We must challenge our addiction to the ‘glory’ of the past

On June 7, 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement made history in Bristol by toppling the statue of philanthropist, Tory MP, and prolific slave trader Edward Colston. Since then, we have all been thinking the same thing: Are there other racist figures that we turn into societal heroes by erecting statues of them? How do we learn History? And what do we learn collectively about the past?

Boris Johnson firmly stands against the removal of statues, saying that we should be proud of them; that they “teach us about our past, with all its faults.” Priti Patel branded the toppling of Edward Colston “disorderly and lawless behaviour.” While many have taken this view, I think it is important to understand that in schools we do not learn from statues. In fact, most of the time, when we look at a statue, we have no idea who they are!

Others believe that these offending statues belong in museums. There, they can be kept as a permanent reminder of our past. The statues could be surrounded by information about the people they represent, or why they were removed from where they originally stood.

Some have even proposed that instead of removing the statues, we could erect ‘museum-like’ plaques out in public. This was, however, already the case with Colston. It clearly proved to be deeply unsatisfactory, as statues remain “exercises of public adoration.”

Britons only believe that figures like Churchill are great because we have, over generations, developed a psychic internalisation of white subjectivities that have amplified his positive actions while obscuring his toxic, racist views.

Britons praise Churchill for saving us from being a communist country, or ‘a country that speaks German.’ Oh, and you can’t forget his whimsical alcoholism that got him through everything! We use anything we can to mask his faults. If someone brings them up, we say: “But he was only a bit racist!” 

Why is that acceptable? There is no question: We should not be making slave owners and white supremacists our heroes by showcasing their statues. In doing so, we transform the slave owners and white supremacists of the past into trophies for our nation.

Is Churchill an exception to the rule? Churchill is just one of a whole plethora of figures viewed through rose tinted glasses. We make a spectacle out of history. This spectacle soon transforms into self-congratulation for past victories and leads us away from a confrontation of our wrongdoings. 

I think we run scared from the crimes which we have committed in the past. We don’t want to talk about them, nor the fact that the remnants of those crimes still linger on in our society today. As a nation we are “addicted to glory,” and the way in which we react to the horrors of our past exposes white fragility.

When we run scared from the past, we grab onto as many ‘victories’ as we can find. In doing so, we are left with the nostalgic image of “the good old days.”

The removal of statues is just the beginning. If we are going to address systemic racism once and for all then we must rid ourselves of the strong imposition of white norms in society.

It is time for a much-needed exorcism on the nation’s history. How can we expect to move forward if we cannot even face up to our past?

Being so quick to defend the “philanthropic” white supremacists of old means little other than that we are ready to exclude the many ethnic minorities which have played a vital role in our story.

Maybe, we could have a “Museum of Shame” into which we move all of these abhorrent statues so they can stand as they always have, but in a setting which contextualises and humbles them.

We must face up to our past: end the whitewashing history now.

Would you you would like to write a reply? If so, please contact the opinion editor at david.dahborn.13 [at] ucl.ac.uk.

Feature Image: Michele Theil.

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