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Slaves, Statues and Scapegoats

Retired Leader in Education, Consultant and previous HMI Inspector, Peter Green, writes a poetic response, on the 22/12/2021, to a headline in a daily paper about 'record' numbers of refugees arriving across the channel

And still they come,

they want what we have.

Is that so wrong?

Comfortable, coffee in hand

watching wind-blown sand,

the billowing waves,

lapping, leaping, perpetual

inviting with calm menace

smiling with grimace

would I?

I know the answer –

why they continue to come.

It’s the last leg of their journey

for some, and for some

that journey is their tragic last.

We all know the answer.

Hope. Salvation. Optimism.


Of a caring, generous nation

open to strangers, fleeing from dangers.

“We shall not oppress a stranger,

for we know the heart of a stranger

– we were strangers once, too”. *

Can we too still be a nation true

that welcomes, opens its door

to the tired, the poor,

“the huddled weary

who yearn to breathe free, just to be

and build a better life for their children”? *

Can we be one nation with a heart

– a heart of honesty, integrity, love?

*From Barrack Obama’s executive address to the American people on 20th November 2014.

Peter recieved the following in response to his reflections above:

Very appropriate. Just wish there were as many people protesting about the treatment of refugees today as there are about the slave trade several hundred years ago and tearing down statues and the BLM …

He could not let the latter observation pass without comment...

Peter's article below aptly explains why education and reminders about history, context, policy and practice are so important when making judgements, passing comments, which can lead to prejudice, 'whataboutisms' and effectively, distract us from creating a culture of inclusivity and belonging.

Photo by <a href="">Kevin Olson</a> on <a href="">Unsplash</a>
Photo by Kevin Olson on Unsplash

It’s a pity that two very worthwhile causes appear to be in conflict with one another: treatment of refugees (and I include asylum seekers) and the consequences of the slave trade given renewed focus by Black Lives Matter (BLM). Yes, the slave trade ended a long time ago, but its impact and consequences are visible today. To talk about the slave trade without including colonial policy is naïve or disingenuous.

Yes, colonial imperialism, slavery’s twin, has ended, but we must try to understand the influence on our views and attitudes towards people of colour, however inclusive we are.

Consequently, we must acknowledge the unconscious bias we all have towards Black and dark-skinned people. And this includes those of us who are dark-skinned or Black. Such bias and the impact of empire is explained fully and insightfully for example by John Barnes, Ben Zephaniah, Akala, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Jeffrey Boakye, Sathnam Sanghera, Adam Rutherford in their books. And, a special mention to David Olusoga.

People protest when they feel strongly and it’s a feature of democracy to allow protest or should be. Perhaps the reason for the numbers protesting reflect the injustices and strong emotions they feel not just for themselves but on behalf of others. The killing of George Floyd in 2020 was the catalyst for voicing those strong feelings of injustices and taking action as evidenced by the visible reminders of those injustices and disadvantages as in education, housing, health, and the criminal justice system.

I do not go into the rights or wrongs here of action against statues or names, but I acknowledge the hurt people feel when they see them.

It is up to the bystander, viewer or reader to continue to be resentful and angry or forgive, seek reconciliation, while not forgetting the lesson or experience: reconciliation through challenging current wrongs and injustices such as treatment of refugees and asylum seekers and other abuses of human rights.

Many of those seeking refuge in the United Kingdom do so as a result of our foreign policy actions and historical involvement in those countries. An involvement that is often conveniently overlooked.

My own view is to keep these reminders of injustice and inhumanity with suitable explanations. In short, to educate. Statements writ large and clear that these were not the ‘benevolent and good’ people the statues/monuments suggest they were but powerful and cruel oppressors, opportunists and advantage-takers. Their deeds as benefactors do not wipe away the stains of the actions. They were people of their day, times in which being white, wealthy and European brought advantages, privileges and for some, great power. But these brief explanations should point the way to further information.

Photo by redcharlie on Unsplash

Use these monuments to educate and inform. Do so on a national scale in the same way as we remember the Holocaust and dedicate a special day, Holocaust Memorial Day in January. Such a national project as this would no doubt be met with cries of ‘wokism’, rewriting history, denying our legacy etc as happened to The National Trust.

In the same vein, schools and colleges should be encouraged not criticised when they seek to question and broaden the views of pupils and students by including measured and considered reflection on the consequences of imperial and colonial policy in their teaching and the curriculum.

Giving balance and objectivity to the curriculum is not changing history and refashioning the past. For example, understanding events in Africa and the Middle East today. The context of the present arises from the past. The past needs to be explained with balance, not merely from the perspective of the victor. Preventing such balance and alternate views that do not accord with traditional views is an example of institutionalised cancel culture that is attributed to those with views that are not right of centre and often left-wing views. It is currently the preserve of the establishment seeking to preserve the status quo; it is their form of subtle ‘no-platforming’. I suspect this is one of the reasons why subjects such as media studies and sociology are frowned on and disparaged by the current government. Free speech and no-platforming are not compatible. Preferable is the application of reasoning of rational argument, boycott by no show and protest.

The issue of protests is particularly pertinent due to The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill passing through Parliament. There is a clause that someone can be charged and convicted for up to 10 years for removing a statue! The charge of criminal damage already exists. Why the need to give added protection to statues of Edward Colston and others like him? Are such measures designed to restrict protests and free speech in keeping with a so-called liberal democracy? A democracy that enables a government with a huge majority to ride roughshod over all opposition, frequently from its own side.

There is an irony in a government whose ministers excoriate so-called cancel culture (because they attribute it to a left-wing woke ideology) doing exactly that – cancelling free speech and protest – but through the offices of the law. Suppose a protester chained themselves to a railing Suffragette style, would the protest be allowed under the terms of the Bill if enacted as it stands? Will protests be treated differently depending on the subject of the protest whether about climate change or treatment of refugees or an issue the government does not like? The Bill bans protesting outside Parliament, surely the most effective place to protest to government?

Asylum seekers and refugees are often made scapegoats for economic or social ills or when a single act of terrorism is committed by one individual. Immigration policy is criticised, their status is questioned prompting enquiry about their motivation and situation in their homeland, their status here.

Links are not made, however, between the past and present, their countries many of which were the source of wealth of those statues who stare on us from history.

Feel free to email your response and thoughts to the article above and read more by Peter Green here.

All views and words are the writer's own and cannot be used without full credit and the writer's permission: Peter Green 2022©


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