Thought-Provoking Talk

Award-winning author and journalist's talk results in critical thinking  

Award-winning author and journalist, Sathnam Sanghera, joined actress, playwright and director Zawe Ashton to discuss the impact of Empire on modern Britain, its absence from the school curriculum and why it’s relevant to young people today as part of our Character Curriculum series of talks.

Barnhill Year 12 student Zalma wrote this response. Thanks to Mr Amman for sharing it.

"Initially, the talk started off with the questioner presenting Sanghera with statistics such as, ‘on average, only 1 GCSE student in the UK will have read a book from a POC author’, she asks for his opinion on this. He gives an anecdote of his own educational experience and how he hadn't learnt of a brown author until his last term of university. Subsequently, he expanded on how, during his time in compulsory schooling, no-one had acknowledged the deaths of Sikhs/other POC soldiers on Remembrance Day as well as the fact that when the British Empire was taught to him, it was very ethnocentric, focusing only on the white perspective of the British Empire. The questioner also notably added that, when imperialism/colonialism/empire was taught to her, it was only at a surface level ‘posing a historical block on my learning’.

Sanghera continued to state that imperialism and empire are essentially the same thing; 'empire' being the geographical term and imperialism being the concept. He moves onto expand on his idea of a ‘empire awareness day’. Once a year, British kids should be taught that the British Empire is fundamentally responsible for the multiculturalism we see in the UK today as well as how the Empire has shaped the racism prevalent in society. Sanghera acknowledges the past existence of an ‘Empire Day’, where children took half the day off school and celebrated the empire (celebrated the territories they gained, spices they acquired). However, the difference between his proposal of an Empire Awareness Day, is that Empire Day celebrates nationalism, whereas EAD celebrates diversity.

Something woke he said: ‘knowing is important, but forgetting is also important’

Sanghera believes that colonialism has molded the notion of intellectual thinking within diasporic communities being taboo, and that physical labor is the be all and end all for ethnic minorities.

He thinks that there is now a huge demand to understand the British Empire down to its core, because of the fact that imperialism can explain modern racism. The youth today are now more interested because of how easily accessible information is now (as we progress into a technologically), however before, ‘students were at the mercy of their teachers’.

He talks a lot about how the British view themselves. British people often like to remember themselves as the people who won WW2 as there was a clear narrative: British are the good guys who beat the big, bad and racist Germans. They ignore the massacres, genocides and the madness the British Empire committed during its existence. Many people criticize Sanghera for outing these things, he's perceived to be the brown man who’s being too critical and disrespectful to the legacy of the British.

As a result, he wants people to rebalance their position on the Empires history. He wants to expel the ‘balance sheet approach’ to the Empire. We shouldn’t list the bad/good things the empire did and come to a complete conclusion from this fact. Instead, we must accept the complicated history of the empire and concentrate on its legacies that we still live through today, not just ranking bad/good facts.

Someone asked: Has the British Empire even collapsed?

Sanghera went onto state that the beginning and end of the BE is still debated till this day. Some say it began with the first colony in America, some say it began with Lord Clive beating the Indians in the 18th century. Equally, the end of the Empire is hard to ascertain as countries became independent at different times (some earlier than others). However, some argue that it hasn’t ended at all, many claiming that countries like Scotland are still under a form of neo-colonialism.

The British Empire's influence today:

Some also argue that Brexit itself had been inspired by the empire. For 400/500 years, Britain had been independent and in control, the introduction of the EU went against its imperial psychology. Additionally, Britain’s involvement in international disputes (like Afghanistan, Iraq) again resemble empire-like behaviour. Jeremy Paxman, British broadcaster, even stated that our politicians talk in an imperial tone: the way they lecture other countries. The irony of all the above mentioned is the geographically tininess of the UK, and how massive its influence over the world today is (very much like how, during the British Empire, Britain had control of 1/4 of the world, whilst being an extremely small country).

His final message for students was: do not be ashamed of your history, but acknowledge it."