The Violence of Liberalspeak: Eulogizing Cecil Rhodes, the ‘Businessman’ and ‘Munificent Benefactor’

The Violence of Liberalspeak: Eulogizing Cecil Rhodes, the ‘Businessman’ and ‘Munificent Benefactor’

Dalia Gebrial and Chi Chi Shi

We are living in a global moment of anti-racist student resistance. From Missouri to South Africa to Oxford, students of colour are demanding the attention of the university community with a level of militancy and organisation that has not been seen in decades. What we are witnessing is not a unique escalation of racial tension, but a generation of self-realised young people of colour taking the experiences that have always been our reality, and commanding that the rest of the community recognise and take responsibility for the effacement and violence that has been historically seen as only our problem.

The game of locating origins is often a tricky one, but many see the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in South Africa – which successfully took down the statue of the colonialist Cecil Rhodes in April 2015, and played an integral role in leading the #feesmustfall movement which halted planned fees increases – as a catalysing moment. Indeed, it inspired our namesake movement in Oxford, which is demanding the removal of its own Rhodes statue. However, other social movements invested in the same politics of recognition and reparation – such as Black Lives Matter – have been integral in emboldening the culture of POC resistance that is once again rising.

With the excitement and beauty of this moment comes the difficult realisation of some disturbing truths that were always present within our hallowed halls, but made starkly visible by the threat of establishment. These truths pertain to how all aspects of the university community – from management, to academic staff, to students – perceive us, and to how little they understand, or care to understand, our experience. In particular, the engagement with university management has revealed much about the ignorance of those who hold institutional power, and how fundamentally unprepared they are – intellectually and structurally – to deal with the issues being raised.

As members of Rhodes Must Fall Oxford, this has been made evident to us by the way in which Oriel College has responded to our demand that their monument to Rhodes, which continues to stand, be removed. In a commemoration speech to Oriel students at the beginning of this term, the Provost of Oriel recognised our campaign, describing Rhodes – one of the most prolific and violent figures in modern colonial history – as simply a “name” that is still “causing controversy more than 100 years after his death”. Rhodes is, according to Oriel, a “benefactor”, whose namesake scholarships have been “life-changing”. The speech was an exemplary performance in the sterility, cowardice and violence that characterises management Liberalspeak – a discourse that promotes only superficial change, protecting the establishment from the structural transformation behind true decolonisation.

We reject wholesale the terms of this conversation, terms which decontexualise, sanitise and whiten the brutality of the logic of primitive capital accumulation that led to the formation of the Rhodes Scholarships; wealth wrung from the blood of Southern Africans. Indeed, the original Rhodes Scholarships – established with the purpose of educating the next generation of colonialists – was funded by Rhodes’ estate. To portray Rhodes as a life-changing benefactor is to erase this foundational act of violence that created the wealth it generated, and to universalise the lens of the colonizer. Oriel was indeed the beneficiary of 2% of Rhodes’s stolen estate. This gift was indeed life-changing for the College. However, the prioritization of this fact of history over the historical facts of Rhodes’s systematic exploitation of the labour and land of thousands of Southern Africans – also, notably, life-changing – is the functioning of white supremacy: the prioritization of white advantage over black lives. Exactly whose lives that were changed by Rhodes’s money, and in what way, is a question for which Liberalspeak has no articulation.

The Provost, and the establishment she represents, pays ample lip service to her “commitment” to making Oxford a “diverse and inclusive place for people of all backgrounds.” We are not questioning her belief in her commitment – rather, we question the basis on which she makes the commitment itself. For those of us fattened for slaughter on the altar of tokenism, we know that the salve of liberal diversity will never be able to heal the colonial wound. Even more disturbing to us is the indirect equation of diversity and inclusivity with ‘the resources that have been given by our benefactors’ as distinct and separable from ‘Rhodes’s actions in his lifetime’. For Oriel, the historical fact of Rhodes’s theft can be separated from the historical fact of the donation; furthermore, the legacy of his donation has been unquestioningly and unerringly positive:  ‘We may not like or approve of every action of every benefactor on our list. But we should acknowledge their generosity and its impact on our lives – in the words of our College Prayer, “the advantages afforded in this place by their munificence”. Their gifts drop through time and benefit each generation.’

This is a language in which ‘thief’ and ‘murderer’ translates in Liberalspeak as ‘businessman’ and ‘politician’. The invisible epistemic violence – the violence of oppressive knowledge production – in Oriel’s rhetoric is the product of a system where black and brown bodies are included despite their racialization; where people of colour are continually told to be grateful for the opportunities afforded to them despite their oppression; to thank their oppressors for no longer openly subjugating them. It is a rhetoric that demands submission as the price of inclusion within a system that was not built for us; a rhetoric that demands that we, too, look at Rhodes and see a munificent benefactor and businessman.

And here emerges the fundamental problem with the liberal discourse of diversity. Diversity, in management Liberalspeak, signifies a rainbow of races where everyone’s unique culture and perspective has a place: ‘a celebration of cultural difference as competitive advantage’. The mainstream emphasis on “diversity” as a solution to our concerns implies that the festering, rotting wound that is the ideology of white supremacy represented by Rhodes, and the colonial apologism that refuses to heal it, can co-exist alongside our black and brown bodies. Diversity demands that we twist our bodies and contort our minds into the mould that is provided for us – the price of our visibility is our silence. As Sara Ahmed writes in her book On Being Included, diversity work is about generating “the right image”; it is about “changing perceptions of whiteness, rather than changing the whiteness of organisations” (page 34).

This is ironically coupled with the discourse of debate: ‘I think you will see Oriel continue to…. host and promote debate on issues to do with Rhodes’ era, and the topic of colonialism and its consequences’. Having made clear that the continuing links between the foundational crimes of colonialism and our present experiences of racism are not, in fact, up for debate, the liberal regime demands that we engage in the performative spectacle of discussion; that we come together as ‘equals’ to reasonably, rationally engage with the white establishment about the legitimacy of our concerns. Note that Oriel will host debate: the conversation, it seems, must always take place on their terms. This is a perfect illustration of the refusal to engage with the source of our grievances: the demand for people of colour to continually seek the approval of the white establishment, without which we cannot be discursively legible, where the experiences of the colonizer are equitable with the experiences of the disenfranchised. It is a continuance of the violent necessity for people of colour to continually justify ourselves against a white norm.

As well as refusing to honestly engage with historical fact, we have repeatedly been reminded of the desire of management to maintain a comfortable, controlled distance from the students – particularly students of colour – with whom they are engaging; an apt reminder that some of us are more reasonable and rational than others. During our recent, peaceful demonstration outside Oriel, the ‘guard’ for Oriel’s representatives sought our confirmation that RMFO protestors would “be nice and make way” for them. The irony of making way for a white establishment that has historically and continues to be fearful for black and brown bodies, an establishment that has refused to make way for us, is not lost. The repeated assertion that the conversation be on establishment terms equally speaks to this fact. Indeed, whilst Oriel has responded to our demand by inviting a select few RMFO activists to meet with establishment representatives, we reject the supposition that decolonisation can take place on the terms of the establishment. Our response, to invite the Provost to a General Assembly hosted by RMFO, a conversation to which all members could be a part, has also been rejected. The favouring of backroom manoeuvrings over public accountability is not surprising: it speaks to the appeasement and management of a process which is necessarily uncomfortable, public and humbling.

This is why our demand is for decolonisation, not diversity. This is the distinction that university management refuses to acknowledge exists, because it challenges the very process of knowledge production and the material infrastructure behind it; the terms on which the conversation takes place. The importance, therefore, of hosting a conversation on our terms, a conversation equally accessible for all members of our movement, is in recognising the power of framing discourse. Decolonisation commands an element of self-reflexivity. It takes the white academic establishment – especially one with the colonial ties that run as deeply and as insidiously as they do in Oxford – reckoning with its own complicity in the violence of empire. It requires restorative justice, a justice centred on the needs and wishes of those damaged by the racist legacy of colonialism and not the PR campaign of complicit institutions. Oriel’s discourse, and the University as a whole, suggests their belief in the ready availability of the necessary infrastructure with which we can and should engage. It suggests that it is our failing to be reasonable and rational that hinders our campaign. The rhetorical and invisible violence of this discourse mirrors the violence of their infrastructure. Globally, students of colour are breaking the submission pact of diversity. Globally, we are rejecting inclusion to demand the transformation of infrastructure, to demand the transformation of institutions complicit in our pain. Crucially, we are not asking to be heard; we are placing ourselves in the driving seat of change. Recognition of this is the only way we can defeat the insidious violence of Liberalspeak.

Ahmed, Sara. On Being Included. London: Duke University Press, 2012.


Dalia Gebrial is an English and Comparative Literary Studies graduate from Warwick University. She is now an MSt candidate in World Literatures in English at Oxford University. As well as being an organising member of Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford, she has a strong interest in climate justice activism. She has previously worked as Editor in Chief of the Warwick Globalist, and a Senior Editor at Egyptian Streets, and continues to publish in a wide range of outletsChi Chi Shi is a Politics and Sociology graduate from Warwick University. She is now an MPhil candidate in Political Theory at Oxford University. She is co-chair of Oxford’s Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality, Vice President of St Cross College, a researcher at OxPolicy and an organising member of Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford.

Image Credit: George Edwards