Last month the Oxford Union (a student debating club) advertised a drink named ‘The Colonial Comeback!’ as its featured cocktail for a debate on whether Britain owes reparations to her former colonies. The drink was a strange mix – exotic, if you will – and the flyer was complete with a photograph of chained black hands.
Perhaps the blatant allusions to slavery and the formerly conquered continent were comical for the flyer’s designers. Maybe they even felt a touch of nostalgia, a sense of longing for the good old days.
To be honest, it’s not surprising. We in the West are fed a tainted version of history that depicts one part of the world as the beacon of hope and intelligence, the other as primitive and helpless. This narrative is fueled by western media and educational institutions that carefully select images and stories portraying the Other (Africa in particular) as an undifferentiated mass wrought with disease, war, malnutrition, and so on.
If you don’t critically examine those images and question their validity, you fall into a trap. You see Africa as ‘the hopeless continent.’ You deny an entire continent its dignity. You also deny the fact that Europe benefitted immeasurably by pillaging the land and dehumanizing the people of the colonies. This history has material, economic and social consequences today. It does not sit discreetly in the past.
We have been at Oxford for a year as master’s students in the African Studies Centre. We – who are from Africa and the West – have realised that too many people are still blinded by a worldview inherited from the colonial era. We are all a product of our lived realities and of our education, and it appears many of Oxford’s students arrive here with a highly backward, jaded perspective of the world. What does that say about our collective future?
This is Oxford. Its students are supposed to be the best and the brightest, the future leaders of this world. But true intelligence requires intellectual courage, and intellectual courage requires the capacity to identify and challenge your own assumptions and those of your society. The fact that a slave’s hands can be used to make a joke at an institution founded on critical debate is proof that we need to reinvigorate this practice.
We have to stop ignoring the blatant prejudices that persist in our ‘modern’ and ‘transformed’ society. Spectacular, physical violence is enabled by symbolic violence — the violence of words and images. Therein lies the problem. If we are blind to symbolic violence, then we open the door for real, tangible violence — whether it is bloody and physical, subtle and misogynist, or economic and deeply entrenched.
Frantz Fanon described colonialism as fundamentally about an unequal arrangement of spatial relations. In 2015, at the University of Cape Town, Achille Mbembe insists decolonization requires the deprivatization of what should be public spaces. This means our universities should not be dominated by a chauvinistic epistemological order that is blind to what it owes to orders of knowledge it considers “other.” They should be spaces of transformation where ideas are contested by students and academics alike.
But instead our most important intellectual spaces remain privatized by the same privileged few who benefited most from our colonial past.
Two weeks ago, South African writer Margie Orford addressed Oxford’s African Studies Centre about the violence that haunts South Africa. Speaking about Cape Town, a city still divided along the racial lines drawn by colonialism and apartheid, she described slavery as “a rock hidden in the depths of the past that continues to move the surface of the present.”
Slavery was based on the systematic dehumanization of people. It corrupted the master and it eviscerated the slave. Those who think they are removed from its legacy, clean of it, are not only its historical benefactors, but are complicit in its central lie: that one person can decide the humanity of another. Colonialism was built on the same principle, recast as the ‘civilizing’ mission and perceived to be re-humanization on ‘enlightened’ terms.
That the Oxford Union is able to make colonialism into a joke is a sign of just how narrow and self-justificatory its worldview is, how archaic, how reactionary. That is a failing of its institutional culture. But transformative potential is there, too, sitting in its benches, staring it in the face. Oxford, and even the Union, is a place full of people from all over the world who know what it is to be the descendants of the enslaved, of the colonized. All these “other” people are here, too.
But the Other is a fallacy. That dichotomy never actually existed: it had to be invented, and then asserted by the imperial and colonial powers. Those who trivialize it fail imaginatively and morally. They demonstrate that they are not free of the colonial mindset.
So where do we go from here? We’ll defer to the Rhodes Must Fall movement, begun by students in Cape Town and now active here at Oxford:
“It must be emphasised that this movement is about more than Rhodes. Rhodes, as an agent of empire, signifies a perspective that is the product of a seemingly innocuous approach to education. He is the product of an institutional culture and a colonization of the mind that reaches far more deeply than the figure of one individual.
So for Rhodes to truly fall Rhodes must first stand.
Rhodes must be made to stand, revealed for what he really represents: the mutually productive culture of violence, racism, patriarchy and colonialism that to this day remains alive, aided and abetted by the University of Oxford, which continues to stand as an uncritical beneficiary of empire.”
The flyer was not an honest mistake. It was a signal that symbolic violence and racism are alive and well. If the Oxford Union is serious about addressing these issues, then it should join the Rhodes Must Fall at Oxford movement.
For this is the beginning of the movement, not an isolated incident that ends with an apology. We — and people everywhere — have had enough of the apologetics of empire, of weak justifications for racism and misogyny.
The Rhodes Must Fall movement is starting a much-needed conversation about the institutional roots of these issues at Oxford. Hopefully that conversation will lead to solutions.
In the words of The Coup: “I got faith in the people and they power to fight / We gon’ make the struggle blossom like a flower to light.”
We are aware of the irony of writing about this from our position within an extremely privileged space. It is problematic that we, as students from African countries or students interested in African countries, are doing this part of our work all the way over here. This distance is one of the legacies of the problems we discuss. We also believe in the absolute necessity of criticism from within. These institutions were built on the principles of free thought and intellectual rigor, and so they need to listen to those they teach.