ESU alumna Daphne James reflects on her time in Washington DC in 1968 in light of the recent surge in support for the Black Lives Matter movement
My secondary school exchange to Washington DC was over 50 years ago. It was a very different world back then and attitudes towards race and people of colour were not the same as they are today.
Recent events have made me reflect once more on my time over there. I am now 70 and not the innocent 18 year old I was then. I realise just how much my experiences in that senior year at high school have indelibly shaped my attitudes to things over the years, reinforcing some but changing many.
In 1968 I witnessed riots breaking out all over the city when Martin Luther King was assassinated four days after he had preached in ‘our’ cathedral (I was at the National Cathedral School in the city). Recently, riots again broke out after the murder of George Floyd, giving renewed impetus to the Black Lives Matter movement sweeping across the world – and although history, it seems, is repeating itself, it also seems now that people are at last listening. I watch sportsmen and women using their fame to speak out against the unfairness of what they rightly see as injustice against people of colour everywhere in day-to-day life. The BLM movement is symbolised by people ‘taking the knee’ – as now seen before all sorts of sporting fixtures. This shows a solidarity which didn’t exist in that form back in 1968 and which seems longer lasting.
However, it is appalling to think that although great improvements have been made in many ways, in some ways things are just the same.
If you look at primary school children in this country, there is little or no racial prejudice. A child of eight sees only his or her friend, not the colour of their skin – but somewhere between that primary school and the end of secondary school, children become tainted by racial prejudice. Perhaps they have absorbed the prejudices of their parents or those of their contemporaries. Who knows? But the seeds are sown.
Education is the key to everything. Although age has often brought cynicism, I am optimistic that the primary school children of today will carry forward their lack of any complex attitude towards race, through to senior school and beyond.
My ESU exchange was life changing in so many ways. For an English girl from an almost totally white background (daughter of parents who were themselves children of the Raj) it was a huge shock to be in a city which had so many people of colour. It completely changed my attitudes towards things and my understanding of them – indeed I think I am so much the better for having observed the people and events of that momentous year.
To have the chance of an inter-cultural exchange in today’s climate would be a truly remarkable experience. To watch people in a different country and compare how they deal with events to how your own countrymen would deal with them is a tremendously profound experience. It makes you rapidly reassess your own views on things. It is highly educative in so very many ways.
I reflect on the civil rights movement back then, see what is happening today with the Black Lives Matter movement and hope that Martin Luther King did not die in vain.
Hear more from Daphne about her exchange here, in a piece and film commissioned for the centenary of the ESU in 2018.