OPINION17 June 2020

Are signs of BAME marginalisation in Britain more widespread than we think?

Opinion Trends UK

Samuel Tholley examines the results of research by ICM Unlimited to explore public awareness of black and minority ethnic people’s role in British history.

Black lives matter protest_crop

The death of George Floyd has placed a spotlight on the issue of racism and inequality, not only in the United States, but in many parts of the world.

Some have reacted with bewilderment to protests taking place in the UK, perhaps believing that issues of inequality and marginalisation of black and minority ethnic (BAME) people are not as widespread as elsewhere.

However, legacy research conducted by ICM Unlimited found a low awareness from the public of how ethnic minorities had contributed to Britain’s development now and throughout history.

Findings from a study released in October 2019 to correspond with Black History Month show that the problem may be more widespread than we think. Despite Black History Month being celebrated for over three decades in Britain, there is still a heated debate over the extent to which BAME people’s contributions to British history, society and culture are known or recognised. In the current climate surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, these findings are particularly poignant.

At the time, we asked a representative sample of the British public questions about historical figures and awareness of BAME people’s contributions to the country. 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. Here’s just a few thoughts from us surrounding 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 found 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 BAME. 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%) [ 1 ] of the British population is BAME.

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 primarily known for the huge social impact that they had outside Britain. This demonstrates a very low recognition of any non-white Britons as the most important figures in the country’s history.

The results also found that people who are not white 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.

Of course, it could be argued that the British population has historically been overwhelmingly white, and so we should not 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 Philippa of Hainault, Queen Charlotte, Olaudah Equiano, Mary Seacole, Stuart Hall or even the ‘godfather of grime’, Wiley.

The phrase "all lives matter" is sometimes heard in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. However, when the results of ICM’s research are looked at in conjunction with research data which showcases the disproportionate rates of arrest, deaths in police custody, unemployment, school exclusion and poverty that ethnic minorities experience in comparison to white Brits [ 2 ], one could argue that not “all lives” have equal recognition, opportunities or experiences in Britain.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Black Lives Matter protests have proliferated here in Britain as well as the US. The results of this research suggest the need for increasing the nation’s awareness of BAME people’s presence and contributions to Britain’s development, particularly via school curricular. Such actions would be a significant step towards combatting the marginalisation of ethnic minorities in our country.

Samuel Tholley is research executive at ICM Unlimited 


[ 1 ] https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/

[ 2 ] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/686071/Revised_RDA_report_March_2018.pdf