Cecil John Rhodes arrived in southern Africa in 1870. He claimed land, constructed mines and established systems of governance, leaving in place the economic and political machinery that would drive two centuries of black exploitation. For 81 years, Rhodes’ bronze replica perched above the rugby fields at the University of Cape Town, blending in with the rest of the university’s venerable architecture.
This past March, a group of UCT students demanded that the statue come down. The students, most of whom are black, criticized a school that, 21 years after apartheid, remained a white space — a zone in which colonial attitudes were preserved in its institutional discrimination against people of color.
From New Haven, I watched as Rhodes Must Fall gathered steam. I was excited by the students’ urgency, but skeptical of their strategy. If the goal was institutional transformation, what good would come from removing a near-forgotten statue? The ideological basis of UCT’s curriculum was inherited from colonial days. Targeting a symbol, I worried, would amount to only spectacle — a move that, though provocative, would divert attention away from the more subtle ways the university maintains white supremacy. It was the same reason I’d never advocated that Calhoun, my residential college, be renamed. It would be dangerous to indict only the settler colonialists or the slave owners.
I moved to Cape Town after graduation this year, leaving the States just as we were collectively re-examining our country’s racial wounds. The South Africa in which I arrived had changed, too. Catalyzed by Rhodes Must Fall, students at universities across the nation began to organize, demanding that colonial and apartheid legacies be uprooted. But the movement also generated changes on the local scale of UCT. We can look to these less visible transformations in understanding what’s at stake in the debate over Calhoun.
Rhodes Must Fall took a statue that most people had stopped noticing and re-activated its symbolic power. The movement urged everybody on campus, regardless of their position, to consider how Rhodes’s legacy persists in the space of the everyday. To see that South Africa’s colonial past is preserved in not only statues and street names, but also in the academic curriculum, the daily abrasions of social interaction and the invisible rules that determine who “belongs” and who doesn’t.
For many years, we engaged with the name of Calhoun as a historical relic, a souvenir of a past we deemed safely behind us. But interpreting our environment is something we do every minute of our waking day, though not always at a conscious level. Symbols operate on us in subtle and subterranean ways; they argue for certain narratives and for certain ways of inhabiting a space.
When I first learned I’d been assigned to Calhoun College, I didn’t question its namesake. I grew up in the last Confederate capital of Louisiana, a city whose history of Jim Crow is still played out in its legal system and geography. But already I was too intoxicated by Yale’s legacy of tradition, power and prestige — eager to adopt and be adopted by that institutional identity. For the majority of college, this desired identity guided my decisions both great and mundane (What clubs to join? What books to read? How to spend my summers?).
Integral to that institutional identity, too, is whiteness. At Yale, white is the mainstream and the norm. It exists in classroom syllabi, in faculty ratios, in polite conversations about diversity and in the advertisements that invite our gaze as we walk down Broadway. Whiteness can determine what metrics and ideals we structure our lives around. But like water that surrounds a fish, it’s hard to name because it’s everywhere. Say the words “white privilege” and you’ll induce an awkward silence, a shift in topic. When speaking with others about race on campus, I’d often come away with the strange feeling that I was imagining things.
Whiteness is a social construct, but it’s also a mindset — a certain way of being-in-the-world that is informed by always occupying spaces whose dominant values reflect and validate your own. It is an innocence that makes us blind to the intergenerational legacies left by figures like Calhoun. Regardless of our gender, class or race, our proximity to an institution like Yale lends us a degree of white privilege once we leave. And if we don’t know that we carry such privilege, it is impossible to responsibly engage with the world.
The stakes of the Calhoun question extend beyond the realm of symbolism. We’re asking how the dynamics taking place within Yale’s walls fit into our present moment in American society. In the past year alone, we’ve witnessed the terrifying results of protecting white power, and we’re asking how much longer we can afford to ignore our ongoing complicity.
The Asaro tribe of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea had a saying, that “Knowledge is only a rumor until it lives in the muscle.” By learning to call Calhoun by a new name, we may begin to reconfigure our habits of everyday perception: how we see, hear and make sense of our daily interactions with one another. Here in Cape Town, institutional change remained a rumor until students roused a sleeping statue. It is time we do the same.
Joy Shan is a 2015 graduate of Calhoun College and a Fox International Fellow at the University of Cape Town. She was Magazine Editor on the Managing Board of 2015. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .