I was at a Black Lives Matter protest in Edinburgh when the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was pulled down by protestors in Bristol. It was relieving to hear Mayor Marvin Rees say he felt no “sense of loss” when BLM demonstrators threw the controversial statue into the harbour. It was about time someone official acknowledged how vile our cultural celebration of racists is.
The Brits think racism is “just in America”. Spoiler alert: just because we have fewer police shootings of black people doesn’t mean racism doesn’t exist in the UK. We’ve spent hundreds of years reaping the benefits of colonialism, and we still live in a system which deems black people as lesser. It’s not a coincidence that 0.1% of active professors in the UK are black women, compared with 68% who are white men. Nor is it OK that over 70% of ethnic minority workers sexperience racial harassment at work in the last five years and around 60% have been subjected to unfair treatment by their employer because of their race.
Before I get into all of this, I should stress the obvious. I’m a white person. I cannot speak about the experience of racism, and I’ll never be able to understand the extent of it entirely.
However, what I can talk about is white ignorance and denial because every white person has experienced it, and millions of white people (clearly) are still experiencing it.
Today’s episode of white ignorance and denial comes in the form of patriotic-blind-sightedness and pride.
The “Churchill is like Hitler” Debacle.
On Wednesday 10th June 2020, the world went barmy over the comments made by Birmingham City University professor, Kehinde Andrews. On an episode of Good Morning Britain, Piers Morgan asked the professor what he thought about removing statues of people like Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill.
“Churchill did some good things, but let’s be honest,” the professor replied “Churchill is also responsible for the deaths of many black people, Churchill was a eugenicist. In fact, Churchill and Hitler probably would have agreed on many things when it came to racism.’
When Morgan struck back at such a comparison and claimed such a statement was ‘offensive’, Professor Andrews replied, “It’s not offensive. It’s the reality when you look at the eugenicist and his views at the time and the views of the Nazis at the time. The idea of racial science was quite popular in Europe and America. It wasn’t so separate.”
As a British person with a penchant for dry humour, I must sadly admit that I was once a Churchill lover. His quick wit and essays won me over, and I was grateful for the role he played in WWII. It wasn’t until I did some digging a few years ago that my rose-tinted glasses shattered.
The White Pride Agenda
Many Brits take pride in Churchill, so when someone associates him with the very enemy he spent his career fighting, they get upset. People don’t like to admit they’re wrong, nor do they want to admit their heroes are imperfect and flawed, particularly when those heroes have given them cause to be patriotic.
Churchill was racist. He said that he hated people with “slit eyes and pigtails.” He claimed, people from India were “the beastliest people in the world next to the Germans.” He also admitted that he “did not really think that black people were as capable or as efficient as white people.”
He was an Imperialist whose policies contributed to the Bengal famine. History is complicated, and people aren’t so black and white, which makes it hard for white British people to remove Churchill from the pedestal of extreme importance and pride.
Many historians claim Churchill’s opinions altered over time, particularly after the war, and most people dismiss his attitudes as being a product of the time. While the “product of the time” argument is somewhat valid, it doesn’t excuse the degree of atrocity or protect one’s pride from being dented.
People are complex, and one could argue that no single person on this earth is entirely moral. Still, white people need to start breaking down their pride and acknowledge that their heroes and patriarchal foundations are drenched in racism to some degree.
Every factor of their lives has benefited from white supremacy, slavery, colonialism and oppression, and their fight to protect their beloved statues shows how in denial they are. They aren’t clinging onto a historical moment. Rather, they are clinging onto the blissful ignorance it represents.
No, Statues of Racists Don’t Help Us “Learn From Our Past”.
In Poole UK, a statue of Robert Baden-Powell, the man who founded the Scouts, is being removed. He has been the subject of campaigners for years because he was an outspoken racist. He was also very open about his views against homosexuality and an avid supporter of Hitler and fascism.
Yet, despite his racist past, an online petition to “defend Poole’s Lord Baden-Powell statue” has received more than 10,000 signatures.
Writing on Twitter, Tobias Ellwood, Tory MP for Bournemouth East, said: “Few historical figures comply with 21st C values. Simply expunging past connections from sight won’t correct wrongs or help us better learn from our past.”
Ah, but you see, that’s the problem. You haven’t learned from the past these statues represent, because if you knew two, five, or ten years ago that the man the statue was in honour of was a slave owner or Nazi sympathiser, you wouldn’t have become attached to it. Also, you certainly wouldn’t want your tax money to go towards its maintenance.
When someone sees a statue of an individual, their initial assumption is that the figure is in honour of a noble person. Because, in non-fascist and non-communist countries, we don’t expect our country to erect statues of evil individuals.
If statues of racists served to remind us of the wrongs of our colonialist, imperialist and even more racist past, we wouldn’t have a society filled to the brim with willingly ignorant, racist and privileged people.
Germany doesn’t need a statue of Hitler to remind them of their country’s past. Scotland wouldn’t erect a statue of the Duke of Cumberland to remind them of the highland massacres, and believe it or not; there’s a reason why people toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Baghdad.
Statues are passive emblems of respect. People take photos of them because they’re beautiful, pose next to them and even begin to appreciate them without thinking more deeply about them.
No one should want to be part of a country or society which celebrates slave owners, racists and fascists through public statues which are maintained by tax-payer money.
Our History was Built by those We Erased
Why should lauded, expensive statues of racists play a key role in us “learning from our past”? What about the millions of slaves who were extorted and killed to make our cities? Why do the racists get statues while the slaves are reduced to nameless shadows which don’t even feature in history books?
It speaks volumes when more people sign a petition to protect a statue of a Nazi-sympathiser than turn out for a BLM protest against the unlawful killings and treatment of living black people.
White people are clinging onto the statues which symbolise their right to remain blissfully ignorant. They don’t want to have to admit their heroes were wrong and that they’ve been passively complicit in supporting and funding systematic racism. To consider the removal of images of slave-traders, racists and nazi-sympathisers “lawless”, and to believe their right to remain intact is for the sake of ‘history’ shows how desperate you are to protect your white pride from bruising.
We are a culture constructed from systematic racism, and we cannot be proud until we confront ourselves, admit our wrongs and turn the whole system upsidedown. We need to ensure black people and all people of colour are no longer treated like disposable beings outside of our society. Their lives matter, their rights matter, and we have spent centuries denying them basic human decency all because we’re too proud to admit we’re wrong.
Our history is bloody, dark and evil. The waters are muddied and drenched in the blood of the innocent and exploited. Stop hiding behind heartless, bronze men. Look into the eyes of those who are dying and suffering because of the system those statues constructed. We’ve stayed complicit for far too long. It’s time to behead the statues, dump them in the lake and build up those who we have historically erased.