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In the recent Enola Holmes movies, some characters are played by people-of-color actors who appear to have social standings similar to those of white people. Does this portrayal of non-white people in these movies bear any historical accuracy at all?

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    See also this US Army training film on this point. youtu.be/SyYSBBE1DFw?t=1505. TLDW: America was just crazy with the racism. Other countries didn't see it that way. Nov 14, 2022 at 21:42
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    @Harper-ReinstateMonica note that this shouldn't be taken to mean racism wasn't a problem in England at the time - scientific racism was still hanging on at that point and was a major part of Victorian society before it - but in general, explicitly racist laws weren't as much of a thing and explicitly racist comments or acts directed towards individuals were more likely to be viewed as improper or impolite (even if the comments may well have been met with agreement if said behind closed doors without the person present)
    – Tristan
    Nov 15, 2022 at 9:56
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    @Tristan - On the other hand, it was before the Windrush immigration and Powell's "Rivers of Blood" rhetoric that truly whipped up casual racism amongst some sections of British society in the second half of the 20th century. Nov 16, 2022 at 9:16
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    In Victorian England (and most of the Europe) it was more important who were your parents rather than what was the colour of your skin - a black tribal chief or some other minor "noble" from Africa/ India had much higher status than a white commoner. In similar fashion, a rich farmer was just a peasant comparing to a poor gentleman, USA was full of influential self-made men with money and skin colour dictating your social standing.
    – Yasskier
    Dec 4, 2022 at 22:32
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    @Yasskier to an extent this is still true today. I can't count the number of times I've had to explain to incredulous Americans that what social class you're perceived as belonging to is much more determined by things like whether you went to a private school (determined largely by parental income), whether your parents went to university, and whether you speak with a regional accent (largely determined by your parents' social circles and your school), than your own income
    – Tristan
    Dec 5, 2022 at 9:55

2 Answers 2

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Yes. There are historical records of many specific Black people living in The United Kingdom between 1870 and 1930 (or so) who were respected professionals. Medicine and the military seem to be professions where the most records of Black Britons exist.

For example, this image of one page of the 1818 London Gazette shows Nathaniel Wells, Esq., who was Black, was appointed to be Sheriff of Monmouthshire.

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David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre was elected MP for Sudbury in 1841 (before being removed for corruption after nine months), decades before the era of the films, and was of Anglo-Indian descent.

More in the era of the films we also see Dadabhai Naoroji who was elected MP for Finsbury Central in 1892, who was born to a Parsi Zoroastrian family in Gujarat.

There was also Benjamin Disraeli who became Prime Minister in 1874 who was born to a Sephardi Jewish family (although he converted to the Church of England as a child). Whilst today he would likely be viewed as white, his Jewish heritage likely would have meant he was not seen as such in his day.

Prior to WW1 the black population of the United Kingdom was much lower, so examples are harder to find, but James McCune Smith was an African American who moved to Glasgow to study for his medical doctorate (which he received in 1837, before returning to Manhattan), during which time he published scientific articles in the London Medical Gazette.

Augustus Merriman-Labor was a Sierra-Leonian lawyer who moved to London in 1904 where he taught sunday school and was Lincoln's Inn (one of the inns of court), although he was only allowed to establish a commercial practice as a barrister in 1909. In his 1909 book railing against the racism that prevented him being called to the bar for five years he claimed London's black population did "not much exceed one hundred" and "to every one, there are over sixty thousand whites". Given the polemic nature of the work it seems likely this is an exaggeration however, and the census did not begin reporting ethnic identity until the 21st century.

I have only seen the firs film where the only PoC characters I recall are Lestrade (played by Adeel Akhtar, of Pakistani-Kenyan descent), and Edith (played by Susan Wokoma, credited as Susie Wokoma, of Nigerian descent). From the above examples, an Asian man rising to the position of detective seems entirely plausible (although would likely be seen as unusual). Edith working in a coffee shop (whilst also running jujutsu classes) also does not seem implausible, although note that the historical figure she is based on, Edith Garrud, was white.

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    "black population of England was much lower, so examples are harder to find, but James McCune Smith was an African American" If Smith was British, he wouldn't be an "African American", would he?
    – FreeMan
    Nov 15, 2022 at 15:51
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    @FreeMan I appear to have accidentally deleted half the sentence by accident whilst reformatting at some point. He was an African American who moved to Glasgow to study to be a doctor, during which time he published papers in London. He returned to Manhattan in the same year he received his doctorate. I've added this information in an edit
    – Tristan
    Nov 15, 2022 at 16:33
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    LOL. Makes more sense that way. I was going to say he could have been an African Briton, but... that's just not a term I've heard.
    – FreeMan
    Nov 15, 2022 at 16:41
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    “Whilst today he [Disraeli] would likely be viewed as white, his Jewish heritage likely would have meant he was not seen as such in his day.” — really? While I don’t doubt he received plenty of anti-semitism, I’ve not seen anything suggesting he wasn’t viewed as white. (Though also I don’t think “white” or any comparable term was such a salient dichotomy in Britain at that time — prejudices were somewhat differently-organised — unlike in the colonies, of course, where that kind of racial classification was extremely explicit.) Nov 15, 2022 at 20:17

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