churchill statue black and white

by Lisa Insansa Woods

Colston is in the river. Winston Churchill is quivering. Cecil Rhodes glares brazenly at the Oxford University governors threatening to tear him down, his maniacal eyes finding flickers of solace in the realisation that whether he remains or not, the society he served over a century ago still slithers in its self-made pool of white supremacy (enough to still make his cold hard mouth turn into a grin).

The taking down of statues is a powerful display of justice. Every day, the Black community has had to endure looking up at its oppressors whilst simultaneously being battered by the system that those same glorified figures acted to perpetuate. Each statue that falls is a nod of recognition to the Black experience – an experience which has been subdued for hundreds of years as something that is not worthy of our knowledge. However, whilst pulling down a statue is a strong gesture, it does not annihilate the insidious manifestation of racism that courses through every part of our society. We need to do more.

When a third of British citizens think that the empire is something to be proud of and over a quarter want the empire back, we must acknowledge that our collective understanding of history – or lack thereof – serves to protect the white supremacist structure.

Napoleon once said: “What is History but a fable agreed on?” History is constructed by the victors. The aspects of the past which get told are as important as those that don’t. Essentially, if you control the access to knowledge, then you control the minds of the people and the structure of society. This is reflective of our education system. The British curriculum is completely lacking in addressing the topic of its key involvement in the slave trade and colonialism.

At school, we extensively learn about the horrors of concentration camps at the hands of Nazi Germany; why do we not also talk about Britain’s concentration camps in South Africa at the beginning of the 20th century, or in Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s (after Britain condemned Nazi Germany for doing the same thing)?

if you control the access to knowledge, then you control the minds of the people and the structure of society.

Why do we know about Florence Nightingale but not Mary Seacole? About William Wilberforce but not Olaudah Equiano? Why do we get told all the “wonderful” tales of Winston Churchill but not those of his brutal imperialism? The issue of removing statues is the issue of erasing whole cultures through the whitewashing of history.

In her essay, Collective Memory and Cultural Identity, Jas Assman writes that “[t]he supply of knowledge in the cultural memory is characterized by sharp distinctions made between those who belong and those who do not.”

colston river bristol black lives matter

CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Keir Gravil

The subordination of Black history is the subordination of Black people. In order to change the future, we need to acknowledge our past. Agreeing to take down statues will not fix racism. We need to look deep into our institutions and our system.

The UK government’s response to the issue of statues has been bewildering and callous. Last week, the government proposed an update on the Desecration of War Memorials Bill. This new legislation, which has been backed by over 100 conservatives and Labour leader Keir Starmer, would mean that someone can be imprisoned for up to 10 years for spray painting or damaging a monument. This is just a way to criminalise those that are seeking justice in marking their oppressors.

The subordination of Black history is the subordination of Black people.

On top of this, Boris Johnson’s newly announced race commission will be chaired by Munira Mirza, a woman who defended Boris when he compared Muslim women wearing burqas to “letterboxes” and “bank-robbers.” Mirza has also said that institutional racism is “more of a perception than a reality.”

The UK government needs to take responsibility and enact real changes, starting with dismissing the proposed new legislation, booting out Munira Mirza and changing the national education curriculum. Until then, it doesn’t matter how many statues come down if the system remains the same.

Featured image CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Churchill

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