So it turns out your history hero was racist? What now?

How to handle the pedestal toppling

There is one thing that unites every history nerd out there. And that, of course, is the heart wrenching sucker punch of finding out your history hero was actually kind of an arsehole.

I remember the first time it happened to me. I was 15 and just getting into suffrage history, when I came across Millicent Fawcett. It was immediate infatuation. Her work revolutionising suffrage, women’s rights and education, all just bloody brilliant.

But then I started to read into her work on the Boer War concentration camps and discovered that although she helped shut them down, beforehand she’d been very much team concentration camp and arguably incredibly racist in her argument for supporting them.

How do you recover from that? After all there’s finding out your history hero did something morally dubious and then there’s that.

And believe me when I say, my history hero is far from alone in this historic bullshittery:

  • Teddy Roosevelt – big fan of eugenics
  • Florence Nightingale – kinda racist
  • Winston Churchill – Where do I even begin?

So, why does this keep happening? Was everyone in the past just a massive dick?!?Put simply, no.

To break out it down to the a very basic level, the major problem with time is that it keeps going and as such, we as people get better. Science medicine, psychology and culture all continuously level up and offer us totally a new understanding of those around us and the world at large.

Now admittedly humanity becoming better as a whole doesn’t really sound like a problem, but in terms of reading history, it kind of is.

Today when we look back at history the flaws of our ancestors are more apparent than ever before. We now know how deeply wrong and inhumane it is to be racist, homophobic and sexist. To persecute minorities and help with one hand but slap down with the other.

We know that this is intolerable. But in the past it often wasn’t seen that way. Which is why so many of histories greatest figures are guilty of these sins.

So where does this leave us? What do you do when you find out your history fave was actually an arsehole? Well there are two options:

Option 1: Whitewash 

I know. Stay with me on this one!

Just because you know your fave did something awful, doesn’t mean everyone else has to! Get that tippex out, quickly slap it on and you can just pretend this whole thing never happened.

Sounds abhorrent right? Maybe, but this is by far the most popular option.

And it’s frighteningly understandable. Lets take it back to Millicent Fawcett. 

Over the last decade or so, modern history at large has finally started putting more of a spotlight on Millicent Fawcett and her work. She is presented alongside the likes of Emmeline Pankhurst as a key figure in women getting the vote and has become a pretty prominent feminist hero. Hell, she recently became the first woman to ever have a statue in Parliament Square!

That’s all awesome, especially when you think about how long her achievements were overlooked and how few major modern female history heroes are widely known.

Which is probably why when writing about Millicent for publications with a massive reach (like national newspapers and magazines) a lot of journalists and history writers have just casually left out her support of the Boer War concentration camps…even if in the same article they say how she helped eradicate them.

Because why complicate things by veering off into morally muddy waters. It stops you creating a clean empowering narrative and instead makes one that’s pretty damn thorny.

Well. Because we have to.

Because when we whitewash over these moments in history, we’re taking away from what made up the person and the world around them. That’s pretty vital stuff to just gloss over.

makes sense
Gotta admit it makes sense

Option 2: Delve into the why

Yes, occasionally there is someone who was just the worst and born an awful human being (figured I’d quickly circumnavigate that one before anyone puts Hitler in the comments!) but that’s not really the case for the 99.9% of the people you’ll encounter during your history reading.

You have to don that deerstalker and channel your inner Holmes.  Look at the world around the person. What made them think and feel this way? 

In the case of Millicent, it was a combination of things. A little bit of self superiority (as a white person living in an imperialistic world) as well as going into the concentration camp debate very pro Boer War and wanting Britain to come out with a win. Plus she believed what the British press were saying about the camps. That the women and children imprisoned in the concentration camps had been helping in the fight against British forces and as such, needed to be locked away just as a matter warfare.

That doesn’t make it right for her to have been pro concentration camp. But it did help me better understand why she thought this way.

Doing this not only helps you better understand the era beyond the person, but it also impacts how you think on a day to day level. 

Because by learning why these otherwise good people made bad choices, we can better understand the world around us.

It means we don’t just look at someone in a MAGA hat and say ‘fuck you!’ But ‘why did you get here’ and visa versa.

It’s the ability to better understand those around us, because we have learnt from those before us. Living in a world of cancel culture, that skill has never been more important!

But what do you think? What would you do if you found out your history hero had some serious flaws? 

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3 thoughts on “So it turns out your history hero was racist? What now?”

  1. As a genealogist, I have uncovered my fair share of family members who were not-so-nice, as well as some who were out-and-out a-holes. Yes, I could cover it up or gloss over their failings, but then I would not be telling the truth of who they were and from where they came. Family history, and history in general, is more real when you “keep it real.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is so tricky.
    Taking early 20th century eugenics as an example. I am coming to realise that a number of women who actively supported other women’s rights and careers in various ways, were also eugenicists. I think this may be because they were among the first women of their generation to get any sort of education that included even the slightest amount of science and they thought that eugenics was science and was one of the sorts of things that a modern woman could take on board.

    Closer to home, my mother did not breastfeed me because (1950s) she thought she was a modern woman and that women like her did the modern thing which was bottle feeding with ‘formula’. When you call milk powder and sugar ‘formula’ it sounds like science. We now think differently about this, largely based on the science that most of us take for granted will be part of our basic education but which hardly any girls got until the 1960s.

    A reason is not the same as an excuse and it is certainly worth knowing any reason why people did something we now find distasteful.

    Liked by 1 person

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