The renowned British historian, David Starkey, was recently forced to resign from his position as honorary fellow of Fitzwilliam College at Cambridge University; a result of the appalling and racist views that he advocated regarding past colonial practices of the British Empire. Starkey’s controversial view of slavery resulted in widespread criticism across the country, particularly amongst British politicians and academic figures alike. Furthermore, HarperCollins, the publishers of many of Starkey’s bestsellers, have since announced that they will no longer release any further books by the historian. The incident reflects a positive step towards eradicating problematic figures in senior institutional positions, particularly during a time when the socio-cultural landscape in Britain is in crisis.
In an interview with commentator Darren Grimes, Starkey claimed that, “slavery was not genocide, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks in Africa or in Britain would there? You know, an awful lot of them survived?” Fitzwilliam College released a statement following Starkey’s resignation claiming that, “Fitzwilliam prides itself in leading the way in Cambridge in opening access to higher education for under-represented groups. Our student and academic bodies are diverse and welcoming to all. We do not tolerate racism.” This recent series of events reflects the socio-cultural crisis in Britain today where tension prevails on issues of race relations, particularly regarding the way the country’s imperial past is understood, discussed and addressed.
David Starkey actively disengages with authentic ways of understanding Britain’s expansionist and imperial past endeavours, as well as the way in which these legacies continue to shape society today. An authentic and critical perspective won’t be pain-free, since the process of colonisation is both violent and catastrophic. Starkey’s forced resignation should then be seen as a generally positive and progressive outcome. Yet the decision made by Fitzwilliam College should also signal a shift towards the ways universities across the country tackle institutional racism from now on.
Starkey’s forced resignation is ultimately an important occasion for all universities across the U.K. to engage in critical and reflective processes of change, in order to consider the kinds of educational figures they appoint and thus endorse. Arguably, the decision made by Cambridge was galvanised by protests which are part of the Black Lives Matter movement that has been ongoing in recent weeks. Under the current circumstances, Cambridge would have received massive backlash if it had not acted in the way that it has. Hopefully, there will be a continuation of academic institutions more actively addressing instances of racism.
Additionally, we must emphasise alternative figures that offer more suitable historical narratives that are both intersectional and all-encompassing. For example, David Olusoga is an excellent historian that regularly comments on the lack of black representation within the national curriculum. For Olusoga, the recent tearing down of British imperial statues is a result of younger generations educating themselves about these issues, in order to expose a “whitewashed” national curriculum. Educational institutions and the individuals that represent them possess a considerable degree of power, in terms of the knowledge that they produce and distribute. Starkey and his views do not represent the society in which we are trying to build meaning his absence as an honorary fellow at Cambridge is both positive and essential.
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