Some things I’ve posted on Facebook recently about history of universities and statues of dead racists

Edited to remove identifying information about interlocutors. I know I haven’t posted here in months—we can take this as my ‘2015 Year in Review’ post since 2015 was also the year that I became more qualified to have something worthwhile to say about British imperial history—and the RMF campaign is nothing if not the working-out of British imperial history.

4 November, in response to a discussion about whether it is morally wrong for a white person to take up a Rhodes Scholarship:

My instinct is to disagree. Of the Rhodes countries I think South Africa might be a special case that I don’t really know enough about to comment, but if we look at Canada and the US, for instance (and yes, the US is an ex-colony, but a bit different to what we think of as the 19th-/20th-century “white settler” colonies) you would be hard-pressed to find enough Indigenous people who would be qualified for or interested in taking up the scholarship–sadly, that’s just a very small percentage of the population in both countries, and an even smaller percentage of those who pursue higher education. In the US, the Rhodies basically represent the demographics of elite US higher education from which they come. And we can and should be critical of this, but IMHO it’s part of a more regionally specific system that has more to say about race and class in America than it does about the initial intention of Rhodes’ will, which is no longer followed to any great extent by the selection committees. I suppose that one could view all of these factors as part of a transnational racist system, but I’m inclined to disaggregate them because they seem so historically specific. You’d have to go SO far back before the Rhodes period to make the case that British empire was at the source of all of them that, while that’s in some sense historically true, I don’t think it’s the most helpful way to think about it.

As an American and Canadian citizen and final-year student at Princeton (and blah blah blah all my advantages) I made a decision not to apply for the Rhodes in part because of my discomfort with the origins of the scholarship. I now believe that decision was mistaken. I received a different scholarship, the Marshall, which was instituted by the UK government in the ’50s (a Conservative government if I’m not mistaken) to express thanks to the US for the postwar Marshall aid and also to express an ideal of symbolic connection between these English-speaking nations. So that’s a racial ideal–Churchill was one of those to proclaim it as such in his Iron Curtain speech–even if the scholarship is part of the public UK HE budget and doesn’t have its origins in someone as manifestly evil as Cecil Rhodes. When I got to Ox for my master’s, I found Rhodies and other white people from the US and the Empire doing all kinds of things with their Oxford postgrad degrees and the money they (some of them) had received to do them. There were plenty of Americans and others of all kinds who I thought were wasting their time and someone’s money. There were many Rhodies who were doing truly wonderful things with their time in Ox and who were going to go out and do something good with their lives in academia or another profession. I think there is a place for policies of affirmative action and for complete transparency in how admissions are done that can help us to right historic wrongs, rid ourselves of unconscious bias, and ensure that everyone is given a fair hearing, but I think it’s also a good educational thing to do to give people of all races a chance to do something good with opportunities that they’ve had the good fortune to receive, and to give white people a chance to make our lives as best we can into something that isn’t actively exploitative. I think making all Rhodies conscious of the extent to which the money they have taken is tainted is perhaps a better learning opportunity for white Rhodies than letting them stay in their home countries and never knowing that such imperial legacies exist at all. But it does sadden and frustrate me when many Rhodies seem not to be aware of that history.

Running late now, but last point: one thing I have learned in my time in higher ed is that so much money is dirty and there are often really frustrating legal restrictions on why this can’t be fixed. In some sense it would be ideal if all these different bequests from slave traders and diamond miners and so on could be stripped of their significance and their ties to these particular individuals and aggregated into a general fund that could be used to provide need-based financial aid to all students on an equal basis. But not only are there really tight legal restrictions on doing so (and we can debate the justice of this, but when you’re going up against UK and EU law about bequests things get really complicated), one thing you lose in the process is the ability to force students to be aware of where that money is come from. We have so much cultural amnesia in the UK today about how everything that the UK is in 2015 has an imperial legacy. The names of buildings and institutions and pots of money allow those of us who teach British history to give our students a way in to this challenging and troubling topic. If we erase those visible remnants of the history, we risk even greater amnesia. Maybe it’s worth it, and I’m willing to be persuaded that’s the case. But it is a factor.

Sorry, I know I don’t toe the party line on this, but I guess my study of British and imperial history has given me a different way in to understanding the same issues and I hope we can eventually wind up on more or less the same page by different means. Also, I’m someone who has benefitted immeasurably from elite education, which continues to perpetuate racial and class equality in the anglo world today, but that–as a Jewish lady–I have only recently been able to partake of on equal terms. Inequality fucking sucks. And who has access to elite education is sometimes random and sometimes systematically unjust. But as someone who has decided to take the money and try to be good with it, I think it would be really disingenuous for me to proclaim that another approach is the more morally correct one.

20 December, in response to Mary Beard and some comments critical of my endorsement of her POV:

Hi folks – sorry that I don’t have the time to give this a proper lengthy reply, but I am sorry that instead of giving a proper lengthy comment on this post last night I also posted just two words. I rarely agree with every word of the things I post on FB, and this is no exception; I have also posted many things that express other views so hopefully this doesn’t stand for everything I’ve ever said or thought about the RMF/Woodrow Wilson/etc. debates. I’ve explained at great length in other FB comments what I think about RMF and the problem of statues, names, and legacies, so hopefully I don’t need to rehash it all again. I do think there is a flippancy to M.B.’s comments here that is not in good taste and suggests she hasn’t had very many conversations with students of color and other underprivileged students at her own university. She might also do well to remember the ugly, violent history of women’s call to be included at Cambridge. I’m with — on this one: maybe he and I, as Jews and me as a woman, can use our experiences of trying to take ownership of institutions that were not made for us to empathize with this situation; maybe that’s completely inadequate. But on the basis of the historical research I have done my current belief is that it isn’t possible completely to transform an institution like Oxford or Princeton, that was founded explicitly on exclusion of many populations, so that it will feel welcoming to all. I can see as feasible introducing certain policy measures that will make incremental progress towards that end, but I think we’re still ultimately caught in a double bind between denying history (which I believe is wrong) and allowing that history to exist and to oppress by its existence. I completely see why someone would make an argument that that means these places should not be allowed to exist and should be destroyed. I can’t agree because, well, they’ve given me a sense of belonging, purpose and joy that my life outside them hasn’t, and my life would not be worth living without them. So my responsibility as someone in that situation is to do as Beard says and take the money and try to be better with it, and I think she’s right that that’s what we can do with histories like that–we can take the money they give us, now thankfully accessible to people like me, and we can become historians. I think it would be really disingenuous for someone who has made the life choices I have to suggest something else, so I can see why Beard makes the argument she does.

Also P.S. my expert opinion is contra M.B. that Rhodes was worse than many of his contemporaries (rather like Wilson but with none of Wilson’s redeeming features).

Also thanks for disagreeing – I worry when people don’t disagree on FB that I’ve shocked, offended, and upset them so much as to stun them into silence, so I appreciate you engaging and voicing another POV because I don’t want to be hammering people over the head with something that is hurtful to them without being stopped.

29 December, in response to this, posted on a friend’s wall and roundly condemned by the ensuing FB conversation:

I don’t know. I’m not hugely sympathetic to the RMF claims or the style in which they frame them, but I also see that they are mostly coming from black students and that most of the people questioning them are white, which makes me second-guess my reaction. I can’t know what it’s like to be a black South African student come to Oxford, but I can imagine it’s a more difficult and troubling culture shock than the one I experienced when I came–and also why South African students might want instinctively to import a similar kind of cultural decolonization to the process they’ve gone through to remake their own country into something other than a settler colony. Even though there may well be some generic student activists who have jumped on to RMF as a vehicle for shouting at something or other, there’s also a serious story about what happens when the “empire strikes back”: what kinds of claims for inclusion are those whose ancestors were once British subjects entitled to make within Britain? (As a Canadian, I have the national franchise in Britain–South Africans don’t; EU citizens don’t.) So I actually see this as a story about history and about the kind of historical-mindedness that British (elite) culture has and maybe that former colonies’ self-determining national identity has been predicated on rejecting–and not primarily a story about coddled students even if there are elements of that. Personally I don’t think it’s possible to remake such a deeply, intrinsically historicist and conservative institution as Oxford in the image of another way of relating to the past and to present society, and so any gains that RMF make by way of statues are going to be decidedly illusory. To create more comfortable environments within Ox (which is to some extent worth doing, in terms of the fact that institutionalized racism is still a thing) probably entails working with the grain of the culture, and using history and historically-minded thinking in effective ways. But it remains the case that Ox last underwent major structural reforms in the mid-19th century and that most of those who now live and study in it now would not have been imagined as potential students then (as recently as the mid-20th century less than 10% of the UK population went to university at all). Culture shock is an inevitable part of the experience of coming to Ox for most students–and that may go double for Rhodes Scholars who (at least in the US) often apply for the scholarship because it is prestigious in their home country and not necessarily because doing a graduate degree at Ox is particularly enticing to them. They are often surprised to discover how little Ox resembles the university experiences of their home countries, which is probably for most students more like going to a redbrick. Cultural assimilation (of the kind that I tried to practice) is only going to seem like a worthy goal if you don’t view the culture of Ox as part of the heyday of empire (which in as much as it was constituted at around the same time of the heyday of empire and was part and parcel of the imperial project, it is); if you come to know what Ox is and then decide that it’s something in which you can’t ethically participate because you associate it with the white settlers who ruined your country, well, it’s going to be pretty hard to do anything other than find symbols to lash out at, like the Rhodes statue.

I haven’t read the Prof. of Divinity’s letter, and hadn’t heard about it before, but I’m in the process of qualifying as an expert in British & imperial history and my sense is that Rhodes is one of the real baddies: someone who was behind the curve on ideas about race even for his own time. I think Rhodies could probably be more honest with themselves about the fact that they are taking his money, but can see why that’s a difficult and confusing position for a young adult to be in, that only really becomes apparent once she or he leaves her own culture with its own standards of political correctness and goes somewhere else.

Sorry for the long comment!! I’m just on a bit of a crusade to bring historians’ voices to this conversation, since what is at issue really is history and how it’s interpreted. Even if I’m not sure that I buy RMF’s critique, I can see why they’re making it.

6 January, in response to this and an ensuing FB discussion:

Well… now we’re getting a bit into what I said I wouldn’t do (give an opinion on the controversy–I’m trying to do less of that) but my response to that would be to say that these things are very complicated. Almost everything Oxford is (now that there is next to no state funding for HE) is old, old money, tied up in the legacies of a lot of mess of British and imperial history: the dissolution of the monasteries, the Atlantic slave trade, the diamond mines of southern Africa. It would take a hell of a lot of work–a dedicated campaign that the entire university and its constituent colleges would have to get behind–to disentangle all that money. It would be illegal in some cases to discard or change the terms of certain bequests; in almost all cases I am sure that cash-strapped dons and administrators wouldn’t want to decline even what seem like regrettable bequests. And there aren’t easy solutions: the South African Rhodes Scholarships now also bear Nelson Mandela’s name, but I’m not sure anyone thinks that’s a comfortable or satisfactory response to the fact that they once explicitly excluded black students.

Oxford is a deeply conservative institution and British society more widely has deep and committed cultural amnesia about how empire has affected it and its history. I’m not at all surprised that a conversation about Cecil Rhodes’ relation to Oxford (which is considerable–his scholarships brought some of the very first foreign students in considerable numbers to the UK) on the terms of modern politics hasn’t been had before now. It’s obviously a good thing this conversation is being had. Things are being brought into the open that weren’t talked about before. Will it change anything substantive? I have to say I share some of the skepticism of the above op-ed author. But when you start digging into old institutions like this, evil often isn’t far from the surface. I sure hope there’s good there too, and I think one of the lessons we learn from institutional history is that it isn’t so easy to disentangle the two, that history and moral judgment can’t be made easily to go hand in hand.

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