A recent interaction on TV between a black anchor and her guest once again highlighted the issue of underlying racism in the UK and why it needs to be addressed. A viral video of the exchange is all over social media, it has already garnered close to 3 million views, of the black writer and broadcaster, Afua Hirsh, who asked participants on her show, if Britain needed to relook at the history and think about bringing down statues of Nelson, Cecil Rhodes and Winston Churchill as doing nothing is not an option.
Her first guest who responded was a white middle-aged male, Nick, who asked her “if it offends you so much …why do you stay in this country?” she retorted uncomfortably, “I find that a very strange thing to say… this is my country! I raise this critique because I care about this country.”
In a former life, when I thought you cd politely persuade people not to be racist
Their response? "If you don't like it here, LEAVE". Which I'm yet to hear said to a white British person
Racism is telling black people who have a critique of their own country, they should leave pic.twitter.com/Dhx4G0yloP
— Afua Hirsch (@afuahirsch) June 9, 2020
In the UK, thousands of people on Tuesday called for a statue of the 19th century British imperialist Cecil Rhodes to be removed from an Oxford University college, as debate raged across the country for the removal of other monuments to the nation’s colonial past. While protesters insist that Britain must confront the ghosts of its violent colonial past, leaders in the administration are less welcoming towards the issue, with many saying that British colonialism has been a fountainhead of progress for colonized nations instead of otherwise.
Protesters chanted “Take it down” and “Decolonise”, and held placards urging “Rhodes Must Fall” and “Black Lives Matter” beneath the statue at Oriel College.
The “Rhodes Must Fall” movement, which began in South Africa, failed in a previous attempt to have the statue removed but has been revived by a wave of anti-racism protests.
Protestors in the UK give tribute to Floyd
Protesters sat with raised fists for nearly nine minutes in tribute to unarmed black man George Floyd, whose death in US police custody triggered outrage and condemnation worldwide.
Sylvanus Leigh, 44, said the limestone statue of the Victorian-era tycoon who founded the De Beers diamond company in what is now Zimbabwe represented “a colonial mindset”.
“We shouldn’t celebrate that exclusivity. That should represent me. Better to have Mother Teresa or Desmond Tutu,” the care worker told AFP.
The leader of Oxford City Council, Susan Brown, threw her weight behind the campaign and said she had invited Oriel, which was founded in 1326, to consider removing it.
The college had to “find the right balance between the laws that protect our historic buildings and the moral obligation to reflect on the malign symbolism of this statue”, she added.
Oriel College must take down the statue of Rhodes, a white supremacist who does not represent the values of Oxford in 2020. It's time for a frank national debate about colonialism's legacy in Britain, engaging with local communities across the country. https://t.co/63uX3UYrFQ
— Layla Moran 🔶 (@LaylaMoran) June 8, 2020
Local MP Layla Moran called Rhodes a “white supremacist who does not represent the values of Oxford in 2020”, calling for a “frank national debate about colonialism’s legacy”.
Britons not yet ready to face the uncomfortable truth
The protest comes after activists toppled a statue to Edward Colton, a 17th-century merchant who helped build the city of Bristol and played a leading role in slavery.
Years of local debate over what to do with the statue came to an end on Sunday when it was thrown in the harbour.
Campaigners in Wales are now demanding the removal of memorials to Napoleonic war hero Thomas Picton, who was accused of cruelty while serving as a governor in Trinidad.
In Scotland, activists have called for changes to the streets named after the 18th and 19th-century tobacco and sugar traders who made their fortunes through slavery.
A central London statue of Winston Churchill was defaced, with protesters blaming his policies for the death of millions during the famine in the Indian state of Bengal in 1943.
Mayor Sadiq Khan launched a review of city landmarks and street names, saying many reflected “a bygone era”, and could better reflect the capital’s diversity.
“It is an uncomfortable truth that our nation and city owes a large part of its wealth to its role in the slave trade,” he said.
“While this is reflected in our public realm, the contribution of many of our communities to life in our capital has been wilfully ignored.”
British Colonialism: a cold reality
Despite widespread support, some warned of an attempt to erase the past.
“If you change the street names it’s easier to forget but it’s better to have signs underneath to talk about what these men did,” said student Kieran Weatherill, 24, in Glasgow.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he understood the “depth of emotion” triggered by Floyd’s death and the anger from black and ethnic minority groups about discrimination.
“We who lead and who govern simply can’t ignore those feelings because in too many cases, I am afraid, they will be founded on a cold reality,” he said in a video message Monday.
But he warned he would not tolerate vandalism or violence after clashes near his Downing Street office left 35 police officers injured.
Johnson’s Conservatives have been embroiled in a number of scandals over their treatment of immigrants, and he has faced claims of racist language in his former newspaper career.
British Colonialism in action: systematic abuse of the ‘Crown Jewel’
In a hard-hitting article in Al Jazeera in 2018, author Jason Hickel highlighted research done by the economist, Utsa Patnaik, in a book published by Columbia University Press who claims that the British Empire defrauded India and Indians of $45 trillion during the course of their rule. She says that British Colonialism worked according to the same pattern in all territories, but the extent of the fraud was the greatest in India.
“It happened through the trading system. Prior to the colonial period, Britain bought goods like textiles and rice from Indian producers and paid for them in the normal way – mostly with silver – as they did with any other country. But something changed in 1765, shortly after the East India Company took control of the subcontinent and established a monopoly over Indian trade”, he writes in his article.
Interesting tweet that popped up in my timeline, ironically, as we talk of British racism, Churchill role in 1943 famine and then the father of where it all started Robert Clive! https://t.co/ZaU231bbsG
— najma minhas (@MinhasNajma) June 9, 2020
“Here’s how it worked. The East India Company began collecting taxes in India, and then cleverly used a portion of those revenues (about a third) to fund the purchase of Indian goods for British use. In other words, instead of paying for Indian goods out of their own pocket, British traders acquired them for free, “buying” from peasants and weavers using money that had just been taken from them”, says Hickel.
“It was a scam – theft on a grand scale. Yet most Indians were unaware of what was going on because the agent who collected the taxes was not the same as the one who showed up to buy their goods. Had it been the same person, they surely would have smelled a rat”, laments Hickel regarding British colonialism.
“All of this is a sobering antidote to the rosy narrative promoted by certain powerful voices in Britain. The conservative historian Niall Ferguson has claimed that British rule helped “develop” India. While he was prime minister, David Cameron asserted that British rule was a net help to India”, adds the author.
“What does this require of Britain today? An apology? Absolutely. Reparations? Perhaps – although there is not enough money in all of Britain to cover the sums that Patnaik identifies. In the meantime, we can start by setting the story straight. We need to recognise that Britain retained control of India not out of benevolence but for the sake of plunder and that Britain’s industrial rise didn’t emerge sui generis from the steam engine and strong institutions, as our schoolbooks would have it, but depended on violent theft from other lands and other peoples”, concludes the author.
There is ample evidence of diversity at the top levels in British society. PM Boris Johnson has expressed pride in having the most diverse cabinet in British history, including Indian origin interior minister Priti Patel, who on Monday told MPs how she had faced racial abuse as a child, Indian origin Chancellor of Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Pakistani origin Sajid Javed as former Chancellor of Exchequer. However, it is clear that British colonial history has to be addressed head-on, starting with changing children’s syllabuses and school books that still call the 1857 War of Independence as the Soldiers Mutiny, and in many cases now skips over Britains colonial history althogether.