For millions of people all over the world, Britain is the land of tradition, the Royal Family, Beefeaters, Bobbies on the beat and, above all, white people. In much of middle America, it comes as a shock for them to hear that there any black people in Britain at all. But even if people can get their head around the idea that an afroamerican might be British, the notion that he could be an MP often perplexes them.
An MP? Surely, one can see their eyes say, a British MP must be white.
There are many lifetimes of war, conquest, history, literature, culture and myth behind the idea that Britain is a racially pure society. And in the study of history, myth is just as important as reality. But the racial purity of the British has always been a myth.
From the days when the Norman French invaded Anglo-Saxon Britain, the
British have been a culturally diverse nation. But because the different nationalities shared a common skin colour, it was possible to ignore the racial diversity, which always existed in the British Isles. And even if one takes race to mean what it is often commonly meant to imply - skin colour- there have been black people in Britain for centuries. The earliest blacks in Britain were probably black Roman centurions that came over hundreds of years before Christ. But even in Elizabethan times, there were numbers of blacks in Britain. So much so that Elizabeth I issued a proclamation complaining about them. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century, black people make fleeting appearances in the political and cultural narrative of the British Isles. Black people can be seen as servants in the prints of Hogarth. And in many paintings of the era. In
Thackeray's "Vanity Fair", Ms Schwartz, the West Indian heiress is obviously supposed to be of mixed race. She is gently mocked but her colour is not otherwise remarked on.
British schoolchildren are taught about the abolition of slavery. They hear less about the key role that slavery played in the British economy in the eighteenth century. Britain was the center of the triangular traffic whereby British ships took goods to Africa which were exchanged for slaves which the same British ships transported to the Caribbean and North America before returning home. The majority of these slaves worked in the plantations of the Caribbean and North America. But some came to Britain to be personal household servants. Over time, they inter-married with native born Britons. It would be interesting to know how many British people who consider themselves racially pure have an African slave generations back in their family. And, of course, between the wars, black seamen turned ports like Liverpool and Cardiff into multi-racial areas. Yet there was tendency for the black areas of these seaports to be cut off from the rest of the city. It was possible until not so long ago to visit Liverpool for the day and not be aware it had a sizeable black community. Such was the de facto segregation that still existed.
So in the literal sense, multi-racialism is nothing new. Britain has always been a multi-racial society. What is new is the visibility of its racial diversity. And what is newer still is a willingness to accept that all the races can have parity of esteem. For a long time, even when it was acknowledged that there were people of different racial origin within the
British Isles, there was an assumption that the white race and culture was, and should, be dominant.
The creed of racial superiority was very much part and parcel of the culture of the empire. The British Empire was built on a theory of racial inferiority. The great Victorian writer and poet, Rudyard Kipling, wrote extensively on the supposed superiority of the British and talked about
"lesser breeds without the law". It was the alleged superiority of the non- white races that supposedly legitimized taking over their countries and subordinating them to second class status. So even until quite recently
British text books talked about Europeans "discovering " countries like