Qualia's Qualms

Liminal confutations from a historian of race, science and empire

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Decolonizing British history

The general election is being held today. I voted by post a while ago so I’ve missed the ritual of going to the polling station and casting a ballot in person. I’m already nervous about the results. I expect that Theresa May will continue to be Prime Minister and that I will continue to feel aghast whenever I read the news.

Increasingly, I despair at the tone of public debate. For a historian of race, current political discussion resonates with the most xenophobic, racist and violent anti-immigration discussions of the 1970s and the 1980s. Things have been getting worse for a while. After all, whilst Theresa May was Home Secretary she ushered in some of the most alarming anti-immigrant measures that I can remember, including the Go Home vans. As Prime Minister, she has explicitly threatened to dismantle human rights legislation. I find this chilling.

I find myself wondering what historians might do in the current climate. Increasingly, I feel the burden of decolonizing British history. Writing histories that challenge the exclusion of people of colour and erasure of racism have always been central to my work but I feel a new urgency brought on by changes in British politics since the vote to leave the European Union.

To be reminded of how entrenched whitewashed British histories are, you only have to look at the responses to the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at the University of Oxford. Cecil Rhodes bequeathed £100,000 from the accumulated wealth of his imperial exploitation to Oriel College and his statue still embellishes the college’s façade. Students campaigning for the statue’s removal faced vociferous opposition. Oriel College eventually decided to keep the statue after it reportedly faced losing £100 million from wealthy donors and alumni.

Rhodes may not have fallen yet but, in recent weeks, the University of Oxford announced an overhaul of the history curriculum. Undergraduates are finally going to be required to study black, Asian and extra-European history and figures such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. Among many of my academic colleagues, the changes are seen as desperately needed but not enough because of the underlying focus on heroes.

Universities need to move beyond celebrating extraordinary individuals to embedding alternative perspectives and people of colour into academic life on a much broader scale. After all, most efforts pale in comparison to the work being done at Birmingham City University and the launch of the Black Studies degree programme. Although common in the United States, the course is the first in Europe to embrace the positive political connotations of Black Studies and has already attracted significant interest.

I’ve been thinking about decolonizing British history even more than usual over the last couple of months because I’ve been writing about David Olusoga’s book, Black and British: A Forgotten History (2016) for the London Review of Books (you can read an extract of the book here).

As well as reading the book, I watched the accompanying BBC series. I’ve been excited about the series for over a year because, during production, I was contacted by a researcher to chat about displayed peoples. It was worth the wait. The series was thoughtful and urgently needed. Some of the most extraordinary footage featured poignant scenes of black plaques emblazoned with golden dedications being erected at sites across Britain, Africa and the Caribbean – English Heritage has long been criticised for dedicating too few blue plaques to people of colour. The ceremonies were attended by enthusiastic local communities and descendants to create a global material network honouring a vast array of lives, whether at the ruins of Bunce Island’s slave fort in the Sierra Leone River or Doctor Johnson’s town house.

Such acts of remembrance are important ways of rejecting visions of Britishness rooted in black erasure. Undoing the harm of selective recollection is urgently needed because, as Olusoga notes, the ‘denial and avowal of black British history…is not just a consequence of racism but a feature of racism’ (p. 10). The disavowal frames current political discourse about immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers and ‘British values’. Whether overlooking the longstanding presence of people of colour in Britain, ongoing forms of anti-blackness or eliding the racist violence of British imperialism, erasure has bred hostility and nostalgia for an imperial past in which people of colour were violently oppressed, subjugated and dehumanized. The lasting consequences of that structural violence have yet to be undone.

Britons are not alone in indulging selective memories of the past, but discussions over Scottish independence, the future of the European Union and Brexit have renewed debates about who belongs in Britain and at what cost. For those bearing the brunt of the attendant rise in hate crimes and fearing for their safety, the combined benefits of protest, resistance and historical recovery cannot come soon enough.

I hope that the cumulative impact of renewed efforts will be a new generation for whom inclusion is not a sop to political correctness but much-needed, and expected, historical veracity.

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The labour of racialization

For a while, I’ve been making a concerted effort to read more broadly about race in everyday lived experience. I made the decision after reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015). I had an exceptionally powerful and visceral response to this work, partly because I encountered it during a period of immense frustration with endemic discrimination around me. The book’s raw anger resonated and, unexpectedly, renewed my commitment to writing history.

Right away, I felt as if Coates had articulated more clearly than I ever had, either to myself or my colleagues, why I write the history I do. ‘The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant “government of the people” but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term “people” to actually mean. In 1863, it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me. Thus America’s problem is not its betrayal of “government of the people,” but the means by which “the people” acquired their names’. When I first read these sentences, only six pages in, I had to put the book down and come back several days later. I could have finished the book in a single sitting but I decided to take my time and read it over several days slowly absorbing the words.

I soon found myself poring over Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2015). If only I could have read this when I first went to university. I can’t articulate how uncannily familiar Rankine’s observations felt, especially on the toll of racism. Everyday experiences often confirm patterns of social injustice. Sometimes, the harm is obvious but, more often, it becomes barely visible through historical erasure and gaslighting. ‘Hold up, did you just hear, did you just say, did you just see, did you just do that? Then the voice in your head silently tells you to take your foot off your throat because just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition’. As Rankine notes, achievement can be deadly and the physiological cost of trying to outrun the ‘buildup of erasure’ even has a name: John Henryism, coined by Professor Sherman James.

Soon after, I came across The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla (2016). The book was conceived in response to a Guardian article featuring writers of colour, including Shukla. An anonymous commentator ‘wondered why there wasn’t a more prominent author interviewed’. For Shukla, the ‘constant anxiety’ people of colour face to ‘show that we have earned our place at the table’ is a tiresome burden. I know that Coates and Rankine will have a lasting impact on me: even so, reading something about racialization in contemporary Britain hit home with unexpected force. I’m especially excited that Shukla is editing a new collection of essays, Rife: Twenty Stories from Britain’s Youth, that you can help crowdfund.

I felt renewed by the exquisitely unapologetic tone of the essays. Struggles to break free of awkward and limiting expectations unite numerous voices in the book. The very notion of a ‘good’ immigrant is rooted in the fear of ‘bad’ immigrants stealing jobs and taking advantage. The good immigrant wins gold medals at the Olympics, bakes cakes for the Queen’s birthday, assimilates to a pleasing degree, shrugs off discrimination and is forever grateful. The burden does not end with success. ‘Integrate well. Move upwards in society. Be praised – until people worry that you’re doing too well, and then they remember that you’re foreign’, observes Wei Ming Kam, founder of BAME in Publishing. Without exceptional achievements belonging is never granted but, even with glittering accomplishments, it remains conditional.

Importantly, the book illuminates the labour of racialization. Racialized classifications are not inherently natural or obvious. We all learn to use them through social learning. Once learnt, they can seem obvious but this is an illusion that requires conscious effort to unlearn. People of colour become aware of the historical and social baggage of their skins because racism can thrive on the cumulative impact of unremarkable acts.

Even the simplest of questions pose dilemmas for people of colour: what to wear, whether on the head or body; whether to use given names and honour the genealogies they trace or acquiesce to Anglicized substitutes; whether to bear salutations such as namaste being misused or offer corrections; how to identify one’s heritage, particularly when complexions create dissonant expectations: these are all quotidian conundrums that must be solved in split seconds only to be worried over in hours of private reflection.

I would never consent to being called by an Anglicized nickname. When people don’t even try to get a name right, they’re prioritizing their own comfort over another’s dignity. I refuse to allow that. I also love my name and would never change it, both because of its religious significance and meaning – I am a blessed little (tiger) shark. And yet, I know many people who feel compelled to change their names because they cannot bear the abuse or mockery having a ‘foreign’ name can bring.

Seeing gifted writers of colour articulate the labour of racialization has made me realise that I’ve been reading far too many books of the wrong sort. Too many of the books I read about race do not pay enough attention to lived experience, mental well-being and the hopes and aspirations of their subjects. As I mull over these three books in particular, I hope they help me find a new voice. After all, there is a reason I have a recurring dream that I have written a book called The Unbearable Whiteness of Being. The title is too good not to have been used but, for the moment, it lingers in my thoughts.

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Why I describe myself as a historian of ‘displayed peoples’, not ‘human zoos’

My first book Peoples on Parade was published five years ago this month. I will never forget the day that the first copies were delivered. After so many years, having my book in my hands left me utterly overwhelmed. I spent a long time leafing through every page as I absorbed the book’s beautiful reality. That moment has been on my mind this summer as I’ve spent most of it writing essays that I expect will be my last on displayed peoples for a while.


One of the strangest things about writing a book is the experience of being reviewed and seeing my work on reading lists. I’m immensely pleased with the reviews that I’ve received and excited by how many people use my work to explore the history of race, science and empire with their students. Reading reviews and seeing my work cited makes me I wish I’d been more explicit about describing myself as a historian of ‘displayed peoples’.

Peoples on Parade traced how foreign peoples were displayed in galleries, theatres, museums, and private rooms. For a shilling or more, the public could meet groups of Sámi, South Americans, Inuit, Native Americans, Africans, Arabs, Pacific Islanders, Aboriginal Australians, Indians, Japanese, Chinese, and ‘Aztecs’ performing songs, dances and cultural rites. I focused on nineteenth-century London but such shows were common across Europe and America and continued into the twentieth century.

Many writers describe these shows as ‘human zoos’ in both specialist academic histories, art installations and broader public discussion. I can see why. The term is catchy, evocative and seems to encapsulate the degrading ways in which many performers were treated. Even so, I think the term is deeply misleading and one I deliberately avoid.

Firstly, visitors to the shows came away with complex and multiple interpretations of their experiences. Some were deeply negative about the performers in deeply racist and culturally chauvinist terms. Many others came away with an abiding impression of the common humanity between themselves and performers. These reviewers frequently noted their observations on performers’ quick wits, skills and maternal instincts. Crucially, these commentators were not promoting racial equality but endorsing hierarchical visions of humanity in which performers were considered to be relatively lowly. These complexities are not captured by insisting that performers were routinely seen as little more than animals.

Secondly, we need to pay attention to performers’ agency instead of assuming that they were passive victims of patrons’ gazes. Frustratingly, there are few sources from which to reconstruct how performers felt about their experiences. Even so, eyewitness reports, newspaper reviews and scientific reports abound with revealing details. For example, Sara Baartman, better known as the ‘Hottentot Venus’, was exhibited in Europe between 1810 and her death in 1815. Whilst in Paris she was exhibited to the men of science working at the Jardin des Plantes. They asked to view her labia because they were rumoured to be longer than usual in European women. Baartman categorically refused even when offered extra payment. We know about this incident from the irritation expressed by one of the men at the meeting, yet it also makes clear that, even in heavily restricted circumstances, Baartman found ways to maintain her agency and some measure of dignity. We must not conflate agency with freedom or forget to acknowledge the deeply unequal power relations that usually characterised the shows. Nonetheless, we should also remember that even small acts of refusal or accommodation can tell us a great deal about performers’ experiences.

Finally, the shows were important opportunities for intercultural encounters between peoples. Some of the most powerful stories I found in my research involved performers making a life for themselves abroad. Baartman, for example, was baptised and married whilst being exhibited around England. In 1844, the American entrepreneur George Catlin exhibited a group Native Americans. Their interpreter, Alexander Cadotte, who had Native American ancestry, married Sarah Haynes after a brief courtship. In 1899, Peter Lobengula was the headline act for a show called ‘Savage South Africa’ at Earls Court. He attracted enormous press attention for being engaged to a white woman nicknamed ‘Kitty’ Jewell. These relationships are extraordinary examples of the personal associations that could be built by performers outside of the shows. It is far too easy to overlook these complexities if we assume visitors saw displayed peoples as performing beasts.

‘Human zoos’ is so suggestive that many historians will continue to use the term. I will always prefer ‘displayed peoples’.