Updated: May 28
Events from 2020, such as the death of George Floyd, have brought the deeply pervasive and entrenched racist systems in the Western world to light. Furthermore, discourse on social media has highlighted how these racist systems are rooted in a hierarchy of white superiority and is a legacy of history, of which directly brings historical monuments and memorials into the question. Solidly carved historical figures cast in stone or metal and dotted around our streets might seem trivial, but the rejection of those figures that facilitated present racism is vital to determining a compassionate society’s commitment to dismantle structural racism and dissolve anti-Black sentiments in every non-Black community. Statues function as symbols of commemoration and celebration of the figures they immortalise, and whilst they are products of the morals of their time, they should also continuously serve society a purpose that fits its contemporary needs. The likes of slave traders such as Edward Colston, eugenics such as Cecil Rhodes, or confederate statues in the US, exist to offend those they oppressed and uphold the systems that need changing.
The most common argument against taking offensive statues down is that statues are a reminder of history. This is undeniably true, but there is a fine line between remembering history and championing slave traders and imperialists; the former can be achieved without the latter. Putting Edward Colston on the same pedestal as the likes of revolutionary people in the endeavour of social justice, such as Emmeline Pankhurst who was pivotal in the British suffragette movement, blurs the basic threshold of a statue to the audience--that of an existence of the historical figure’s overarching goodness and positive significance which justifies its continuous immortalisation. Just as there would be no question of removing symbols such as the German swastika, we should also hold the same standard in the opposing side of history: namely, a centuries-old system that sold Black people like commodities or a violent, genocidal colonial past, both which directly created the system that currently benefits some and subjugates others. Pulling the statues down not only exposes the racism in our hospitals, workplaces, schools and other spheres of society, it acknowledges and condemns how they were created and is the first step towards reform.
Even if there is ambiguity in the purpose of a statue, such that a controversial figure still has the potential to inform the past, they hardly serve as a history lesson in intention or in practice. The intention is clearly to celebrate a figure despite or even because of their racist actions, but their statues are also futile in being informative practically. Even when descriptions of their life exist, it is condensed and cherry-picked to fit an agenda of heroism, such as that of Churchill--in addition to being a WW2 leader, he was also the direct cause of 4 million Bengals’ starvation and concentration camps in Kenya and South Africa, all with underlying white supremacist reasons. Instead of arguing that statues like Edward Colston in Bristol somehow sufficiently inform history, we should encourage making the barbarism of Britain’s past a compulsory topic in schools’ syllabuses to restore history. This provides the historical context that future generations need in order to be anti-racist, which an inexpressive and desolate stone figure cannot provide. Indeed, the destruction of Colston’s statue was arguably the single event that shed light on who he was to the majority of Britain’s population, of which did not hold the slightest familiarity to his name prior. Thus, there is simply nothing to lose from letting go of them.
Those that fight for the continuation of these statues do not offer suggestions on other anti-racism reform simultaneous to their irrational cries. In fact, they do not even offer to shift the statues to a museum, where the educational setting makes the purpose clear. Their rebuttal that it ‘erases history’ sounds nothing more than a common weapon that deliberately strives to trigger and provoke supporters of anti-racism movements. It is a seemingly innocent rebuttal that in effect, implicitly justifies the white supremacist, imperialist beliefs that led to the creation of said statues in the first place. Structural racism cannot be abolished unless the past ideologies that directly created the system in place now are challenged and denounced.
Furthermore, the argument of ‘erasing history’ is hypocritical, as records of atrocities of the British Empire were abolished by the British government whilst the people that pursued them were still memorialised. ‘Operation Legacy’ ran during the end of the British Empire from the 1950s-1970s, and sought to systematically destroy documents that described the maltreatment and killings of those that were colonised, as well as revolts such as the Mau Mau Uprising. Thus, not only do the statues fail to inform and educate, they are active tools in whitewashing and hiding the history of those that were oppressed, far from the informative pieces of culture that some think they represent.
Racist statues exist as humiliation and degradation to the people they actively exploited. Given the historical figures’ role in creating present structural racism, keeping their presence only continuously underpin and strengthen the status quo, by upholding and championing those who perpetuated it. Not bringing them down evokes a sense of ‘do nothing’ and harmful apathy when it comes to acknowledging a racist past, alienating the people that are directly offended by it.
As Priyamvada Gopal said, “History isn’t just for the taking: it is also for the making”. History is constantly being rewritten, and being inclusive of the history of people of colour and critical of past violence of slavery and colonialism should be welcomed if we truly want to eradicate systemic racism. Dismantling racist statues is only the first step towards acknowledging the shortcomings in a glorified past, and is a part of holding present institutions accountable in the pursuit of equity. It is a door to put more pressure on reform: as a result of the downfall of Cecil Rhodes’ statue, universities have since renamed buildings named after eugenics, and pledged more funding towards scholarships of Black and ethnic minority students. When critically examining the impact that these statues have and the beliefs they uphold in an ever-progressive, inclusive, and compassionate society, they undoubtedly have no place in a public setting.
- Jiaying Zhang