You might have heard that Oriel College, Oxford, has come under a lot of scrutiny recently with regards whether or not its statue of Cecil Rhodes should be removed. Rhodes was a Victorian mining magnate who made lots of money from diamonds and the exploitation of labour, however, he did give some of his cash to Oxford University to set up a scholarship for international students. On one side are the students leading the Rhodes Must Fall campaign demanding that the statue be removed because Rhodes was a notorious racist and it’s pretty offensive having to walk past his effigy on a daily basis. Then there are the conservatives (for want of a better word) demanding that the statue stay because students these days are too easily offended and removing a statue is tantamount to erasing history. And there’s Oriel College staff – caught in the middle of it until a recent article revealed that a bunch of wealthy college alumni threatened to withdraw hundreds of thousands of pounds if the statue was removed. So, because money speaks louder than students (unless they’re very rich students) the statue will stay. I agree – I think the statue should stay – just not in Oriel College.
Different sides of the debate keep asking us to focus on the ‘bigger picture’ – be it the reputation of Oxford University, the literal whitewashing of history, historical legacies of racism and not forgetting the contemporary incidences of racism in a notoriously white university, brilliantly explained in this article. However, there’s another bit of the ‘bigger picture’ that I would humbly suggest we are missing – our obsession with statues. I mean seriously, they’re everywhere, whole buildings festooned in big blocks of stone carved into the likenesses of…well…mainly white men. White men who led us into war (Winston Churchill, Nelson), white men who got rich (Cecil Rhodes, George Peabody) and white men who fought dragons (St George). Sure, women get statues too – Queen Victoria and Elizabeth, two women who by the sheer accident of birth ended up ruling our country. There’s Justice and Britannia, not real women who existed and actually did things but personifications of moral sensibilities and countries. And Jane Austen gets some odd statue-plaster-thing outside her museum in Bath but then it’s not as if her novels were known for their diversity.
Nowadays we tend not to erect statues to random rich and belligerent men – it’s not as if Cameron and Blair are getting plinths any time soon (at least I hope not). But back in the day people loved it or at least the people who actually had the money and power to demand a statue be built in the middle of London or on an Oxford University college. And that’s because back in the day rich, white men were writing history – a history far too many of us take at face value when we decry that removing Cecil Rhodes’ statue is akin to rewriting history. No, it’s recognising that history tends to be some terrible, bigoted agenda written by the victors (aka supremacists) with whom we no longer want to associate ourselves.
So where should the statues go? Into the fifth or sixth empty home of some random rich person who would rather their house lie empty than house people in need of accommodation. So it can accommodate statues instead. They could all be lined up for people (well, overly sensitive people who get easily offended when people ask for old statues to be taken down) to look at and underneath each statue there would be a plaque that contexualises it according to the latest, historical findings. Thus, underneath Cecil Rhodes would appear, amongst other things, the word RACIST. And we don’t approve of racism anymore which is why we don’t need statues of racists lining our streets and educational institutions. And rather than faff about spending lots of money on new statues we can build affordable housing instead.