Despite Black History Month having been celebrated for over three decades in Britain, there is still a heated debate over the extent to which Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people’s contributions to British history, society and culture are known or recognised. As such, to mark Black History month, ICM are releasing new findings on the British public’s awareness of non-white people in British history.
We asked a representative sample of the British public questions about historical figures and awareness of BAME people’s contributions to the nation. Participants were asked the following questions:
If you had to pick just one person, who would you say is the most important person in British history?
How aware do you think you are about the contributions of black and minority ethnic people throughout British History?
As these questions were open-ended, we used our best efforts to manually classify all participants’ responses within different categories. In this article we will focus on what the data revealed when we classified participants’ answers by ethnicity.
Q1. If you had to pick just one person, who would you say is the most important person in British history? Base: All respondents (2048).
Our analysis shows that the British public are far more likely to name someone white as the most important person in British history than someone who could be classified as non-white. While three-quarters (76%) of Brits name a white person as the most important person in British history, only one in a hundred (1%) name a non-white individual. This could be seen as especially striking when considering that around one in eight (13%) of the British population is non-white.
Even though we asked participants who they thought was the most important person in British history, of the few BAME figures mentioned, the vast majority were not British. The most frequently mentioned BAME figures included Rosa Parks, Gandhi and Martin Luther King – all of whom are better known for the social impact that they had outside Britain. All this demonstrates a very low recognition of any non-white Britons as the most important figures in the nation’s history.
Q3. How aware do you think you are about the contributions of black and minority ethnic people throughout British History? Base: All respondents (2048).
The results also show that non-white people are significantly more likely to think that they are ‘very aware’ of the contributions of BAME people compared to white people (24% vs 9%). While there may be a low recognition of BAME figures in history, these results suggest that there is a greater awareness of BAME contributions throughout British history among BAME respondents compared to white respondents. Thus, it seems that white Britons have little awareness of BAME figures in their country’s history compared to non-white people.
Of course, it could be argued that the British population has historically been overwhelmingly white, and so we shouldn’t be surprised to see such low recognition of BAME figures in the country’s history. However, this view is in danger of forgetting the substantial number of historical BAME figures who have had their contributions to history overlooked. Some examples could include Queen Phillipa of Hainault, Queen Charlotte, Olaudah Equiano, Mary Seacole, Stuart Hall or even the ‘Godfather of Grime’, Wiley.
The celebratory event of Black History Month is one way to help raise awareness of BAME people’s contributions to British history. In Britain Black History Month inspires an increased level of attention towards BAME people’s contributions, evidenced by bespoke school lessons and media campaigns across the country. However, the results of this survey might encourage us to ask if the contributions of BAME people are sufficiently represented in our teaching of British history. While Black History Month might make a good start, changing this might require all twelve months of the year.
If you’re interested in understanding public perceptions, awareness and knowledge of issues to do with ethnicity, please get in touch with ICM using the box below.
Outside of work, Samuel has begun archiving the stories of influential Afro-Caribbeans throughout British and European history. Follow his blog @_hiddenpages on Instagram, search @hiddenpages9 on Facebook and search @pageshidden on twitter to discover these fascinating stories rarely taught in schools. Feel free to get in touch with him if you want to find out more about the research and his blog.