Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Racism in context


Oriel College, Rhodes BuildingThis story happened to a friend of a friend — FOF in urban legend technical parlance — when I was a student at Yale. Said FOF had applied for a Rhodes scholarship, and was invited for an interview. Reading the FOF’s application letter stating that he sought to “further the legacy of Cecil Rhodes”, one interviewer asked, “When you refer to the legacy of Cecil Rhodes, do you mean in particular his legacy as a white supremacist or as a pedophile?”

I’m not sure if it’s credible that a representative of the Rhodes Trust could speak so disparagingly of its founder — this may be an example of British establishment values refracted through the prism of 1980s American student sentiment — but the principle is solid: Many who advocate leaving monuments to dubious figures of the past in situ — whether Cecil Rhodes or Robert E. Lee — complain  suggest, instead of “rewriting history” that this statuary needs to be seen “in context”. But they rarely concern themselves with providing the full context.

Now that Charlottesville has deposed its racist monument and Oriel College has kept its own, I wondered if the Oxford City Council might propose a solution amenable to all. Accepting the right of Oriel and its not-at-all-racist historically-minded alumni who refused to donate to a Rhodes-free institution, there is still plenty of space in front of the facade for more context. As it stands, the college places Rhodes in the context of two 20th-century kings and four 15th-16th-century college provosts and bishops. The city (or enterprising protestors) could contribute more context by placing an exhibition out front of famous British racists — for example, Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Enoch Powell — with the Rhodes statue in the centre.

Comments on: "Racism in context" (3)

  1. It’s a challenging piece, but I enjoyed reading it. Personally, I think that such revisionism is Orwellian, but everyone’s different. Thank you for writing this.

    • Thanks for your support. I agree that this is an issue on which one can reasonably disagree. On the other hand, calling it “Orwellian” seems to me off-base, unless I missed the chapter in 1984 where the party was compelled by popular demonstrations to remove the statue of Emmanuel Goldstein consign his writings to the memory hole.

      The point is, the decision about who to honour in public space is a decision that reflects public values. Past generations have a vote, but not a veto. The fact that the decision to keep the Rhodes monument was effectively taken by a few wealthy Oriel donors tells me all I need to know about the values it reflects.

      • That’s true enough, my point was that the interpretation of the monument is only possible if the monument still exists. If we look at the Rhodes monument and say “that’s there because of hypocrisy and bribery, old values etc” that’s fine – I think it should remain as a testament to such idiocy. Otherwise, to quote Orwell, “Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right”. Thanks again for this cracking post.

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