Statues: Racism in Perpetuity

Updated: Jun 21

“This statue of the slave-trader Edward Colston, erected in 1895, became a symbol of the George Floyd Protests when it was toppled and pushed into the Bristol harbour by demonstrators on 7 June 2020. Colston financed his philanthropic projects (which the statue originally commemorated) with the money he made during his involvement in the slave trade. It is estimated that around 84,000 African men, women, and children, of whom 19,000 died in transit, were transported to the Caribbean and American colonies during this period. The ropes and graffiti have been preserved as testament to the conviction of the demonstrators in their pursuit of racial equality.”

So the new plaque might say someday. The poetry of throwing him into the sea like so many of the slaves that died on his trade ships is almost too perfect, whether accidental or not. Since then, numerous statues all over the world have been toppled by victims of institutional racism, in anger at a society that shows no progress in terms of real, tangible equality. I cannot speak for the experiences of these victims, nor do I intend to in this article. I have had friends tell me about racist abuse they have suffered in the past, however, and the all-too sickening present. The part of the conversation which always makes me the most uncomfortable is how dismissive they are of the incidents:

“It’s fine, it happens.”

“Yeah, well, whatever. It’s in the past now.”

“What am I meant to do?”

The last is by far the worst to hear. What am I meant to do, they think, when nothing will change if I speak up? I’ll only draw attention to myself. That’ll only lead to more abuse and more silence by on-lookers.

The sentiment stays consistent with each incident: I cannot speak up for myself, but no one else wants to speak up for me. And the people who looked on as my friends were abused? Perhaps they felt too uncomfortable to say anything. Maybe they thought if they ignored it for long enough it would stop, or they would be able to remove themselves from the situation, and not have to worry about it anymore. Unfortunately for them, it doesn’t work like that; fortunately for them, it doesn’t have to. They just have to wait until their stop and get off the train, or the bus, or the taxi, or out of the office, or the school, or Parliament.

It doesn’t matter how much personal power the victim wields either. People of colour at all levels of society continue to suffer abuse, and often without any real repercussion from the perpetrator. So many get slaps on the wrist that they could cry abuse themselves, and likely gain more sympathy.

It’s easy, as a white person, to ignore these uncomfortable realities. It’s easy, as white person, to defend a statue as a historic artifact and misunderstand the point completely. It seems extremely easy, as a white person, to acknowledge racism and think that’s enough, and know you will never be a victim of racial abuse.

I myself recently got into an argument over this. My background is in Ancient History. I did two degrees in it at university, and as a result of that education I have developed deep appreciation for statues. There’s so much a statue can tell you about the society that sculpted it. I understand quite well that revolutions and statues are not a new pairing. The argument I made was, of course, based on my preferred subject.

The Aphrodite of Knidos, sculpted by Praxiteles ca. 250BCE, was the first nude female form in Greek sculpture. It became a sensation, and far more popular than the dressed version the inhabitants of Kos chose to buy. It was put on display such that it could be viewed from every angle, that it be appreciated to the fullest. There’s even a tradition that a man broke into the temple at night and left a stain on the statue after attempting to copulate with it. The reason it was such a sensation was that female nudity (“civilised” female nudity) was uncommon in Greek artwork. This was because of a brutal systemic prejudice towards the female sex. In Athens (where most of our sources come from) human sexuality was organised to meet the needs of the adult male citizen. All other members of the community – women, slaves, boys – were considered sexually inert; defined by their passivity, so they may be acted upon by the “active” male citizen. The Hippokratic tradition of medicine believed that a woman must experience pleasure for the uterus to retain her partner’s seed.[1] The argument was that a woman’s pleasure aided in the delivery of a man’s ejaculate to the uterus, so if she had not enjoyed it, she would not be pregnant. Forced sex was no exception; if not willing in mind, they clearly had been in body.[2] How incredible then, to see the female form removed from the act of sex, without reducing her sexuality - to have the nude female form worshipped, instead of degraded.*

*Of course, attitudes towards female sexual liberation were far from consistent between goddesses, free women, and slave-women. Unlike free women and goddesses, slave women had no agency whatsoever. Whatever sexuality they had was determined by their owners.

This revolution in the presentation of female has since been lost. We only know of the Knidian Aphrodite through Roman copies and the few accounts that survive of its description. Such is the context of that statue that a woman would still have had to view herself via the male gaze, just as victims of racial inequality had to view statues of slave-traders through the eyes of the benefactors of racial inequality.

A statue by itself does not tell the whole story, but it does tell part of it. A statue can be used as a tangible, enduring reminder of the movements of the past. Imagine being able to walk around this touchstone of Western art. Imagine being able to see a living relic of a time where female emancipation was a comedic fantasy, and a death sentence in reality. It was in this vein, through the lens of a historian, that I argued the statue shouldn’t be destroyed. I argued it should be preserved with all the ropes and graffiti and context of its new reception, so that people both now and later could point at it and see the anger of this moment in time.

My girlfriend told me: “I’ve never been more aware I’m with a white person.”

I was a little taken aback. I felt like I’d try to argue my point as well as I could. We’d agreed on basically everything about the Colston statue and its treatment by protesters, and all the other statues being toppled. So why was I being told I just don’t get it?

We took a break to cool down, and in that time, I thought about all that we’d said so far. Then I realised something. You cannot be objective about a subjective topic. You can’t tell people to preserve a statue because it’s “better for posterity” when that statue is a reminder of your people’s continued oppression. You can’t build monuments to slavery and expect the descendants of slaves to sympathise when someone cries that they tore them down. You can’t view the Aphrodite of Knidos the same way as the statue of Edward Colston. You can’t preserve something that is still happening.

I had made the mistake of treating something like it had already passed. I’d tried to argue that the emotions of millions of people around the world were better observed through the lens of a post-mortem examination, without even realising it. My privilege had allowed me to be objective because I didn’t understand that I had no authority on the matter. Putting a statue in a museum doesn’t help people who suffer from racism, and their struggle isn’t a curiosity for those privileged enough to acknowledge it when they feel like it. If you’re more worried about preserving a statue of a slave-trader than institutional racism, you’re definitely on the wrong side of the argument. I realised I had missed the point, and I apologised for how I came across.

I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that you cannot be selective about condemning racism. Condemning racism is active, continuous, and inconvenient. Passivity keeps the status-quo, and simply acknowledging the problem does nothing to comfort those who remain oppressed. It might have made you feel good when you posted a tweet with #BlackLivesMatter, but that didn’t stop George Floyd getting asphyxiated. Statues get toppled in every social revolution, but to be disproportionately upset by that is to lose the forest amongst the trees. Now is not the time for objectivity.

And current events are not ancient history.

[1] Soranos, Gyn. 1.37, CMG 4, 26.25-30 Il. His argument was based on the erroneous but nonetheless widely believed tradition that the mouth of the uterus closed after a male had successfully ejaculated. Interestingly, Hippokrates’ Diseases of Women frequently refers to the woman’s partner as her husband. This is possibly indicative of a belief that a woman’s sexual activity was presumed to occur mostly (if not only) after marriage.

[2] Hanson, A.E. (1990), “The medical writers’ woman”, in Halperin, D.M., Winkler, J.J. and Zeitlin, F.I. (1990), eds., Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World, Princeton, NJ, 309-338: 315.

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