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Why Symbols Matter: The Case for the Rhodes Must Fall Movement in Oxford

27/07/2015 09:52 | Updated 24 July 2016

Symbols matter. They matter to individuals and they matter to collectives, including nations. And symbols can matter positively or negatively.

When the Governors of South Carolina and Alabama ordered that the Confederate flag be taken down from state capitols in recent weeks, they acknowledged that communities need to reflect constantly on whether public symbols express their values.

When individuals on Facebook adopted rainbow-tinted profile pictures after the US Supreme Court's marriage equality decision, they also acknowledged - as Oxford student Steph Bell has noted - that the symbols we associate with ourselves say something about our personal values.

At Oxford University, symbols have been fiercely debated in the past few months, following the emergence of a group called Rhodes Must Fall Oxford.

Rhodes Must Fall Oxford is inspired by the Rhodes Must Fall movement at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. In Cape Town, the Rhodes Must Fall group successfully advocated for the removal of a statute of nineteenth-century industrialist Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes is well-known for setting up the Rhodes Scholarship, but he was also an imperialist who made public statements in his time about the inferiority of native South Africans, supported the disastrous Jameson Raid in 1895, and passed legislation that splintered black South African land ownership.

Like the Rhodes Must Fall group in Cape Town, Rhodes Must Fall Oxford has not confined its focus to symbols or to Cecil Rhodes. In addition to changing iconography, it has aimed to kickstart discussions about race at Oxford, advocate for curriculum change (for example, by considering the work of more non-European scholars in the humanities), and improve representation of non-white scholars and academics at the university.

Rhodes Must Fall has been working in parallel other groups, including Redress Rhodes - a group of Rhodes Scholars who have come together to call for changes within the global community of Rhodes Scholars. (Eighty-three Rhodes Scholars are selected every year to study at the University of Oxford.) The Warden of Rhodes House, Charles Conn, has been open to this debate, and recently decided not to offer an unqualified toast to 'The Founder', Cecil Rhodes, in an annual dinner for Rhodes Scholars after discussions with Redress Rhodes.

I am not a distant observer of these trends. I am a Rhodes Scholar from New Zealand, and I have also attended Rhodes Must Fall meetings - though I speak for neither the Rhodes Scholarships nor for Rhodes Must Fall in this article. My involvement in recent events has meant that I have heard some of the main arguments aired in the debate about how Oxford should view figures like Rhodes. And I want to clarify here what I see as some misconceptions.

Professor Jonathan Jansen said of the South African movement that removing the statue of Cecil Rhodes would leave him "airbrushed out of the history of the campus or the country" - and a similar claim has been made in Oxford. It's been said that removing statues encourages denial of, rather than debate about, the past.

Groups in Oxford have not yet made specific demands for the removal of symbols. But changing public symbols, if this is what groups advocate for, does not involve ignoring the past. If the statue of Cecil Rhodes is removed from Oriel College on the Oxford High Street, Rhodes won't be forgotten. Instead, the removal of the statue would be a statement about the figures we want to revere - and the values we want to uphold - in the present.

Many of the statues and symbols on show in Oxford are not accompanied by descriptions of what people like Cecil Rhodes did, so they don't offer much historical lesson-learning at the moment. Perhaps adding plaques and descriptions to provide context is a partial solution. But we should also debate collectively whether we want to revere publicly figures such as Rhodes, at a time when Oxford University's record on race continues to be criticized. (The standing committee of the Oxford Union, the student debating society, recently passed a motion unanimously accepting that it was "institutionally racist".)

Some have asked whether the Rhodes Must Fall movement distracts attention from problems of class and elitism at Oxford. But the movement thus far has aimed to avoid an either/or approach to the politics of recognition and redistribution. Members of the organising committee have said in public meetings that they see colonization as a focal example of oppression - but that they are committed to fighting other forms of oppression at the university, such as entrenched sexism and elitism.

One senior academic voiced another objection to me privately - that those Rhodes Scholars advocating for debate on this issue are showing a lack of gratitude to their funders, the Rhodes Trust. Some will say that Rhodes Scholars should not have accepted their scholarship if they had serious doubts about Cecil Rhodes. But others will say (in what I think is a compelling response) that exploring how the ongoing effect of historical injustices can be addressed is exactly what Rhodes Scholars, tasked by Rhodes' will with fighting "the world's fight", should be doing.

I am not a member of a colonised ethnic group. I will never be able to know exactly what it feels like to have had generations of my family displaced, injured, killed, or affected in some other way by colonisation.

What I do know is that the United Kingdom still has not fully reckoned with its colonial past, something I was surprised to discover after coming to this country from New Zealand.

Part of reckoning with that past, and reckoning with ongoing racism, must in my view involve serious reflection about symbols of colonisation and racism.

In the same way that the Confederate flag says something about states in America that fly it, in the same way that rainbow-tinted Facebook profile pictures say something about who we are and who we want to be - so too symbols and statutes in Oxford say something about what the university is and what it aspires to be.

Oxford students are right to ask whether those symbols and statues continue to reflect who they are, and who they want to be.