gang and crime narratives, we deserve more than that,” she says. “And I think it’s so important to take into account who is writing, directing, and producing these films, because then we see why these narratives are being pushed.”
“I cannot fail to mention the disgusting misrepresentation of Muslims either,” she adds. “If we’re not being portrayed as terrorists, we’re being portrayed as oppressed, weak Muslim women who need to be freed by a white man,” she says. “Stories about Muslim women should be written by Muslim women, because who knows us better than ourselves?”
Though there is a daunting amount of work to be done in decolonizing education, Iman looks forward to doing her part. “I plan to carry out these changes and more. Even if it ends up on a smaller scale, I plan to make a conscious effort to do it regardless,” she says.
“The support has definitely driven us to continue with all our work, this is only the beginning.”
Photo via @vlullophoto