Image description: An old book is open with a pair of glasses on it

How It Feels When History Books Are Written About You

Anjali KawaImage description: An old book is open with a pair of glasses on it. 

Reading lists can always be daunting, but it is hard to explain the feeling of reading academic writing about your own heritage. Recently, I had a tutorial about immigrant experiences in post-war Britain. Scanning through the readings, I studied the progression of policy that culminated in the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, which came about due to concerns surrounding the emigration of Kenyan Asians. My dad’s family moved from Kenya in 1966, but we are ethnically Indian. Realising that this policy would have precluded my dad’s family from emigrating to the UK had they moved just a few years later than they did was an out-of-body experience. Having to analyse, examine, and formulate arguments surrounding something as personal as your family’s heritage is a mountainous task one that forces you to reflect on your background, but remove yourself.

Seeking this type of objectivity is abrasive, but abrasive only for you. It pushes you out of your own history and forces you to pretend it happened to some imaginary people instead of your own family. The disconnect you feel from your own history is tangible only in these situations. This separation follows you to the tutorial, where defending the argument of your essay becomes less about academic rigour, and more about defending or justifying your own existence. I always knew about the British immigration policy in the 60s as an objective fact, but A-Level History doesn’t force you to think about the people as much. Degree level history asks you to focus on the consequences, and when you are one of the consequences, you disassociate.

Instead of me analysing the history, it felt like I was analysing myself.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that these types of topics should be removed from the syllabus, or that it is so uncomfortable that it damages my university experience. It’s just a contemplation about how the experiences of students of colour can differ greatly to those of white students, even down to the level of academic study. Being constantly made to study history that affects you and your community directly, and with that, the history of structures that make themselves known in your own life today, is a sobering, and often brutal, experience.  The chapters and articles on the Commonwealth Immigrants Act which were written by white authors caused me to feel the most detachment, for obvious reasons. Granted, the historians I read on this topic were nothing but sympathetic to the immigrants’ experiences, but this doesn’t erase the division between their watching as onlookers and my being watched. No matter the position the historian takes, it always feels like a direct comment on my very being here. Instead of me analysing the history, it felt like I was analysing myself.

Thinking about the variety of students who study these papers is important too. Being in that tutorial with a white tutor, and a white tutorial partner, was interesting for me. Both of them handled the topic with sensitivity, and it was one of the most fulfilling tutorials of my Hilary term. This doesn’t detract from the fact that it still created a glass pane between me and my own history. While answering a question about immigration experiences, I remember feeling strangely detached from the story of my dad’s immigration experience. This is the only word I can use to accurately describe the conflict that occurs between the part of me that wants to impress my tutor and hand in a coherent essay, and the part of me that also wants to reference casual conversations with my family in defence of my argument. There’s nothing stopping me from doing the latter, but the compulsion to put on purely academic airs in every interaction with my tutor is another issue stemming from being a person of colour with a severe case of imposter syndrome. 

Contrary to this discomfort, I feel an appreciation for the fact that my history has been integrated into the History curriculum. This is something of a double-edged sword, because it feels like a privilege to be included, when really, it shouldn’t be. Not knowing where you stand in relation to the education system you are in is like giving your all to someone, just to watch them walk away: you can dedicate yourself to academica, but academia might not accept you or your history. Even more discourse about decolonising the curriculum wouldn’t make a novel piece of journalism, and I want to do anything but add to it because, to me, nothing more can be said.

Students and academics of colour have persistently made their arguments for decolonising the curriculum already – it’s an issue of inclusion, representation, and honesty.

Students and academics of colour have persistently made their arguments for decolonising the curriculum already — it’s an issue of inclusion, representation, and honesty. It is, of course, important to educate all students on the varying histories of many different kinds of people, but this goes deeper than the objective facts of history at face value. Seeing a reflection of history in yourself and the people around you is a result of a diverse education which cannot be underestimated. Knowing what shapes you and your peers can only help relationships and subsequent attempts to achieve equality. Basic human compassion underlines the argument for a diversified curriculum.

Watching your own history unfold in academic books is even more difficult when your family history is shrouded in secrecy, for whatever reason. Whether this is because of failed bureaucracy and bad record keeping, or the silence of family members, it all leads to the same thing. When fellow white students can recount the most intricate details about their heritage, and the most you can offer are some recited historical facts, the cogs start turning, and you begin to believe that you do not even have a real history, or one which is as real as theirs is to them. Common sense tells you that this is clearly untrue, but if it does exist, then why do I not know it myself? While ‘education is a powerful tool’ is a clichéd phrase that I have tried to refrain from using, it’s clichéd for a reason. Sometimes, however, this same powerful tool can force you into an uneasy space.

Image credits: Adam Niescioruk via Unsplash