Recently, David Starkey was again outed as a racist. In an online interview, he claimed that:
Slavery was not genocide otherwise there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks in Africa or in Britain, would there?
We all remember the riots of 2011, sparked by the murder of a Black British man called Mark Duggan in Tottenham, London. Starkey waded in on that one, too. Speaking of the men who participated in the riots, he said:
What has happened is that the substantial section of the chavs that you wrote about have become black. The whites have become black. A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion.
Black people are not the only ones to suffer Starkey’s wrath. Two years earlier, he complained about the feminisation of history, brought about by female historians turning the past into a sort of “soap opera.” He found it “bizarre” that so many historians focus on Henry’s wives, and not on the man himself.
And who could forget his very personal attack on Mary Beard? Talking about his failing career, Starkey said:
The only chance I have of being on TV again is if I were very ugly. I think only old, ugly women can get on TV. Like Mary Beard.
Forget her credentials and experience, Beard only gets on TV because of her “tombstone teeth” and “rather funny hair.”
Having clearly established that Starkey is racist and sexist, I think it’s time we started exploring the ramifications of such bigoted views on his work — and there are ramifications, make no bones about it.
Anyone who has studied history will be familiar with the concept of bias. It’s a problematic concept in itself because there is a consensus that bias can somehow be removed. Thanks to outdated exam specifications, you’ll commonly see this being taught in schools. In reality, bias is the sum of our individual identities and experiences. It is part of who we are. The idea that you can remove bias, like kicking off your shoes after a long day, is sheer lunacy. The best you can do is acknowledge your bias and think about how they might impact your interpretations and analyses.
And this is what we need to do with Starkey. As an authority figure on the Tudors, we need to look critically at his arguments and reinterpret them in the context of his blatant sexist and racist bias. I’m not going to do that here — that’s probably a book in itself — but I will offer some questions to think about, as a starting point:
1. How have Starkey’s bigoted views impacted his topic choices? 2. Is it possible that he has missed out/glossed over historical figures/trends/philosophies/ideologies because of his views on race and gender? 3. Is it also possible that he has ignored/criticised some contemporary historians and their contributions to the historiography because of their race or gender?
If we can confidently answer YES to any one of these questions, then it’s time for a reappraisal. I’m not suggesting that Starkey’s significant body of work is no longer valid or useful and that he should be somehow written out of history.
Instead, we should critically engage with his interpretations of the past and challenge them in an open forum. And we should be doing it with issues that relate to the present, too. It’s not enough to call out bigotry or try to silence it; we should expose it for the ignorant prejudice that it truly is by using it to advance the debate, rather than trying to stifle it or, even worse, just condemn it.