RMFO: Let’s not forget the lessons of our debate

When yesterday I read The Telegraph article, which said that the Cecil Rhodes statue at Oriel was to stay whatever the results of the College’s listening exercise, I was disappointed. A great opportunity to discuss Oxford’s wider colonial legacy and what Oxford students think about it had been lost.

Whatever your opinions on what the future of the statue should be, the conclusion of the Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford (RMFO) debate in this way represents a defeat for all of us undergraduates. As The Telegraph has reported it, the fact that the priorities of the College’s potential donors have been deemed more important than the voices of current members of the College represents a massive blow to student voices at this University.

As far as The Telegraph has presented, it was a report prepared for the governors of the College that forced the decision; when the College faced as much as 1.5 million pounds in withdrawn donations this year already, it was suggested that they were left with little choice. Oriel is presented as having chosen to keep the Rhodes statue because, in the end, it has put its financial priorities first.

Whereas last December, we were promised an open consultative process, the College has effectively gone back on its word. Listening exercises may well sound good on paper, but in the cold light of day the College appears to have listened first of all to the wealthiest of its patrons.

Personally, I had never fully supported calls to remove Rhodes’ statue. I was unsure whether an act of iconoclasm would go very far to changing Oxford’s imperialist legacy. I strongly felt that the best way to confront Oxford’s past, as well as the best way to address its continued legacy in the present, was to hold a free and open debate on the topic. I may not always have agreed with RMFO figures like Yussef Robinson and Qwabe, or even Cherwell’s co-Editor, Henry Shalders, but that doesn’t mean that I disagreed with the debate.

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In a University where less than four per cent of professors are from BME backgrounds, we needed the Rhodes Must Fall debate to force us into action. In the chambers of the Union, the JCRs of our colleges, and the pages of this very newspaper, discussion of the RMFO campaign meant so much more than just one statue. At times, the RMFO debate may have been trivialised, but significantly it made us students think about our place in history. Oriel’s abrupt decision to end this discussion will, unfortunately, present a major blow to the progress of debates about our colonial legacy here in Oxford.

The significance of Oriel’s decision is that it demonstrates who really holds power in the University. According to The Telegraph, the threat of the withdrawal of a proposed one hundred million pound gift in a donor’s will has influenced the College’s decision making process. It seems like the balance of power is now firmly in the hands of an elite. In an ongoing student debate that seems not to have been anywhere near concluded, Oriel is being made to sound as if they are prepared to cut things short. If Oriel seems to be yielding to the financial might of its sponsors, we students need to ask what influence we are left with at all. Looking beyond what seems like an end to this phase of debate about the Rhodes statue at Oriel, we need to ask where student debate about the University’s imperialist legacy should go next. Stated as one of the key aims of the RMFO movement was a drive to ‘decolonise’ the University.

Rhodes’ statue may well have been an obvious manifestation of our dubious historical record, but crucially it is not the most important. As much as Oriel’s decision may serve to change the focus of the RMFO debate, we should not allow it to undermine the debate’s positive contribution to Oxford students’ historical consciousness. We may never see Rhodes’ statue fall, but significantly we can learn from RMFO.

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Perhaps overall, RMFO has demonstrated that we students can change the way we think about our past. Importantly, this change means that we must continue to push for representative syllabuses, contextualized discussion of our past, and greater awareness of the need for racial, social, and gender equality in the University. Many of us will be disappointed by the way in which Oriel is supposed to have wrapped up the RMFO debate, but we should not let ourselves be silenced. We have gained so much from constructive discussion of Rhodes’ legacy in the University that we would be foolish to go on as if nothing had ever happened.

Rhodes’ statue may not be falling anytime soon, but we must continue to confront his and other imperialists’ legacies.