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‘Empire State of Mind’: We need to talk about Race and Empire – Sathnam Sanghera’s TV follow-up to ‘Empireland’

‘Empire State of Mind’: We need to talk about Race and Empire – Sathnam Sanghera’s TV follow-up to ‘Empireland’

Writer takes us on a brilliant personal journey and illuminates debates about race, statutes, museums and other aspects of modern Britain and links to Empire and talks to acv about it

IN WHAT has been a tumultuous week for race relations in Britain – following the revelations of former cricketer Azeem Rafiq, a TV programme airs this evening (Saturday, November 20) looking closely at Race and Empire.

The two-part ‘Empire State of Mind’ – for Channel 4 – was made this Summer/Autumn by author and journalist Sathnam Sanghera and explores how much of modern British culture is rooted in Empire and thoughts about race.

Adapted from his best-selling book published, this January, about the subject, ‘Empireland’, he makes the compelling argument that Britain is dysfunctional, because it cannot talk about Empire and Race, dispassionately or critically.

Sanghera is a journalist for The Times newspaper, and grew up in Wolverhampton, to a working-class second-generation British Sikh family. He passed his 11-plus exam and went to a local grammar school, which was very much modelled on the classic British public school. He read English at Cambridge University and worked for the Financial Times initially and is the author of the award-winning memoir, ‘The Boy with the Top Knot’ (2008), which was also made into a BBC TV drama.

In these two programmes, he explores his Sikh family background set against an outwardly very British-English identity that he only later started to interrogate and examine.

“Empire explains everything to me – or a lot,” he told earlier this week and just before the Rafiq story became headline news. “It explains why I am here, my identity.

“For me in general, Empire is the biggest thing we ever did in history, but we don’t think about it, and when we do, it is in a very dysfunctional, rose-tinted way.”

Both programmes take you on his own personal journey through this cultural landscape and the dialogue it incites.

He argues that schools in Britain should teach the history of Empire – by and large, they don’t, and he says that without this, we can’t really be a modern, forward-looking country and that we will continue to stumble from one crisis to another on Race – and surely the Rafiq story illustrates this only too sadly.

“We have got to make sense of this history, otherwise we are going to keep on having crises about race – which we keep on doing every few years,” Sanghera said very presciently.

“When you are talking about Empire – you are talking about Race, aren’t you?” He asked rhetorically. “You can’t get away from it. People’s identity is linked to the British Empire, both for the colonisers and the colonised. And so, it becomes very personal, very quickly.”

The first programme very much lays the general background to the cultural argument and features him going back to his family home in Wolverhampton and discussing his identity with his brother.

They go to a Wolves FC Premier League home game together and watch all the footballers take the knee. This is somewhat of a contrast to their early teens’ experience when they were forbidden to leave their house on match days because skinheads and others would be roaming around, ready to verbally abuse, chase and beat up anyone of colour. He talks about this in ‘Empire State of Mind’.

Empire State of MInd – Sathnam Sanghera in Brighton Pavilion ©Sandpaperfilms

The second programme explores the ‘dysfunctionality’ more, the lack of teaching about Empire and gets into the cultural debates surrounding this subject.

Sanghera examines the museum part in depth – should we return artefacts sometimes looted from Empire – as well as the recent controversy around National Trust properties. The body that looks after stately homes and similar properties wanted to declare clearly what links there might have been between the property, its owners and Empire and Slavery. Both debates are part of the Culture War arguments routinely aired on social media.

Sanghera visits a museum in Aberdeenshire where some artefacts are being returned and in one of the most distressing and difficult parts of the TV programme, inspects the skull of an Indian ascetic.

The background to how this landed up at the museum is very shocking and the context is important and you need to watch to properly appreciate it.

Sanghera told us: “It is deeply offensive and grotesque. The doctor was breaking a promise to a patient (to have a proper cremation in line with the man’s deeply held-religious beliefs).

“If people knew how many remains and what kind of human remains we have, in lots of museums, if not all of them, there would be outrage.”

Sanghera knows ‘Empire State of Mind’ will create a certain difficult reaction – he got racist letters after the publication of ‘Empireland’ and there are some – who would rather he just shut up and leave this subject completely.

“It’s weird, one of the common reactions to you saying that racism exists, is people saying ‘no, it doesn’t’ and then being racist to you.”

He knows the programmes will cause racists to attack him again.

“You do attract a lot of racism when you talk about it in the mass media. The cumulative effect does bother you. The Football Association run campaigns and advertise (against racism) and basically have the footballers’ backs.

“Politicians get racial abuse and there is a lot of cross party outrage, but with presenters and writers there is nothing. We are just meant to suck it up. It isn’t acceptable, there should be outrage.”

Yes and huge credit to Sanghera for taking this subject on and helping a nation to think about its past more intelligently.

‘Empire State of Mind’ – Part I, Saturday (November 20) Part 1 9pm Channel 4 UK Only –
Empire State of Mind, Part II, Saturday, November 29 9pm


‘Empireland: How Imperialism has shaped Modern Britain’–How-Imperialism-Has-Shaped-Modern-Britain/25901845
‘The Boy with the Topknot: A Memoir of Love, Secrets and Lies’–A-Memoir-of-Love-Secrets-and-Lies/357410

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture