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Are Rhodes Must Fall student fascists?

Oxford, like the rest of this country, is a systemically racist space. This does not mean that it is a university of card carrying, white sheet wearing racists. I am not saying that the UK is some sort of bigot-majority state. I, for one, have great faith in the good intentions and lack of conscious racism among British people today, be they white or people of colour. All this means, as the University recognises openly and is committed to changing, is that BME background people at Oxford and in Britain suffer serious and often violent disadvantages in their engagement with our society, through a complex of subtle factors: structural, psychological, often unconscious.

Curriculums across the board show an alarming preference for the work of white thinkers when there is no other reason to select them. According to the most recent information available about minorities in higher-level academia, a comprehensive 2011 University and College Union survey, Oxford has one of the greatest hiring gaps for professors of different racial and ethnic backgrounds in the UK. While 13% of the British population is from a BME background, only 3.9% of Oxford’s professors are, compared to 6.4% at Cambridge, 9.1% at Kings College London and 8.1% at Oxford Brookes. The University’s figures from the three-year period finishing 2014 showed a 26% acceptance rate for white applicants against a 16% acceptance for BME applicants, though this last picture is of course clouded by variation in choice.

A few moments browsing government statistics show horrific discrepancies across the country in far too many fields – try poverty, healthcare provision, severity of judicial punishment (for identical crimes, that is), police treatment, access to social welfare, housing, mental health and suicide rates, even life expectancy. Racism is still, somehow, an issue, and the numbers are too dispiriting for Christmas time.

This is the context of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, a Great Britain and university where – despite the best, most laudable intentions in so many places – racism still prevails.

This does not mean that we must by necessity take the Rhodes statue down, however. The way we interact with the past is complex and treacherous: it would be unwise to leap to conclusions and lob him straight into the river, like a replay of the Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad – even though he was a similar murderer and despot. Oriel’s careful plan for a “structured six-month listening exercise” involving “students and staff of the College and the wider University, alumni, heritage bodies, Oxford City Council, residents of Oxford, and other members of the public” should be commended.

What is in no way praiseworthy, however, is any discussion of the issue that fails to engage with the voices of those who are actually affected by the issue: the individuals who undergo prejudice and systemic discrimination on a daily basis, who have these questions of racial prejudice, of the statue and celebratory plaque as very real parts of their lives. I wish it was, but the legacy of colonialism is not just some fascinating intellectual issue, three sides of A4 for Tuesday, but a direct and violent part of the lives of far too many students in Oxford. Any muting of these voices is toxic.

This is why much discussion of the issue has such pernicious effects. Writers in the national press have grossly represented the RMF movement as an “unhistorical” Futurist rush or wild Cultural Revolution-style book-burning erasure of history. It is, unfortunately for their website hit counts, substantially less sensational than either of these. It is little more than a reasoned call for conversation about Britain’s colonial past and present, and an objection to the unconsidered celebration of a hate-filled, deluded individual. Instead there are wild, paranoid accusations and a sort of witch hunt of imaginary bleeding-heart liberals, probably humanities students or vegetarians (horror!). The cause? A failure to even consider listening to the arguments and experiences of those involved in the movement.

A picture has been painted, moreover, of a powerful minority of student activists who are pressing all too successfully for censorship in universities across the country, and the Rhodes Must Fall campaign is seen as a symptom of this. There is a painful lack of faith to facts, here: RMF’s online petition currently has 2324 signees, a strange sort of “small minority”, as one group of academics described the campaign. The irony of accusing the movement of censorship is worse, however, and far more dangerous.

This movement was started as and remains a call for discourse. It represents the voices of people forced into a position of weakness in our society, who are still under-represented in British media and politics. It calls for curriculums that do not erase and censor a writer on account of the colour of their skin, and it gives sound to voices that history has stamped out until far too recently. Those who claim to stand for freedom of speech should examine Rhodes Must Fall carefully, and then examine the actions they have taken towards its voices. Who, are you certain, is silencing who?

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