Cecil Rhodes was a prominent British colonial white supremacist whose statue adorns the facade of Oriel College at Oxford University. As an organising member of The Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford movement, I’m seeking to decolonize university spaces and curricula, and demand as part of this process that the monument is removed.
I recently wrote a piece for Cherwell, an Oxford based student newspaper, entitled ‘Cecil Rhodes was not a benefactor, he was a murderer – an open letter to those fluent in Liberalese and Freezepeach’. In writing to dismantle liberal languages of racism I sought to expose the reality of Rhode’s crimes. History must be read critically and not coated in lies of acceptability for it is this process of downplaying white supremacist history that leads to the erasure of our experiences here on the ground in the present day.
However, despite my insistence that the content of my piece should not be edited in any way, I found that institutionalised white privilege waltzed along, sanitising my writing in much the same way we sanitise our colonial legacy all too often. They perpetuated a process of prejudice that was the critical cornerstone of my initial piece.
On finding my piece had been edited I wrote an open letter in response (right), because calling out these manifestations of structural racism at an interpersonal level is necessary. Because microaggressions, and passing personal encounters with institutional racism, cumulatively form a backbone of structural injustice.
I have received responses from the editors who cite miscommunication in editorial process as reason for breach of contract. This may well be the case. And I will not object to the finer points of circumstantial excuses and misunderstandings amongst the newspapers editorial team. Those are largely irrelevant to me. Mix ups are not sufficient in excusing the lack of awareness exercised in tone policing a woman of colour. You shouldn’t require knowledge of my desire to be published in full in order to recognise that chopping comment on white privilege out of my writing as a white person merely bears testament to the essence of my arguments.
Below is my original article – un-edited, un-whitewashed, and uncensored.
Cecil Rhodes was not a benefactor, he was a murderer – an open letter to those fluent in Liberalese and Freezepeach.
Dear ‘moderate’, ‘neutral’, ‘historicising’ liberals and their ‘conservationist’ neoliberal counterparts,
Cecil Rhodes was not a benefactor. The Oxford English Dictionary defines this as “one who renders aid or kindly service to others, a friendly helper; one who advances the interests of a cause or institution, a patron.” Rhodes was not a friendly helper. When a smallpox epidemic broke out in Kimberley, he staged a cover up, bribing doctors to ensure they wouldn’t vaccinate and quarantine mine workers – doing so would have incurred a financial loss. Thousands of people died as a result. And yet, multiple times in the past few weeks I have heard him described as such by Oriel College, its Provost, and individuals authoring articles in publications including Cherwell.
So if you find yourself flinching when I describe Rhodes as a murderer or terrorist, ask yourself why. Ask why we feel the need to sanitise the events of our colonial past, cushioning them in liberal languages of ‘benefactor’, or ‘patron’, or ‘businessman’.
In part it exhibits a general unwillingness to engage with the realities of British colonialism and the harm it has caused, past and present. Such realities configure Oxford as we know it, where there is talk of diversifying spaces that remain racist. Muffling its race problems, Oxford is peddling a fiction of accessibility, with glossy prospectuses bearing candid snaps of tokenised black and minority ethnic students. In doing so it is living an empty liberal lie, ultimately exhibiting a reluctance to engage and an unwillingness to bring about substantive change.
In a Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality (CRAE) survey, 81.2 per cent of BME respondents reported that they did not feel race and ethnicity were adequately discussed at Oxford. Change requires commitment to fundamental alteration that words like ‘inclusivity’ do not offer. We should not be offering people of colour inclusion in racist structures, carving pockets in which they can exist. Instead we must demand decolonisation and alteration to be made to Oxford’s institutional make-up, so questions of inclusivity do not need to be offered like wilted olive branches.
What does this proposed decolonisation look like? The Rhodes Must Fall Oxford movement seeks a breadth of decolonisation that interrogates the content of our curricula, asking questions about authorship, teaching and Eurocentrism therein. It is also about the space in which we live and work, which is pervasive in our understanding of decolonising our minds. We must pose the question: if we do not actively engage in our environments, how might this affect our intellectual engagement? Inevitably, the result is processes of thought production that are guilty of the same historical passivity and racialised blind-spots.
Another contradiction in terms in vague ‘liberal’ logic is thrown up with the suggestion that removing the statue is an erasure of history. History is not a fixed point in the past-tense to be preserved; it is a constructive process which we live and engage in everyday. Removing the monument of Rhodes will not result in his disappearance from the face of the Earth altogether, as the realities of his crimes are borne out even today, where he has been called ‘an architect of apartheid’.
One writer has made an overdrawn comparison, asking whether statues of Genghis Khan in Ulaanbaatar should be removed, too, given that he was also a murderous tyrant – an act that would, according to its author, “confine him to the dustbin of history”. History is context dependent, and what moulds the shape of any landscape is those who live in it. If a sizeable proportion of the population affected by Khan’s crimes demanded that the statue be removed, would you insist they weren’t entitled to determine their own social landscape? If there is a comparison to be drawn, it is that narratives of Khan or Rhodes are everywhere, in life and literature. Removing a statue does not result in the evaporation of figures from the annals of history.
Drawing these tenuous comparisons, you fall into an absolutist, slippery slope logic. Critics have posed questions in generic templates guilty of absurd logical extremities: “If you propose to remove the Rhodes statue shouldn’t you be asking the same for the statue of *insert random white elitist ruling power captured in stony form here* outside *insert name of Oxford college*?” Calling for the statue of Rhodes to be removed does not mean one would see the entirety of Oxford’s colonial foundation bulldozed to the ground.
Instead, it is about listening to the voices that live in, and configure, a space. If a community of students of colour stand in solidarity with allied support, demanding that a specific staue they believe to represent a colonial legacy that marginalises and alienates them should be taken down, is their suffering and their personal experience not sufficient enough ‘evidence’ for its removal? Answering no is merely testimony to the colonial legacy in this space, the fact that you are not willing to recognise, legitimise and privilege a process of decolonisation which requires platforming the voices of people of colour who have, in such a colonial history, been made forcibly silent. Only in doing so will you create the ‘equality’ you purport to seek.
If you are white and complaining about the ‘destructive’ behaviour of removing a statue which celebrates a racist murderer, I ask you this: how did this man’s actions affect you? The suffering he inflicted has only ever benefited you, the same cannot be said of the PoC students who are a part of this movement and a part of this University. In CRAE’s survey 59.3 per cent of BME respondents reported that they had felt uncomfortable or unwelcome on account of their race or ethnicity at Oxford. These voices of the present, the prejudice they experience, and the racism they encounter, must be addressed.
Iconography is the means by which we celebrate people. It is not acceptable to celebrate racist murderers, and no amount of sweeping things under the carpet can do away with that. In defending the statue’s standing, you are complicit in diminishing the humanity of Rhodes’ victims, and in upholding his white supremacist legacy and ‘benefaction’ that was wholly a product of subjugated black labour. You cannot polarise his legacy from his person and politics. If you find yourself fearing history will be erased without statues to project it, perhaps you should build some of those whose narratives remain untold by colonial historical narratives, those who have suffered at the hands of colonial projects.
Kind, ‘diverse’ and ‘equalising’ regards,