Recent Oxford graduate Kate Bradley discusses how the liberal face that Oxford University likes to present has been challenged in the campaign to remove the statue of racist Cecil Rhodes.
As the Rhodes Must Fall campaign began to make strides at the University of Cape Town in South Africa in 2015, I was completing my final year at Oriel College, Oxford. Mine was the same college attended by Sir Cecil Rhodes, the late Victorian colonist and racist against whom Rhodes Must Fall militates. By my third year, I was deeply disillusioned with Oxford, and so it came as no surprise last week when the college decided to leave his statue towering over Oxford’s High Street on the front of the ‘Rhodes building’, despite growing protests.
For campaigners with Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford (RMF Oxford), removal of the Rhodes statue on Oxford’s High Street could be valuable on several levels. Firstly, it would symbolise a commitment to anti-racist (or at least ‘non-racist’)policies and diversity work at Oxford University, where only 3.9% of professors were Black or minority ethnic (BME) as of 2011, and where there is still evidence of institutional bias towards BME applicants. It would also chip away a little more of the iconography of white male supremacy: the statues, memorials and portraiture that saturate Oxford. Finally, and importantly, it would be a renunciation of Rhodes’ values and ideals and the role they play in present-day Oxford. Rhodes could then be moved to a museum and contextualised appropriately, making way for new heroes and new dreams.
There is no doubt that Britain’s past was a very different place to its present, morally and ideologically. Some of the campaign’s less explicitly racist critics argue that the statue should stay because it is futile and narcissistic to fuss over the mistakes of long-dead figures. However, there are two things wrong with this argument: firstly, the British ruling elites have never accepted that Cecil Rhodes’ actions were a mistake. Secondly, the ideologies and economic structures he helped to create still divide and rule the modern world.
Until very recently, Rhodes was unquestionably upheld as a hero of Britain’s history: buildings and monuments were enthusiastically named after him; dinners were held in his honour; portraits and statues were commissioned to ensure his memory after his death. All of these things happened at Oxford. This is despite Rhodes’ vociferous, violent racism: he was an inventor of concentration camps in Africa where thousands of people died from disease and direct violence, and he was a proto-fascist who believed in an Anglo-Saxon master-race well before Hitler. He started his ‘Rhodes scholarships’ to bolster the power and supposed superiority of white Germanic races – specifically, their male ruling elites. British historians have been remarkably forgetful of these aspects of his biography.
We are now seeing a sea-change in international opinion on Rhodes, which is becoming warier towards his legacy. This change has largely been orchestrated by campaigners across the world, including in Oxford, and this is admirable in itself. Despite its inability so far to force Oriel’s hand on removing the statue, the RMF Oxford campaign has helped to highlight how marginalised and oppressed Black students, professors and workers at Oxford continue to be.
While at Oxford, those of us wishing to bring to light the elitism and prejudice still prevalent in Oxford were often silenced and made to feel guilty for our whistleblowing by other students and university structures. One of many examples was the ‘We Are All Oxford’ project, a whitewashing and silencing response to ‘I, Too, Am Oxford’, an anti-racist campaign which sought to highlight instances of racism at the university.
The argument used against anti-racist campaigners was that revealing Oxford’s faults would be likely to deter less privileged students from applying to the university, and so make Oxford even more exclusive and unfair. If only the students would come, the ‘liberals’ argued, the whole culture of the university would improve. In practice, this argument means that liberals and conservatives at Oxford form a disturbing coalition to cover up and ignore incidents of discrimination and elitist exclusivity. I call this Oxford’s “liberal-conservatism”, and it is something I encountered repeatedly whenever anyone tried to push for change in Oxford.
The more well-meaning of these students and staff genuinely believe that the culture at Oxford could be (and would be) shaped positively by students from less elite backgrounds. However, they rely on the idea that Oxford’s elitism is somehow ‘bottom-up’ and could be changed by students with different ideas and backgrounds. In reality, Oxford both enforces and inculcates celebration of its elitism in those that it allows to eat at the “high table”, and it expects students to be grateful for their chance to submit to its values, even when those values are repulsive to those it seeks to assimilate. ‘Access’ programmes and ‘outreach’ work at Oxford are premised on a watered-down version of identity politics, where only those marginalised people who are willing to assimilate into Oxford’s opulent and traditionalist culture are welcomed. Those who arrive and find themselves opposed to Oxford’s values are criticised for voicing their opinion at all, as RMF Oxford’s campaigners were criticised by Chancellor Chris Patten recently, suggesting Oxford’s drive for ‘diversity’ is only skin-deep.
RMF Oxford’s struggle has helped to expose Oxford University’s “liberal-conservatism”. The mask was finally torn off last week, when it was leaked that Oriel’s decision to keep up the Rhodes statue (taken after an “open debate” between those with “divergent views” and only decided after “careful consideration”) had actually been motivated by the threat of massive withdrawn funding from rich alumni and donors if the statue were removed.
I do not doubt that some of the staff involved in making the decision were put in a genuinely uncomfortable position by the financial threats, and the most disgusting agents in this decision are the donors who made them. However, we should not be surprised in the slightest. It only serves to expose the systems of motivation which power the privately-funded university model. It might seem trite to say it, but money speaks louder than words. No matter how many leadership positions are filled with progressive or even radical people, and no matter how convincing our arguments are, the university’s donors have immeasurably more power than good ideas do. Moreover, since alumni with millions of pounds to throw around have benefitted from Oxford’s elitism, it is unlikely that mere good ideas could win them over.
I suspect that Rhodes Must Fall activists knew this would be the outcome. Even if they do one day succeed, changing the symbols of institutional power cannot dismantle the economic and structural foundations of racism in universities, especially not in Oxford, which relies on a long history of unpleasant men for its prestige and financial security. But their struggle is important, and we can at least hope that this media furore will force Oxford to face itself in the mirror – this time without the mask.