#MustRhodesFall?

Play Protestors calling for the removal of Cecil Rhodes’ Statue on Oriel College, Oxford.

‘We don’t need Rhodes’, ‘Decolonise Oxford’, ‘Don’t diversify. Decolonise’ are just some of the messages that continue to encapsulate the Rhodes Must Fall campaign (RMF). 

Allied with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement, the RMF campaign aims to speak out against epistemic violence and the marginalisation of black history. As Dr Jeater (Lecturer of African History at Liverpool University) explains, this is the idea that the experience of colonialism has affected what it is to know things and the violence against knowledge itself. 

Edward Colston statue (left) Robert Milligan statue (right)

Recently, the statues of Edward Colston and Robert Milligan have been torn down due to a newly energised anguish against racism stemming from slavery and its abolition. Catalysed by the murder of George Floyd and the associated problem of police brutality, the global conversation of anti-racism has emerged with the question of how we define our past and what its implications are on the present day. 

The statue of Cecil Rhodes, deemed as next to fall by protestors,  also symbolises a version of the past that has been manufactured by imperial amnesia and the glorification of empire. However, this is a one sided fictitious past, one encouraged by Neil Ferguson who in 2010 stated he was ‘fundamentally in favour of empire.’ This is also the same man who was responsible for re-writing the curriculum. Therefore, the question of ‘if Rhodes falls’ is one that will trigger and set the standard for other statues in Britain. Yes these men may have made considerable charitable donations, but this was only possible due to their role in the slave trade. That is to say, the forced labour of millions of people, robbed from their home, beaten, raped and forced to work for nothing. This is not to be glossed over so flippantly as displayed in many textbooks and people’s attitudes today. 

However, Oriel College (finally) expressed their wish to have the statue removed and issued an Independent Commission of Inquiry into the issues surrounding the statue. This is after years of continually denying the problem and deeming the issue as one of College property and not one of freedom of speech. Here we must ask why the RMF movement has been ignored and supressed for so long. Even the Oxford Union concluded the statue should be taken down, and the university claimed if they removed it Oriel College claimed they would lose about £100 million suggesting they placed their financial interests above those of the students and the values of a University.

Refuting this issue of epistemic violence not only instils the white supremacy embedded in our education but also silences people who need representing. Indeed, in the 2013 publication of the Oxford Handbook of Modern African History not a single African contributor is seen which reinforces those same imperial power relationships. How are we to know the true experience of Black Africans if the people teaching it are white privileged men who have never experienced any of what they teach? This explicitly appropriates a version of African History without actually engaging with those who have lived through it. Is this what a university is supposed to represent? Shouldn’t it be African scholars who contribute to their own area of study?

Therefore, encouraging a diverse university community is the least we should be doing, but we need to go beyond this, and rid modern higher institutions of the same whitewashed curriculum that continually ignores the reality of the past and promotes the same colonial hierarchies. How are we to move forward in our understanding of the world if we don’t?

In an interview of Simakai Chigudu, a former Oxford student now professor, suggested that “RMF invites us to ask questions on how we memorialise the past and whose narratives we privilege in doing so”. He challenges “the idea that the RMF movement is trying to shut down debate or efface history’ and says this “entirely misses the point”. He suggests that “attacks on RMF endangers an open debate about the past and its role in the present”. This is certainly true and self-evident when we ask who is silencing whom, and whose freedom of speech is seen as more important?

Do we continue to prioritise white people defending their nationalism and ‘protecting their heritage’, or the people whose lives are directly affected by the people we glorify in statues? Here I am not referring to damage to war memorials but the imperial statues that are constant reminders of oppression and the myth of white supremacy. Removing them doesn’t ‘erase’ history at all, this view only ignores what they symbolise and actually aims to replace the full history with the ‘good’ parts and erase the rest. 

Therefore to dismiss the problem only accentuates the harmful Eurocentric narrative of glorifying our history. Raising these questions and criticising how we view the past is not a manifestation of a ‘snowflake’ or ‘woke’ generation or one that is overly sensitive or easily offended. It is clear that these questions have been ignored for generations, and now we should feel duty bound to have them answered. It is only then that we can look for reparatory justice.

MISUNDERSTANDING BLACK LIVES MATTER

Black Lives Matter Protest in Hyde Park, London

Support for the Black Lives Matter movement has grown rapidly in recent months due to the reinvigorated anger against systemic racism and police brutality. Although these issues have been rife for generations, cases of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmad Aubrey have highlighted and exposed the problem. Huge protests, rallies and petitions have given people a platform to use their voice, enabling a hope for change in the future.

As a white person growing up in a largely non-diverse community, it is difficult to understand racism because we are not subject to it and it may not be visible to us. Nevertheless, after conversations with friends from the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic community (BAME) they have explained that racism manifests itself in many forms. There is overt racism through direct hate speech, violence, threats and visible forms of discrimination. Covert racism is less visible such as the degrading, patronising and constant microaggressions people of colour experience.

However, embedded into institutional structures and society, the most ubiquitous form is systemic racism and the UK is no exception. Systemic racism is intrinsically linked to the roots and structures of transatlantic slavery which forced black people to become the slaves and ‘property’ of white slave owners. This created and reinforced the myth of White Supremacy. Therefore, the power relationships derived from these colonial hierarchies continue to adversely affect black people and allow white people to unknowingly benefit from white privilege. 

Today, as just one example, this can be seen in the high disproportionate rate of police stop and search tactics against black people. In England and Wales, black people comprise just 3% of the population yet make up 12% of its prison population. Furthermore, a huge 48% of under 18s in custody are from BAME backgrounds and in 2010 the Metropolitan Police charged 78%of black people caught in possession of cocaine compared with only 44% of whites. Therefore, the very systems that are supposed to protect every citizen disproportionately target and criminalise black people. 

White privilege is therefore the protection from racial discrimination and hate crime as white people will not be attacked, targeted or profiled as criminals at the same rate as black people. But for many white working class people, the concept of their privilege can be misinterpreted. Some may find it insulting as they don’t feel they have a privileged position and they perceive this as undermining their personal or financial struggles. 

Another way racism is misunderstood is through the perception that it works both ways. However, as racism is a power structure that reinforces the lie of white supremacy, racism cannot be experienced by white people. However, white people can experience racial prejudice or xenophobia, for example, seen in the case of Tyson Fury. He says that he experiences racist abuse ‘all the time’ due to his traveller background, but what he experiences is discrimination. This is because racism is intrinsically linked to the colonial hierarchies of slavery so reverse racism cannot exist as it doesn’t reinforce power structures or white supremacy.  

Although it is upsetting that many claim the BLM movement aims to stoke up agitation and provoke racial tension, this does give us a clear elucidation into the complex issue of white fragility. This can be simply understood as the fear or denial of accepting one’s own white privilege. Here we see phrases such as ‘yes but all lives matter’ and ‘white lives matter’ and this is a huge problem because in Britain today ‘all lives’ simply don’t seem to matter. If ‘all lives’ did matter, then as a society we would all strive to call out inequality and help to magnify black voices. The phrase Black Lives Matter is used to highlight the specific problem of racism, not to agitate a race war. If Black Lives Matter is triggering for you, it may be an indication of your white fragility. 

So, many people misunderstand Black Lives Matter, and instead of seeing it as a way of bringing equality, some see it as an attack on white people. Not only does this miss the point entirely, but in actual fact creates the problem of racial tension they are so keen to point out. Here we have to ask who the real victims are. Either privileged white people ‘insulted’ for benefitting from their privilege, or those who have been systematically oppressed for centuries. Whose voice and ergo freedom of speech should take priority? More simply put – should we encourage those who seek to undermine black lives matter or those who are rallying for equality? 

The calls of ‘all lives matter’ and ‘white lives matter’ are – as I believe – one of two things. They are either a product of miseducation and misunderstanding or a purposely provocative response. This provocation is problematic as it aims to invalidate the trauma that black people and their ancestors have experienced for over 400 years. Although the phrase ‘all lives matter’ is self-evident, we should be able to identify that in the current context, it takes away the potency of the fight against racism and the realities that black people experience. Moreover, this expression is linked to the rhetoric of toxic positivity, aiming to ‘move on from the past’ as after all ‘the past is the past’ – right?

Wrong, the past is and can never just be ‘the past’. This toxic positivity simply invalidates and denies centuries of slavery, exploitation, oppression and racism towards black people worldwide. A prime example of this is when David Cameron, on an official trip to Jamaica in 2015, said it’s time to “move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future”. Easy for him to say as a privileged white slave owner descendent who financially benefitted from the slave trade and its abolition. Interestingly, 2015 was the same year that descendants of the enslaved paid off the compensation scheme through their taxes. This included people from the Windrush generation who are still mistreated today. Therefore, how can we, as white people, ask those who have continually been persecuted and oppressed to ‘move on’ when the legacies of slavery are no less rife today? 

In a lecture given at Oxford University, Hilary Beckles (Vice Chancellor of the University of The West Indies) argues that Britain has a case to answer for in relation to reparatory justice. His point is that the British state have never issued an official apology for the abolition act which legally defined black slaves as property and not as human beings. Beckles argues that reparatory justice isn’t a plea for monetary handouts but for equity to help and elevate black lives, allowing them their right to succeed and to right the wrongs of the crimes in British history. 

The British education system displays a stark lack of non-western histories and the realities of colonialism. This desperately needs to be changed as it represents a form of epistemic violence. It was the philosopher Gayatri Spivak who transformed the debate of anti-colonialism and defined epistemic violence as the violence against what we know as knowledge itself. This can be seen today in how the curriculum only portrays a very narrow view of history, which continues to obliterate and silence certain groups from public memory. This is why Black Lives Matter is so important in giving a voice to people who have previously been silenced.  

An example of this is the glorification of our past pursued by our government and historians alike. In 2010, the conservative government called upon Neil Ferguson, a man ‘fundamentally in favour of empire’, to rewrite the curriculum. Unfortunately, this has led to snubbing the true realities of Britain’s past. In addition, historians such as David Starkey should also be held accountable for their role in distorting our understanding of the past. Starkey has since been ‘cancelled’ for his racist comments and his role in downplaying the severity of slavery saying it was not genocide because there’s so many ‘damn blacks in Africa’. 

This manipulation of British History continues to shape and warp white people’s knowledge and understanding of history and Britain’s place in the world. So, we need to ask ourselves how, as white privileged people, we can move forward and begin to address the wrongs our ancestors committed. An overhaul of the education system is only the beginning of centuries needed change and reform. 

So evidently, the past is far more complicated than just what happened in history. To say this not only ignores the impacts of slavery but also invalidates black people’s most basic human rights. For example to be listened to and acknowledged when they call out racism, to not systematically be held back in life, to not be profiled as criminals or targeted for their skin colour and to be seen and treated as equal human beings. 

As white people, it is our duty to educate ourselves and join the fight against racism. We must not remain silent or claim that racism isn’t a problem. Racism is a problem that white people need to fix because our ancestors created it to instil the lie of white supremacy. Therefore, we need to actively seek equality and justice and speak out, even when it’s uncomfortable. 

ARE WE GLAD HE IS GONE?

THE UNIVERSITY OF LIVERPOOL’S DECISION ON GLADSTONE HALLS

Gladstone Halls of residence at the University of Liverpool

On June 10, Dr David Jeffery (British Politics lecturer at Liverpool University) outlined his take regarding the renaming of Gladstone Halls. He deemed it a ‘stupid decision’ to give in to the demands of ‘historically-illiterate students’. I know that Dr Jeffery is an expert in his field, but as a History student, I’d like to challenge his view that we are ‘historically illiterate’. Of course, we are fully aware of Gladstone’s achievements: that’s what gets taught. However, one of the things that I have learned as a History student is that history is rarely adequately encompassed in a single narrative. Glorifying him only ignores the full picture of William Gladstone’s history – and, as History students, we like to understand not only the complexities of the past, but also the complexities of how it is written about and represented: whose stories get heard and whose stories get obliterated from public memory. It is vital to have an informed conversation about the past that is open to nuance about how and why the past gets represented in specific ways at specific historical moments. 

Dr Jeffery is keen to ‘stand up for the right thing’ and highlight the positive aspects of Gladstone’s life, family and career. However, in doing so he seems to be adopting the attitude of imperial amnesia which ironically, the university is fighting to expose and defeat. Are we (by this I mean white, privileged people) appeasing our own conscience? Are we glorifying the past in an attempt to make ourselves feel better about our own history? Isn’t it the “right thing” to question the past and give voice to those who previously have been silenced?

I do agree that during Gladstone’s times as Prime Minister he promoted radical reforms. However, there seems to be a difficulty in representing Gladstone as a more complex figure, with much to admire but also much that is offensive to many citizens. Yes, Gladstone campaigned for the abolition of slavery, but in doing so he primarily advocated for the compensation and apprenticeship scheme which ultimately benefitted his family. The Gladstones received much ‘more than £90,000, about £9.5m in today’s terms, as compensation for the slaves they were forced to free’. Therefore, we must ask ourselves, as critical thinkers, are we prioritising the side of history that makes us feel good about our past or are we seeing and accepting the whole picture?

The local historian Malik Al Nasir, whose ancestors were enslaved by the Gladstone family, understandably has a different perspective from Dr Jeffery’s “reverence for W.E Gladstone”. Al Nasir has provided me with his archival research demonstrating how William Gladstone worked to fulfil father’s political and financial aims. 

It is clear that although Gladstone advocated for the abolition of slavery, in doing so was fulfilling his father’s financial agenda of compensation. Al Nasir explains that ‘W. E Gladstone advocated in Parliament explicitly for more compensation for his father’s plantations in Demerara and also petitioned for a further £100,000 after the apprenticeship system was due to end in 1840. All of this he and his siblings inherited in 1851 after John Gladstone’s death, shown in his father’s will.’ 

See for yourself on the Legacies of British Slave Ownership webpage that reveals the true extent of the compensation John Gladstone received. In fact he was the largest single beneficiary of the slavery compensation scheme.  

It is important to note that we are not holding W.E Gladstone accountable for his father’s actions. However, we are concerned with his compliance in securing significant financial benefits from the abolition and exploiting the apprenticeship system to squeeze the last penny out of the people his father enslaved. They were both responsible, the father exploited the slave trade; the son exploited the way in which abolition was brought about.

Certainly to me, it seems that although Gladstone was indeed – at times – a key liberal reformer, it is impossible to think of him only as such. In doing so, this denies his role in arguably the most racist piece of legislation Britain has ever passed. The Abolition of Slavery Act (1833) deemed the slaves not as human beings, but as ‘property’ which required compensation to the owners. 

Here we see the complex nature of history and by remembering one side of it or suggesting that ‘people’ at the time did not feel our contemporary anger, we continue to silence the enslaved who were also ‘people’, whose anger was very much present in the past and was equally silenced then. 

Malik Al Nasir has said that ‘It is time for us to support calls for The University of Liverpool to fully fund a comprehensive study into its own contested past, as far as slavery is concerned. Considering Liverpool’s pivotal role in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, it is absurd that they have not yet announced an inquiry, as has been concluded by University of Glasgow and is being undertaken currently at University of CambridgeUniversity of Bristol and others in the UK. These are a sort of ‘truth and reconciliation’ process that is essential to bringing about a balanced view of history and a modicum of restorative justice for the victims of this most grotesque crime against humanity.’

I also am calling for action by The University of Liverpool and institutions alike. Action that goes beyond words or simple virtue signalling. Our University’s history is intertwined with slavery and its abolition so, we need to recognise this in full so that we may grow and become an inclusive institution that actively fights against racism and whitewashed education. My suggestion is that the university, and readers, should donate to the Laurence Westgaph’s fund to raise money for a memorial to commemorate enslaved people who lived, died and were buried in the city. 

Introduction to my blog

I am a History student at the University of Liverpool. I am starting this blog to outline some of my beliefs on current affairs as well as helping to educate people about what I have learnt at University and/or elsewhere.

I suppose this is a personal reflection on my intellectual journey and it will contain links to the modules I have studied at University. For example, the Global History of the Present module seriously challenged my belief systems and to an extent, led me to question my views on politics.

My blog will help consilidate my understanding of my subject and also provide a platform on which I can develop my ideas and construct new opinions about the world, politics and my subject. Hopefully this will inspire others to question their own belief systems, helping to allow productive conversations through which to grow and become effective global citizens.