OPINION
20/06/2020 06:00 BST

Removing Statues Is The Easy Part. Confronting Britain's Racist Legacy Will Be Harder

The British public has been forced to acknowledge the darker, racist side of history. But what happens next? Timi Sotire writes.

ASSOCIATED PRESS
A likeness of Cecil Rhodes, the controversial Victorian imperialist who supported apartheid-style measures in southern Africa is seen mounted on the facade of the Oriel College, in Oxford

Videos and photographs portraying the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue during Bristol’s Black Lives Matter March received global media attention and sparked a wave of action. Taking inspiration from the initiative exhibited by Bristolians, people around the world have recognised the futility of trying to make change through democratic means, taking matters into their own hands by defacing, disfiguring, and removing public memorials that celebrate key figures in the Slave Trade. Today, Oxford University announced its removal of a statue that was created in order to glorify one of the most violent and barbaric imperialists: Cecil Rhodes. 

Ironically enough, critics arguing that these statues should have been removed through official channels seem to have erased the history that they are now suddenly so interested in preserving. In recent years, we have seen students in universities around the world democratically campaigning to remove these statues from their campuses, while having their names tarnished at the hands of the right-wing British press. Years of work done by those within the student and academic population led to no change. Within 10 days of the Colston statue being pushed into the docks, supporters of the UK’s #RhodesMustFall movement finally have the outcome that they’ve wanted for years. But with this change has come the revelation that most people in Britain actively fail to acknowledge the nation’s central involvement in slavery and colonialism, and how it impacts Black people today.

The way in which this country approaches racism and the history of the empire goes beyond the presence of statues. Celebrating centuries of genocide through the memorialisation of slave traders’ figurines is emblematic of the epistemic violence that underpins the distorted retelling of our nations’ history. This ignorance leads to the creation of an official version of our social reality that is in service of the reproduction of white supremacy. The claim that the presence of these statues acts as a method of “preserving history” normally arises in tandem with an outright refusal to acknowledge the role colonialism played (and continues to play) in the development of modern society. The removal of these statues has forced the British public to acknowledge the darker, racist side of their history, and how the actions of Britain in the colonial era have structured the world according to a particular racial logic that is universal within our society today. 

Removing these statues across the nation is a step in the right direction. But I guess the question I have is, what now? The British public has a habit of derailing the conversation when movements like this arise in order to avoid doing anything substantial for those who need it the most. This is clearly shown through the ”gingerbread person debacle that received national media attention, rather than addressing the issues that transgender people face on a daily basis, from the regular misgendering to the lack of gender neutral toilets and changing rooms. We are even seeing it now; reducing the Black Lives Matter movement to the removal of shows such as Little Britain and Fawlty Towers is intentional. It presents the Black Lives Matter as one obsessed with political correctness, rather than one dedicated to fighting racial injustice. 

Removing statues is the easiest thing to do at a time like this. But to interrogate and remove the systems put in place that rationalise the celebration of murderers such as Colston and Rhodes requires a lot more than a mere statue replacement. The legacies of colonialism do not start and stop with the presence of a stone or bronze figure. We need to confront Britain’s racist history and understand that colonialism was the precondition for the development of our modern society. Even more so, colonialism is constitutive of modernity. Ignoring this is destructive for Black people in Britain, allowing for collective modes of denial that manifest in claims that Britain is a ‘post-racial’ society, with everyone being on a level playing field.

Post-racialism and colonialism go hand in hand. A post-racial perception of society cannot exist without the ahistoricism created by colonial ways of thinking. This widespread, systemic production of white ignorance is what makes people in this country feel justified in silencing Black people when they talk about racism, whilst ignoring their calls for change. What we need to see is a change the relationship between knowledge and perception. As the old adage says, “knowledge is power”, the history that we are informed of is heavily structured by relations of racial domination. What we need is to recognise and reorient where this power is drawn from. 

This is a change that requires a mass upheaval of the world as we know it, recognising that, by living in a white supremacist society, it follows that our conceptual apparatus will be shaped by the biases of the ruling group, whether we have these statues in place or not. Clearly this cannot be done overnight. But it can start by refocusing the discussion surrounding racism to the matters at hand, looking at the real ways in which racism affects Black people on a daily basis. We need to actively uplift Black people’s voices and experiences, actively work to combat the structural roadblocks put in place at every stage of their life, and acknowledge the fact that colonialism has shaped, and continues to shape, modern society as we know it.

Timi Sotire is a freelance writer.