In a personal submission to Oxford University’s Oriel Commission’s call for responses on the removal of Cecil Rhodes statue, Oxbridge graduate Alka Sehgal Cuthbert wrote the following:
I realise that the decision to look into removing the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College arises from a genuine desire to make ethnic minority students feel welcome and reduce the possibility of them feeling as if they are entering a strange, unfamiliar and probably discomforting environment. I am an Indian woman who has studied, and worked, at a wide range of academic institutions. I studied for my Masters at a modern, red-brick inner-city university, and I read for my PhD at Cambridge. As you can imagine, the social demographics of each institution were very different, as were their pastoral policies and arrangements for student inductions.
I am writing to urge you to let the statue stay put and I want to explain something of my experience of Cambridge to explain why. There are enough similarities with Oxford for my narrative to be relevant. Soon after my arrival at Cambridge, en route to the University Library via the short cut of Clare College, I stood at the gates of the college, which is more traditional and architecturally imposing than Lucy Cavendish – my own, more modest college. I stopped at the gates and looked up, the obelisk of the library stood tall in the background, and I paused. Moments passed while I felt an acute anxiety, and a light sweat on my hands. I was baffled by my reaction and told myself that I had not lived as long as I had (I was a mature student), had children, hitchhiked to Greece (many years ago), been on marches etc., only to crumble at the gates of Clare College. The existential moment, possibly of imposter syndrome, passed.
A while later, I pondered on my response and why I had felt so anxious. Mentally time travelling back to my 20-year-old self, I wondered if it was because of the patriarchal dominance of the buildings. The obelisk certainly looks phallic enough. And then I asked myself whether, from a more current cultural frame, it was because of the male, white privilege embodied in the buildings and all they stood for. There is no single answer to a question that depends purely on subjective interpretation. The interpretation of my experience that I settled on rejected both patriarchy and racism as causes for my momentary distress. I judged my experience to arise from my intellectual awareness of all the past achievements to which many people, over centuries and from many places, had contributed. ‘Would I be able, in my small way, to contribute?’, ‘Would I be able to make the most of the incredible luck of studying at such a place?’. These are legitimate questions for a newbie to such institutions to ask themselves, and the attendant anxiety was creative. It was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. As individuals we can choose how we interpret the contents of our experiences – biology, psychology, history or politics do not exhaust all meaning – something must be left for our individual intentionality.
The Oxbridge traditions, the formal gowns, the porters, the buildings and sculptures contributed to that transformative potential because for a while, I lived and worked in an environment whose intellectual substance and cultural symbolism quietly urged me to try and be the best scholar I could be. Yes, some rituals were undoubtedly silly (a commitment to black shoes at graduation meant taping over brass buckles on shoes, for example) but hardly oppressive.
Cambridge was a total contrast to my other experiences in academia where the organising principle was to be as un-academic and un-traditional as possible. Mistakenly, in my view, they thought that this would be more welcoming. It might have been so for about five minutes initially, but it was not transformative, and I soon felt listless and patronised. Ironically, I felt more a part of a scholarly community at Cambridge, despite being an older, Indian woman, with children, and working part-time than I ever did at the modern, inner-city university where most of us dissolved quickly into our personal lives and friendship groups as soon as lectures and seminars ended.
Obviously, this is only my personal experience, and many will say, or have said, ‘ah yes, but that’s you Alka, you are strong, others are not like you.’ Beyond the banal truth, there is something deeply worrisome about this belief. The idea that entry to Oxbridge entails too high a psychological price for BAME students seems to me to accept what could be construed as a racist assumption itself: that students are divisible along racial lines and should be treated accordingly. While at Cambridge I never forgot how to speak Hindi, or the specificities of my cultural background; nor did I come to value them less, if anything I came to appreciate human difference and commonalities even more. No high cultural price was involved in my studying at a world-class university, and my relatives in India would have laughed in my face if I had suggested that this was the case.
By all means offer guidance and support, when needed, to students who, perhaps lacking my life experience, may arrive with less or weaker inner resources to overcome anxieties. This is especially likely given significant changes in both parental and school culture over recent decades. But please do not change what or who you are in the mistaken belief that to do so will help ethnic minority students. It won’t. Like their majority white counterparts, they need to be encouraged to rise to the challenge and reap the rewards of their immersive experience of scholarly life in its entirety, including its rituals and traditions (which have changed with time and effort despite common accusations to the contrary). ALL Oxbridge students, of whatever colour, are privileged. We don’t need to feel guilty about it, we should own it and make the most of our limited time at such special and unique places, and later find ways of translating the fruits of our education for the public good.
Finally, no doubt some might say that mine is an overblown reaction to removing a single statue. But this would be disingenuous because we know the wider cultural climate, and that more than the literal removal of a statue is at stake. It involves questions of authority, democratic decision making, and moral universalism. Retaining the statue does not entail celebrating all Rhodes’ actions, or any celebration at all, in fact. But aside from the architectural case for its continued presence, I would say traditional statues can appeal to our historical curiosity – who was the person? Why is there a statue of him/her? What must society have been like to want to put up the statue? And so forth. Curiosity could prompt some to pursue their questions further so they come to know more about what such figures actually did, and did not, do, and perhaps the commission can consider ways to disseminate more widely scholarly knowledge about the subjects of statues, what they did (warts and all, but also the less ugly parts), as well as why statues were put up in the first place? Most importantly, statues from the past stand as reminders of the progress that has been made, ethically, politically and sometimes, aesthetically.