Despite promising a six-month listening exercise on whether its statue of Cecil Rhodes should be removed, Oxford’s Oriel College has abruptly decided Rhodes will not fall.
I’m not surprised. Money talks, but it also silences. The tone of the debate has felt disingenuous from the start, and its conclusion is no different. Cloaking its decision in the language of objectivity, the college shared an official statement: “the overwhelming message we have received has been in support of the statue remaining in place, for a variety of reasons.”
No need to explain these reasons then? Perhaps the nature of the consultation says enough. The college based its decision on perspectives from “students and academics, alumni, heritage bodies, national and student polls and a further petition,” as well as “500 direct written responses.”
It does not take a statistician to calculate what the majority of those consulted had in common.
86% of Oxford’s students are white. The university has sadly never been much more diverse than this, so it’s reasonable to assume that the majority of its alumni are white too. Across the UK, only 1 in 13 professors is from a BME background and the proportion is lower at Oxford so most of the academics they consulted were probably white too.
And the unnamed authors of the 500 direct written responses? Probably white, likely rich. Documents leaked to the Telegraph reveal that former alumni threatened to withdraw donations to the value of £100 million if the college gave in to demands to remove the statue – a tactic you might refer to as whitemail.
This does not mean that race automatically determines which side, if any, a person supports. But by basing its decision on voices who benefit from the status quo, the university has once again failed to resolve its dependence on structural privilege and the bias this perpetuates.
The pro-Rhodes camp continuously defends his difficult legacy, reminding us of the “complexity of history” because although he reaped carnage across southern Africa, he also generously bequeathed most of his vast fortune to the university. Rhodes the butcher meets Rhodes the benefactor.
For anyone born on the losing side of colonialism’s legacy, this rhetoric adds insult to injury. Not only is it patronising, it sets up a false logic by suggesting that Rhodes’ barbarism can be neutralised by his philanthropy: it’s okay kids, every cloud has a gold lining.
Pro-Rhodes voices demand a slavish gratitude for the benefits of imperialism, a sinister impulse that is all too common two hundred years after the abolition of the slave trade. When a former black Rhodes scholar came out in support of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign he was called a hypocrite and essentially told: “don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
The real hypocrisy lies elsewhere. Voices of the establishment have cleverly presented the anti-Rhodes campaign as anti-intellectual and anti-history. It’s a cunning reversal of the power dynamics at hand. The #RhodesMustFall campaigners do not want to erase Cecil Rhodes from history – in fact, it is crucial to their campaign that he is remembered. So why is the Oxford University’s Chancellor able to imply that those who do not want to walk past a statue celebrating a racist are unable to grasp the true nature of history? In the Chancellor’s own words:
“Our history is not a blank page on which we can write our own version of what it should have been according to our contemporary views and prejudices.
“Because we value tolerance, we have to listen to people who shout – at a university, mark you – about speech crimes and ‘no platforming’. We have to listen to those who presume that they can re-write history within the confines of their own notion of what is politically, culturally and morally correct.”
This is sophistry at its finest, accusing the opposition of the very tactics used to sanitise and deny the reality of Britain’s colonial past. His words suggest a pseudo-objectivity, as though history is something that is only written once. No historical narrative is constructed without prejudice. Surely choosing to place Cecil Rhodes on a statue was a choice based on the prejudices of the time, so why is that any different to a new desire to remove him? Denying him the reverence a statue commands is not the same as denying he existed. But more fundamentally, this line of argument implies that to challenge an institution for ignoring Rhodes’ racist past is to place history within “their own notion of what is politically, culturally and morally correct.” Does the Chancellor not share the notion that racism is morally incorrect?
It’s absurd that students campaigning for a genuine reassessment of history are treated as a stain on the university’s reputation, as more embarrassing than the act of publicly commemorating a white supremacist. Instead of confronting the shame of empire, the university and its donors are preoccupied with the “embarrassment” #RhodesMustFall has brought on the college.
I am embarrassed that the university has allowed the rich and powerful to determine what counts as a fair and honest assessment of the past. I spent four satisfying years studying History and French at Oxford University. Whether I was researching the Reformation, the Enlightenment or Negritude literature, the overwhelming impression Oxford left on me was that free-thinking can eventually topple the power of privilege.
#RhodesMustFall is an inspiring, grassroots campaign – bringing the need for a radical reinterpretation of Britain’s history to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. The statue of Rhodes may be here to stay for now, but the movement is only just getting started. Today the Rhodes Must Fall Oxford campaign released seven non-negotiable demands. We need more prestigious prizes and more scholarships set up by people of colour. We need more students of colour who will then become alumni and use their clout to bring more voices to the decision table. We need more non-white academics in permanent positions on university faculties. And, we need to pull some of the purse strings because no matter how strong the moral arguments, bigger structures must fall before Rhodes will.
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Yosola Olorunshola is a London-based writer and co-founder of Diaspora Philes, a podcast series exploring questions on migration, identity and home which you can listen to here: diasporaphiles.com. She studied History and French at Oxford University before completing a Masters in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway. You can find her on Twitter @YosolaYosola or @DiasporaPhiles
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