‘Oxford University has no regard for black life’

Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh argues that Oxford has shown itself to have no regard for black life in its decision not to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes.

Since its inception, Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) has bent over backwards to accommodate Oxford’s ignorance. But the time has come to speak plainly. Oxford’s response to our campaign has been nothing short of shameful. Oriel College’s backtrack on a “listening campaign” and announcing in early 2016 that it would not remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from its prominent position overlooking High Street is only one example. In truth, the predominant response to RMF has been a knee-jerk scramble to defend nostalgic mythology.

Oxford University has no regard for black life. By that, I don’t mean it’s filled with people who make public racist remarks or openly profess the inferiority of blackness (though they certainly exist). Instead, I mean that the university displays a diabolical indifference to the past and present suffering of black people. This veiled racism is buried so deep that it masquerades as tolerance while retaining the effect of old-style oppression.

That’s the crux of this debate, not the ridiculous appeals to “free speech” or “historical preservation” that have characterised opposition to RMF thus far. Statues don’t enjoy free speech, and there is no inalienable right to immortalisation. RMF has never hampered anyone’s ability to disagree with us. On the contrary, we inaugurated the debate, before big money silenced it at the first indication we were winning. Therefore, the whole free speech objection is a red herring, and often a cloak for prejudice. The fact that many so-called “free speech advocates” have not criticised Oriel’s decision to trade money for debate also speaks volumes.

This is not to say that free speech does not enter into the debate. But, where it does, the burdens of the principle fall on the side of RMF, not its detractors. Students should be allowed to make calls for the removal of statues without being compared to Islamic State. They should also be allowed to protest vociferously on issues that affect their everyday lives. And they should not be threatened with expulsion just for raising views contrary to establishment orthodoxy. Members of RMF have also continually been on the receiving end of various acts of cyber hate speech. If free speech has been limited, it has been limited against RMF.

Second, how can RMF be accused of “erasing history” when Oxford itself refuses to mark the complexity of its own past? Our actions have been confused with damnatio memoriae when in fact we want Rhodes to be remembered. The question, clearly, is not whether Rhodes is remembered, but how. Our opponents, on the other hand, cannot explain why we should preserve a single and misleading narrative at all costs. We also should not draw a false dichotomy between historical preservation and ethical awareness: putting the statue in a museum achieves both.

When probed about what they mean by “history”, many of our critics actually reveal a deep ignorance of Africa, and Rhodes. What they really express is a desire to preserve infantile fables that reinforce their identities. History is not as simple or static as colonial apologists want it to be: removing the statue from its current position would itself mark the moment at which Oxford entered a more honest present. We should not be so overawed by history that we are afraid to make it. Beyond this, we are accused of wanting “safe spaces”, when Oxford remains a safe space for the old boys club that runs it. Here’s the ugly truth: Oxford is a safer space for a statue of Cecil Rhodes than it is for black students. The reduction of black vulnerability and isolation to a plea for “comfort” only further reveals the scale of the problem.

The facts are clear: over the last five years, Oxford only accepted between 19 and 30 black British students as undergraduates each year. That’s half of what elite private schools Eton and Harrow sent. In 2010, for example, 21 Oxford colleges did not accept a single black undergraduate. There are only a handful of black professors, only one of them senior. How can anyone not be struck by how outrageous that is in 2016? Why have there not been protests in the streets for decades? Because Oxford is dull to black life. Unable to cope with our sustained critique, Oxford’s senior leaders continue to deny that a problem exists, or tell anyone who raises the issue to “go elsewhere”. By calling for the removal of the Rhodes statue, RMF wants to show just how far Oxford will go to defend the indefensible. Just how unwilling it will be to look itself in the mirror. Just what reflexes still dominate its systems of power. Whatever happens with the statue, we have already succeeded.

By ending its “six month listening campaign” before it began, Oriel College may think it has won the battle, but it is destined to lose the war. Whether now, or in generations to come, Rhodes will fall. One day, people will look back on those who defended Oxford’s racist symbols as they view the dons who argued that women should not be allowed into the university. They will be laughed at like those who, in the 17th century, campaigned against the teaching of science at Oxford. We are not campaigning to be understood by the relics of racism that still live today. We are marking, for history to record, the moment when black students exposed Oxford’s persistent racism, and the imperial blind spot that enables it. And we are only getting started.

Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh is a DPhil student in International Relations and an organising member of Rhodes Must Fall Oxford.

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Comments (2)

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  1. Oxford is a very elitist and hierarchical institution, no doubt, and a lot can and should be done to address discrimination there and in other universities. However, the issue of racial ‘inclusion’ is a bit more tricky. Face it, Oxford is an institution in a White, European and English society, and will accordingly reflect that demographic. This is completely different from the U.S. which is an immigrant country built on a history of racial slavery of one set of migrants by another. There is naturally a limit to how many black people, Africans or ‘minorities’ that Oxford can and should accommodate as a fundamentally English society, just like a Chinese or German university realistically will be comprised predominantly of Chinese and Germans.

    Secondly, the whole Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford debate sounds rather contradictory and elitist. I understand Rhodes Must Fall in South Africa, but you can’t make a clean, linear extension of this legitimate South African grievance, to Oxford. You guys use all this vile language against Oxford being an all white boys club, yet it sounds like you simply want to be just like them, rather than advocate for a more inclusive world more broadly. What’s with passing motions at the very elitist Oxford Union, which is a student club that many Oxford students are not even members of, or cannot afford to register with? If you’re that unhappy, you should move to other universities in Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham, or even in Nairobi, Harare, Maputo etc which are comparatively more ‘racially inclusive’. Sounds to me like you just want a space at a very privileged table where you can reproduce the very systems of domination and exploitation that you are now wailing against. As Africans, if our interest is indeed the betterment of the lives of our compatriots, where a vast majority of Africans remain mired in excruciating poverty, shouldn’t our responsibility be to how we can be better ambassadors of our respective countries, how we use the education we acquire today to reform the colonial legacies of exploitation back home, how to build more accountable, representative and transparent systems of governance back home; how we can hold our vile and unaccountable leaders to account; how we can build universities which can compete with the Oxfords, Cambridge, Harvards etc so we don’t have to beg for crumbs here? Africa isn’t the only continent to be colonised, but I don’t see or hear Indians or the Chinese or the Malaysians or the Singaporeans wailing over the statue of some dead white guy. No, they’re silently building roaring, industrialised economies, accompanied by globally competitive universities – Peking University, Tsinghua, Singapore National University etc, while we Africans continue making noise and embarrassing ourselves.

    Third, this is addressed precisely to Mr. Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, have you ever spoken up against the intense xenophobia in South Africa against other African residents there? South African universities are extremely discriminatory against fellow African students and academics there in renewing visas and opportunities for social and academic mobility, not to mention the periodic wave of xenophobic violence against Ethiopians, Zimbabweans, Nigerians, Malawians etc. The whole world watched in horror last year as your countrymen stabbed, assaulted and in some cases, burnt other Africans to death, for coming to South Africa to ‘steal their jobs’ and ‘women’. What have you done to address that discrimination and xenophobia against fellow Africans in your own country? Charity starts at home…

    By the way, I am an African born and raised in Africa.

  2. If it is true as you say that Oxford has only ‘accepted between 19 and 30 black British students’ while rejecting black students even though they were qualified, the school is doing itself a disservice. That said, I fail to understand the logic of you do not agreeing with an institution yet fighting to be a part of it. Punish them by taking your good self and your future great contributions out of their lives.
    Sorry but this read very much like a dumped lover not wanting to move on.
    If Oxford rejects, you try Cambridge, if they reject you try Harvard, then Yale, then MIT, etc. If they all reject you then maybe it is not because they are racist, you may not have the academic chops they want. That said, there is always your local Polytechnic.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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