The campaign to bring down a statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford University has said the project to “decolonise” the institution should not end with the removal of the memorial to the Victorian imperialist.
After the university’s Oriel College voted in favour of removing the controversial statue of Rhodes on Wednesday, the campaign group Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford called for the removal of a statue of the slave owner Christopher Codrington at All Souls College, and for increased representation of BAME students and staff.
Oriel College announced it would be setting up an independent inquiry into the key issues around the removal of the Rhodes statue following the student-led campaign, which began five years ago, and protests outside the college over the past two weeks.
The Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford campaign, which started in 2015 but dwindled after students graduated, was reignited by the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the UK, which included the dramatic toppling of a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol.
In a statement, Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford called for a “radical transformation of the academy” now that steps were being taken to remove the Rhodes statue. Their demands include doubling the representation of black staff and black British students, taking on more African Rhodes scholars, and providing better welfare and inclusion for BAME students. And, “most crucially”, to “decolonise” the curriculum.
The campaign group said its demand for the removal of imperial and colonial iconography did not end with Rhodes, and they have also called for the removal of the statue of Codrington, a plantation and slave owner who died in 1710.
The statement said: “This is a potentially epoch-defining moment for our institution, the University of Oxford. We can, potentially, offer a powerful example of the decolonial project in higher education – in the UK and beyond. Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford will continue to centre its values of democratic participation, solidarity, and intersectionality, as we continue to address the remainder of our programme of action.”
One researcher at the university who was a student involved with the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in 2015 said: “The campaign was never just about the statue. All of us have always understood Rhodes to be one of many symbols across the city of the universities role in ongoing colonialism and exploitation.
“You can see that in every level of the university, from the under-representation of black students and faculty to the over-representation of black staff in underpaid and precarious roles such as cleaning and security and the fact the university doesn’t pay them a living wage.”
The researcher, who didn’t wish to be named, said the university must now re-evaluate its relationship with certain companies and individuals, and stop complying with the government’s Prevent programme and hostile environment policy.
“If it’s any way serious about moving on from its colonial past and present, these are the issues the university needs to start addressing. Decolonisation doesn’t just mean taking down a statue after years of campaigning, it means adequately addressing the role it plays in preserving the inequality we see,” they said.
Oriel College announced it has appointed Carole Souter, the current master of St Cross College and former chief executive of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, to be the chair of a commission that will “deal with the issue of the Rhodes legacy and how to improve access and attendance of BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] undergraduates, graduate students and faculty, together with a review of how the college’s 21st-century commitment to diversity can sit more easily with its past”.
What is unconscious bias?
Unconscious or implicit bias is one part of the explanation for why, despite equalities being enshrined in law, minority groups are still at a disadvantage in many parts of life. The term was popularised after US social psychologists devised a way of measuring the prejudices that we are not necessarily aware of – the Implicit Association Test. They published a paper in 1998 claiming that their tool for measuring “the unconscious roots of prejudice” showed that 90-95% of people were susceptible.
While the reliability of that test is now contested, there is overwhelming wider evidence that unconscious bias seeps into decisions that affect recruitment, access to healthcare and outcomes in criminal justice in ways that can disadvantage black and minority ethnic people. One study found that university professors were far more likely to respond to emails from students with white-sounding names. Another showed that white people perceived black faces as more threatening than white faces with the same expression.
While some of our biases may begin on an unconscious level, experts caution that the concept of unconscious bias should not absolve people of discriminatory behaviour. “If you’re aware of these associations then you can bring to bear all of your critical skills and intelligence to see it’s wrong to think like that,” says Lasana Harris, a neuroscientist who studies prejudice and social learning at University College London. “We all have the ability to control that.”
The commission is expected to complete its inquiry and report with its recommendations by the end of the year. It will consult relevant stakeholders such as Historic England and Oxford city council as part of its inquiry.
On 9 June, Susan Brown, the leader of Oxford city council, wrote to Oriel College to invite it to apply for planning permission to remove the statue, which is a Grade II listed building.
Though such actions are typically not allowed, Brown said “these are exceptional circumstances” and confirmed the council’s willingness to work with the college to strike the right balance between the laws that protect historic buildings and city’s moral obligation.
Brown welcomed Oriel’s vote to remove the statue and called on the college to send an early submission of a formal planning application.
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