The first anti-racist interactive CD-ROM has just been created by the Institute of Race Relations. HomeBeats: struggles for racial justice is aimed at young people for use at home, school or youth centres.
Focusing on the black presence in Britain and British struggles against racism, the CD connects slavery and colonialism to contemporary racism and, through studies of eight key locations, tells the story of how black communities were built in the UK. The subject matter is serious but the CD is fun. It informs even as it entertains – with video material, animation, quizzes and a stunning soundtrack from Asian Dub Foundation. ‘To see, to hear, to image oneself into other people’s experiences and to interact with them,’ says IRR director A.Sivanandan, ‘gives young people a chance of understanding racism as never before.’
From different directions
Home Beats, with hundreds of different screens, approaches the subject from many directions. You can travel geographically through the ‘Memories’ sections on the USA, Africa, the Caribbean, the Indian-subcontinent, Ireland and the UK, or historically via the time-lines. You can enter racism’s story through the lives of 50 individuals – from Steve Biko to Anwar Ditta – who have contributed to the anti-racist struggle, or the ‘Visions’ that people have had for a more just world – likethe Black Panthers’ Ten Point Programme or Gandhi’s Satyagraha. And to know racism’s inscape (as opposed to its impact) you can visit the ‘Images’ screens. Here you can learn about anything from the development of the black press in Britain to imperial advertising and the use of racial imagery in war propaganda.
The CD follows the philosophy IRR has adopted for many years – that to understand racism you do not have to traverse identity and ethnicity, guilt or morality, but the fundamental relationships established through Britain’s history of slavery, colonialism, imperialism and the post-war need for black labour. Said A. Sivanandan, ‘I do not accept that anti-racist education is only a kind of black studies which excludes whites. Anti-racist education is not about instilling black pride in some, white guilt in others. It is not about individuals or attitudes, it is simply telling everyone – black and white – the truth about Britain and its relationship to the Third World and its peoples. And that is an inclusive history.’ Arun Kundnani, the multi-media creator of Home Beats, is only too aware of the potential in interactive media for presenting historical connections between a broad and diverse set of stories. ‘The range of the project is exceptionally wide and encompasses different histories which are often not seen as related,’ he said.’But what we have realised is that new interactive media have the potential for presenting the connections between a broad and diverse set of stories. In fact their strength, when compared to other media such as television, is the ability to allow a story to be contextualised and inter-related in hundreds of different ways. In the end what you have is a network of open-ended fragments rather than a closed narrative with a beginning, middle and end.’
The CD embraces interactivity at all stages. The first is to change the way information about the history of anti-racism is experienced by users. The choice of what path to follow through that history is in their hands. ‘Every page in our “book”‘, Arun explains, ‘has links into other stories’. There are literally hundreds of paths through the material. For example, somebody might know of Southall and what it is like today, so they go into that section. They then trace back through the history of Southall and discover how the community was built up through different struggles over the years. One thing catches their attention: for example that the Punjabis who came to Southall were migrating from an area that had been partitioned in 1947. They then follow through this lead and explore anti-colonial struggle in India. This might take them to a link to the anti-colonial struggle and partition in Ireland, and to think about the ways in which anti-Irish racism compares to the racism that people in Southall have faced. The CD enables users to connect recent struggles to earlier ones. It also allows them to start from a point or place with which they are familiar, and then move from the particular to the general and back to the particular.
Arun explains another advantage. ‘By putting control of how one moves through the material in the hands of the user, one gets away from the difficulty of other approaches to anti-racist education, in which the accumulation of facts or moral instruction about racism can backfire.’
But interactivity is not just a simple matter of giving the user choice over the order in which to read material. ‘It is a matter ofwriting things differently from the start so that connections are anticipated. This also means a politics which embraces connections between different people’s struggles and looks outwards, rather than closing in on one’s own particular location.’
These are not just pious hopes. Home Beats itself has only been able to focus on eight UK areas – Notting Hill, Brixton, Southall, the East End, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bradford and Glasgow. But there are so many other community histories waiting to be written – and built into the CD-ROM is the facility for users to add their own materials, to research, write and illustrate their own experience, their own history of their own community. And by connecting the CD to the Internet via its own web site, Home Beats will initiate an ongoing process of accumulating and exchanging material. This is, as Arun explains, ‘a democratic relationship by which communities participate in producing what is said about them’. For A. Sivanandan, who has pioneered the writing of black history in Britain, this is all-important. ‘We can now write our own histories, be the authors of our own experiences. What this CD-ROM does is to provide us with the framework and the signposts.’