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Charlottesville shows us why we still need RMF

Recent violence in Charlottesville, VA, caused by the clashing of white Neo-Nazis and Antifa, the far left anti-fascist group, have proven false the “Post-racial” bubble that some white Americans choose to live in. I use the phrase “proven false” quite ironically, because you would be hard-pressed to find a POC living in America right now who thinks racism ended with the civil war, Brown v. Board of Education or Loving v. Virginia. Yet despite massively documented police brutality against POC, increasing income inequality between white and black families; despite the continued exploitation of predominantly black bodies for free/cheap labor under the prison industrial complex, some white Americans, mostly on the right, have rejected the idea of the continued existence of white supremacy and institutionalized racism. Instead, they have made calls to POC to “work harder”. They have touted the “American Dream”, and have provided examples of people who came from nothing; Cuban refugees, the “model minority”- mainly Americans of East Asian and Indian origins, who have proven that through hard work, you can make anything of yourself in America.

This view, of course, exists mainly in pundit circles, in not so fringe elements of the right wing taken extremely seriously by their viewership (which is massive, if media reports are anything to go by) but not by anyone else. Most white Americans in the center right/left acknowledge the existence of institutional racism and white supremacy. Yet even for them, there are numerous disjunctions between their well-intended desires to dismantle white supremacy, and the ways they go about it. But that’s a corollary. The first part is the recognition of the fact that there’s a problem, and of the sources of this said problem. America has a white supremacy problem, many white Americans recognize it and its sources and are willing to take measures against it, and in fact, Antifa is predominantly white. That’s a start.

Interestingly, the ways America and Britain have tackled white supremacy are markedly different. Despite being the first to ban slavery, Britain has been much slower in confronting its legacy of white supremacy. Perhaps because chattel slavery against black and Indian people was not practiced in mainland Britain, or perhaps because Britain, through extremely strict immigration laws, does not have a large enough population of people who suffered from British atrocities to force it into a productive discussion with them, many British people refuse to confront their white supremacy inspired legacy of colonialism. It is not uncommon to run into Britons online who fervently believe that the Statue of Robert Lee should fall but not that of Cecil Rhodes. The argument is that colonialism does not occupy the same moral plane as slavery, and that whereas Rhodes was a hero to the British Empire, Lee was a traitor to the American one. While that is at best an arguable proposition, and while it is important to point out that if Rhodes was a hero, then it was primarily because he was around when British colonialism was in vogue whereas Lee was a traitor because he fought to preserve an out-of-fashion American institution, the point is that both British colonialism and American slavery had the same ideological grounding -white supremacy- and any moral distinctions between slavery and colonialism are completely post hoc.

Oxford can take a stand against perpetuating the legacy of a white supremacist and, by bringing his statue down, Oxford can show that it will not lend its institutional prestige towards the celebration of white supremacy.

Britain as it is now suffers from simultaneous nostalgia of what once was the British Empire, and amnesia of the atrocities they committed. It is the relic of a Great Britain which refuses to believe that the “Great” in its name is now about as relevant as the “Democratic” in “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”. Empire critics like Shashi Tharoor have documented the deleterious effects that British colonialism had on previously existing local economies, the most startling example being India, whose share as a percentage of global GDP fell from upwards of 20 percent at the onset of British colonialism to under five percent when they left. This is always mostly ignored, or when it isn’t, the “benefits” of colonialism are pointed out to you as a counter. The assumption held then by many British people, and still prevalent now, is that nothing went on before the British came. It conflates Britain, the west, indeed the land of the white man, with science, technology and advancement, whereas the rest of the world, the colonies, are backward and in need of saving. It’s proponents, such as Niall Ferguson, automatically come to the conclusion that British colonialism was good, by providing evidence of “improved” infrastructure (while of course ignoring the fact that this infrastructure was built to further British resource plundering, and that trade and information links would have led to these improvements anyway).

This then leads these Empire nostalgics to definitively declare the “unthankfulness” of movements such as RMF, and to even stifle conversation on the issue because the activists are supposed to be thankful. After all, RMF is predominantly made up of people privileged enough to attend Oxford. Surely, they couldn’t be suffering that much if they attend Oxford, could they? It is at times even pointed out that RMF activists, by virtue of being at Oxford, enjoy privileges that even the majority of white Britain does not. This assertion, aside from attempting to use class to add unnecessary complexity to the issue so as to undermine RMF’s core claim, also implicitly denotes Oxford as a place that many white people are entitled to, but most of them are not lucky enough to attend, and one that the majority of POC are not entitled to, and the few lucky to attend should be grateful they do. Ntokozo Qwabe, a South African Rhodes scholar who was prominent in the Rhodes Must Fall movement at Oxford was severally accused of “lack of thankfulness”. How dare he campaign for the removal of the statue of Rhodes while at the same time benefitting from a Rhodes scholarship?

The greater accusation levied against Rhodes Must Fall however, is that of wanting to revise history, of refusing to acknowledge the fact that some things happened the way they did. On the one hand, proponents of this point of view argue, these statues are too old and have lost the ideological mettle behind them. On the other hand they claim that having statues of people such as Rhodes in public places forces us to acknowledge them and their atrocities, to learn from history. Having these statues there apparently creates debates about the actions of the people these statues honor. These two points of view, despite coming from the same camp yet being contradictory, still both show one thing: many POC are disturbed by the legacy of Rhodes and what he represents; many white people are not. If the years that Rhodes’ statue has quietly looked down on Oriel College tell us one thing, it is that the very public presence of this statue forced no one to confront the legacy of Rhodes until Rhodes Must Fall came along. And for those “worried” that Rhodes’ atrocities are going to be omitted from the history books or that nobody is going to remember what he did, I assure you, the Southern Africans still suffering from Rhodes’ legacy; in terms of landlessness caused by having their ancestors forcefully evacuated from their lands, in terms of a colonised education system which still chooses to dignify and heroify a man who oppressed their ancestors; they will not forget Rhodes. He is very much alive to them.

And even then, Rhodes Must Fall activists are not against the statue being moved into a museum. In a museum, the problematic legacy of Rhodes can be taught without people of color constantly being made to feel like we inhabit a space not welcoming to us. POC can feel safe walking around campus knowing that that same campus does not glorify someone who murdered their ancestors and pillaged their property. Oxford can take a stand against perpetuating the legacy of a white supremacist and, by bringing his statue down, Oxford can show that it will not lend its institutional prestige towards the celebration of white supremacy. Now, more than ever, Rhodes must fall.

But as has been stressed before, this is not just about a statue. Aside from removing the statue, Oxford’s duty further lies in ensuring that its students and faculty of color feel safe and welcome in this space not originally meant for them. It lies in Oxford increasing the number of black and other POC students and faculty to be a true reflector of the world. It requires that Oxford be not synonymous with whiteness. It lies in Oxford introducing more classes about people of color, about other histories other than British and “world” history, taught by people from these various parts of the world. It requires that people realize that you can simultaneously be an African against Rhodes yet benefit (and without any guilt, might I add) from the Rhodes scholarship. As Nanjala Nyabola, a Kenyan Rhodes scholar once claimed, she could not imagine a bigger fuck you to Rhodes than accepting this scholarship which he had not meant for people like her.

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