Australia’s Universities Could Do Their Bit By Tearing Down Monuments To Racists

Statues celebrating notorious racists are all over Australian university campuses. It's time for them to go.

Churchill statue

As statues of colonial figures were being toppled halfway across the world in Bristol and Boston, student activists of colour at the Australian National University (ANU) began to question the existence of a controversial monument on their own campus. There are not one, but two, pieces of Winston Churchill memorabilia on the campus — a statue and a bust.

Though Churchill is primarily remembered for steering the United Kingdom through the Second World War, the legacy he holds for people of colour is much more complicated.

Students at ANU argue that he was a “white supremacist and led Britain imperialistically, entrenching and exacerbating ill treatment of populations in the ‘colonies’”.

And this is a fact, Churchill was not only outspoken in his belief of white superiority, but his actions contributed to the Bengal famine.

Perhaps more relevant to the Black Lives Matter movement, is Churchill’s assertion that no “great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. No wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race, has come in and taken their place”.

As such, plans were underway for students to take action against the statue — petitions were being signed, and there were talks about chucking Churchill into the infamous Sully’s creek where students (pre-corona) used to dump shopping trolleys dumped on drunken nights out.

But then the Churchill statue went missing. Some students hypothesised that the statue must have been temporarily removed for fear of vandalisation. This wasn’t much of a stretch considering the police presence around the Hyde Park Captain Cook statue in Sydney, or the boarding up of the Churchill statue in London’s Parliament Square.

As it turns out, the statue had suffered damage to the back of the head and the shoulders as a result of the wild Canberra hailstorm earlier this year (what a year it has been). Both the ANU Winston Churchill Trust and the university itself confirmed it is currently being refurbished and that it will return to campus in a few months.

Still, the question around whether there is a place for such monuments on our university campuses remains. So, should it return?

The Campaign Against Monuments For Racists

This isn’t the first time these questions have been asked by student activists.

At the University of Cape Town, a statue of Cecil Rhodes — who believed the English to be the “master race” — used to stand in a prominent position in the centre of the campus. A series of protests called the Rhodes Must Fall campaign led to its removal.

The Rhodes Must Fall campaign travelled to the University of Oxford, where students fought for the removal of his statue from Oriel College. Though the university refused to remove the statue in 2016, ultimately placing the wishes of their outraged wealthy donors above students of diverse backgrounds, the calls for its removal have been renewed. These calls are louder than ever and backed this time by prominent voices including Oxford’s two MPs.

In Australia, students at the University of Sydney (USYD) have been campaigning since 2017 for the removal the statue of William Wentworth on their campus, as well as the renaming of the Wentworth building. The Wentworth Must Fall campaign was clearly inspired by the movements at Cape Town and Oxford. It gained greater visibility in 2019, however both the statue and the building name remain.

It’s Not About The Statues, It’s What They Represent

None of these campaigns are just about the statue though.

There is no question that they are symbolic. Their very structure often being larger than life and their height towering above us shows us these men were strong and powerful. We learned this in high school English classes examining the low-angle shot in movies. But that isn’t all.

These monuments speak to the values and ideals of our universities, not in the past but in the present. These are places where students of colour continue to face racism, whether in the form of daily microaggressions to straight up slurs. Coursework is heavily white-washed, with Western thought being prioritised and other viewpoints being relegated as secondary additional understanding which you must seek out on your own if you are interested enough.

Even then, non-white academics make up a slim proportion of university hires. Those that do make it into the institutions are much less likely than their white counterparts to be promoted.

The removal of symbols, like the Churchill statue at the ANU, the Rhodes statue at Cape Town and Oxford, and the Wentworth statue at USYD, is just the first step for student activists.

Their removal, much like the statues themselves, is symbolic. Removing them means confronting the reality that our universities are not post-racial, that they are not achieving racial equality, and that they are not truly encouraging diversity and inclusivity. Racism at universities in clear and it is an issue.

What students are truly asking for universities to undertake the difficult task of introspection, followed by de-colonisation. De-colonisation of spaces and more importantly, decolonisation of thought.

Rashna is a young Muslim multi-hyphenate with lots of strong opinions. You can find her on Twitter @rashna_f if you want to hear them (or better yet, hire her).