I knew exactly what was going to happen when I saw the Manchester students painting over imperialist Kipling’s work. They will hear “the truth they’ve spoken // Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools”. We live in a country which little understands race and empire but with the confidence of the pub, loudmouth starts a conversation. And every time this happens, the same thing happens. The same talking heads, same tweets, same racist abuse. Does anyone learn anything about empire or race? No. But we learn about Britain and what it thinks of young people of colour (POC).
The morality of imperialism is often the starting point of this discussion. Moral relativism is the dominant idea. Some think economic “investment” extraction; implementation of the English language and democracy mollifies the human rights abuses of the empire. The Student Union committee at the University of Manchester, myself, and a lot of historians disagree. “If” is a lovely poem, but Kipling isn’t lovely, and discourse about glorifying imperialists is much-needed. The idea that racism was so common that it was fine or that because the British imperialists built trains it was morally excusable, is wrong. Only if you didn’t ask the black and brown people of the colonies or consider their views would you come to that conclusion. Presumably if like Mr Kipling you consider them “half devil and half child” you probably didn’t care for their views. Ignoring POC like these student’s detractors do is the only way you get to this kind of moral ambiguity.
I get that this conversation seems academic, the empire is tangential and mostly viewed positively. Yet most POC in the UK are mere generations away from growing up in a fragile postcolonial state. The reality is that when students talk about oppression and racism this seems hyperbolic to a public who are only presented with a “white man’s burden” view of empire. People think this criticism of empire is about encouraging “white guilt”; strangely enough its actually about centring black and brown people in conversations on empire not the reactions of the majority. Wrongly there will be a conflation of this activism with historical erasure. They think because students find people offensive they don’t want them to be discussed. No, they just don’t want them to be celebrated or sanitised.
There is an attempt to make this and similar campaigns about campus culture war or free speech. This isn’t the topic of discussion. Students deciding things about their own space via their democratically-elected official is not a leftist anti-free speech insurgency.
There are people who are angered by any minorities raising their voices, especially a critical one. Some racists use intellectual arguments; other hurl abuse and then lots of normally well-meaning people aid and abet them. These well-meaning people are duped, thinking they are supporting a pro-free speech or pro-history position, they are doing no such thing. The end results are the public vilifying of black and brown young people. There has been reported death threats and racist abuse. I know plenty of students involved in similar campaigns who had to ditch social media out of fear. If this conversation about Kipling means anything in a post-colonial context, it demonstrates the treatment of people of colour engaging in public life.
In the end, one of the nation’s favourite poets hasn’t attracted the critique of him needed. We as of yet don’t know how to have this conversation. We neither know enough or are willing to listen to those that do. We will talk over each other or hurl abuse.
Our shared understanding of empire or anything important has barely started and probably won’t ever.