Yes, the monuments should fall

This article was contributed by Dr Joel McKim, from Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies.Lee Park, Charlottesville, VA

Writing in the 1930s, the Austrian writer Robert Musil famously noted that despite their attempted grandeur, there is nothing as invisible as a monument: “They are impregnated with something that repels attention, causing the glance to roll right off, like water droplets off an oilcloth, without even pausing for a moment.” It’s difficult to reconcile Musil’s observation with what we’ve witnessed from afar over the past week – a nation seemingly ripping itself apart, a statue of Robert E. Lee situated at the centre of the conflict.  Michael Taussig has, more recently, suggested an important adjustment to Musil’s theory arguing that it’s not until a monument is destroyed (or is slated for removal) that it succeeds in drawing our attention. The monument, Taussig reminds us, is often the first symbolic target in times of struggle.  “With defacement,” he writes, “the statue moves from an excess of invisibility to an excess of visibility.”

The confederate statues in America and the dilemma over what do with them became extremely visible this past week. It’s a discussion that has actually been taking place for some time now, with the removal in April and May of a number of monuments in New Orleans (including statues of Lee and Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy) being a recent flashpoint. And there are of course many global and historical precedents to this debate, including the removal of racist and imperial icons in South Africa over the past several years and the precarious fate of Soviet-era statuary (see for example the excellent Disgraced Monuments, by our own Laura Mulvey and Mark Lewis). Decisions over what to do with symbols of past shame or troubling history also extend to the realm of preservation. Germany and Austria have recently been debating whether several architectural sites connected to the history of National Socialism, including the Nuremberg rally ground and the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, should be preserved, destroyed, or simply left to decay.

Apart from the abhorrent, but hopefully small faction who sees these symbols as worthy of veneration, another argument for keeping confederate monuments in place surfaces frequently from an apparently more benign viewpoint. We’ve all heard some variation of this position expressed over the past several days: “These monuments are an important reminder of our difficult and troubling history.” Or, “These statues help us to educate ourselves about what we have overcome.” Or, “If we destroy the past we will be doomed to repeat it.” While perhaps well meaning, I believe this line of argument is misguided in a number of ways. I think it’s fundamentally mistaken in its understanding of both the social dynamic and cultural history of monuments. Let me explain why.

Firstly, if monuments do have a significant educational purpose (and even this is questionable), it is certainly naïve to think this is the only mode by which they function. Rather than serving as references to the figure or event of the history they depict, public monuments communicate far more about the collective sentiments of our current period and the period in which they were erected. They express, in other words, rather than simply educate. The majority of confederate monuments, as New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu reminds us, were constructed not at the time of the civil war, but long afterwards during moments of resurgence in pro-confederate sentiment and white backlash against black civil rights, such as the Southern Redemption period. They were much less a marker of a tragic, but completed chapter in the nation’s history, than an expression of a renewed commitment to the cultural values of the losing side. Nicholas Mirzoeff points out that the monument to Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville was completed in 1924 and reflects a period of intense KKK organizing in the area. That these monuments can still function today as rallying points for ethnic nationalists and white supremacists, rather than as neutral transmitters of a distant history, should be self-evident after this week’s events. Could whatever nominal educational value these monuments possess, ever justify the continued emboldening role they play for these groups, or the genuine pain and distress they cause to so many who are forced to encounter them in public space? Ask a member of the black community if they are in need of a statue of Robert E. Lee to teach them about the history and continued impact of slavery and discrimination in America.

The second reason I think anxieties of the “destruction of history” type are misguided is that they don’t adequately recognize the always provisional and malleable nature of monuments and memorials. Far from being permanent or stable markers of history, monuments are perpetually being altered, moved, re-interpreted and reconsidered. They are contentious and contingent objects. The memorial landscape is continually in a process of adaptation. As Kirk Savage claims in his insightful history of the National Mall in Washington, “The history of commemoration is . . . a history of change and transformation.” Even the Lincoln Memorial, the most monumental of American memory sites, is an example of adaptation according to Savage. Its adoption as a symbol for the black civil rights movement occurred despite, rather than because of its intended design – the planners deliberately downplayed Lincoln’s role in the abolition of slavery. Artist Krzysztof Wodiczko’s protest-oriented projections onto existing statues are another important example of how the struggle to determine a monument’s meaning may continue long after its construction. Some of the most powerful monuments and memorial proposals of the past few decades have incorporated an element of self-destruction or suspicion into their own form. From the Gerz’s monument against fascism that disappears into the earth, to Maya Lin’s deliberately non-monumental Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, to Horst Hoheisel’s proposal to blow up the Brandenburg Gates as a memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe. In short, public monuments change; their lifespan is not and probably shouldn’t be infinite. We don’t owe them that. The debate and conflict surrounding the removal of confederate monuments is obviously a clear indication that America is also currently undergoing a process of significant change. While the events of the past week have been worrying and sickening, I am heartened by the number of courageous people committed to ensuring that this change is a move forward, rather than a regression.

Dr Joel McKim is Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies and the Director of the Vasari Research Centre for Art and Technology. His book Architecture, Media and Memory: Facing Complexity in a Post-9/11 New York is forthcoming in 2018 from Bloomsbury.

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From ‘Go back to China’ to ‘Where are you really from?’: Nationality and ethnicity talk in everyday interactions

This article was contributed by Professor Zhu Hua of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

perpetual-foreigner-syndromeIn his open letter published in the New York Times on 9 October, Michael Luo, who was born and grew up in the US, told of his encounter with a woman who yelled at him and his family, ‘Go back to China!’, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan when they came out of a church service.  Puzzled by the event, his 7-year-old daughter asked ‘Why did she say, ‘Go back to China?’ We’re not from China.’

What Michael Luo experienced is ‘perpetual foreigner syndrome’, a problem facing many transnational individuals in everyday interactions, especially those who may look or sound different from the local majority.  Back in 2002, Frank Wu, the first Asian American law professor at Howard University Law School, wrote specifically on how perpetual foreigner syndrome is instantiated through recurrent and seemingly innocent questions (which, admittedly, are much milder than what was hurled at Michael Luo):

Where are you from?’ is a question I like answering. ‘Where are you really from?’ is a question I really hate answering… For Asian Americans, the questions frequently come paired like that…. More than anything else that unites us, everyone with an Asian face who lives in America is afflicted by the perpetual foreigner syndrome. We are figuratively and even literally returned to Asia and ejected from America. (Wu 2002)

His point about what these questions can do strikes a chord with me. Having lived and worked in China and Britain and travelled to many parts of the world, I find questions like ‘where you are from?’ really difficult to answer. I never seem get it right and always end it up with the feeling that the self I present in my attempted answers is not real – it is fragmented some times, and rehearsed at others.  If I say that I am from London, I know that the next question will be ‘where are you really from’. I have to look apologetic and confess that I ‘originally’ came from China more than 20 years ago and have lived in Britain longer than I had been in China.  If I take the short-cut and tell people that I am from China, the next comment I am likely to hear is a compliment ‘but your English is so good!’.  For a long time, I thought that this is just me, an applied linguist who is over-interpreting language use in everyday interactions, until I read Rosina Lippi-Green’s work on language, ideology and discrimination (1997/2012) and began to make connections with my observations on these instances of discourse in daily encounters and the existing studies including one of the strands of my work on Interculturality.

I refer to this kind of discourse that evokes or orients to one’s ethnicity or nationality either explicitly or implicitly as Nationality and Ethnicity Talk (NET). It includes questions or comments which, frequently occurring in small talk, aim to establish, ascribe, challenge, deny or resist one’s ethnicity or nationality.  The questions and comments range from direct ones (e.g. ‘Where are your people coming from?’, ‘When are you going back?’, ‘Is it as hot as this where you are from?’, ‘What is it like back home?’ to more subtle ones (e.g. ‘Your English is so good!’). There is nothing inherently wrong with questions like ‘where are you from’. The question can be genuine – people would like to find out more about China, Japan or Korea or any other culture or they are simply interested in you as a person.  But problems occur when those who are asking such questions appear to look for a certain answer and appear confused or disappointed when hearing an unexpected answer and those on the receiving end of such questions might have been asked the same questions 101 times.  And of course, in Michael Luo’s case, it made him and his daughter feel like ‘foreigners’ in their own country

Despite growing acceptance of racial equality in post-industrialised societies, NET of the above kind reflects people’s hidden and flawed folk theories of race, reproduces and reifies cultural essentialism, and can result in exclusion and marginalisation of certain social groups.  Jane Hill (2008) coined the concept of ‘folk theory of race’ to describe everyday assumptions that people have about race and ethnicity. Because the folk models or theories are often taken for granted, people tend to use them to ‘interpret the world without a second thought’. Folk theory of race can be in operation subtly and, on some occasions, it is almost invisible to those who apply it and/or those at the receiving end of it. Markus & Moya (2010) have unpicked the powerful, hidden, and flawed assumptions about the nature and meanings of race and ethnicity beneath the eight common conversations about race amongst American people. These include: ‘We’re beyond race.’ ‘Racial diversity is killing us.’ ‘Everyone’s a little bit racist.’ ‘That’s just identity politics.’ ‘Variety is the spice of life.’ ‘It’s a Black thing—you wouldn’t understand.’ ‘I’m___ and I’m proud.’ and ‘Race is in our DNA’.  They argue that ‘these eight conversations give us the illusion of understanding, but they are narrowly based on limited, flawed, and of course, unstated assumptions … Also like stereotypes, these conversations are pervasive, they are difficult to change and they have powerful consequences for our actions.’

In my recently published article co-authored with Li Wei, we examine the significance of questions such as ‘where are you really from?’ in everyday conversational interactions. We discuss what constitutes NET, how it works through symbolic and indexical cues and strategic emphasis, and why it matters in the wider context of identity, race, intercultural contact and power relations. The discussion draws on social media data including youtube videos and a blog with the title of ‘It may not be racist, but it’s a question I’m tired of hearing’ by Ariane Sherine in the Guardian’s opinion column, Comment is Free. We argue that the question ‘where are you really from’ itself does not per se contest immigrants’ entitlement. However, what makes a difference to the perception of whether one is an ‘outsider’ as Michael Luo did – is the tangled history, memory and expectation imbued and fuelled by power inequality.

There have been reports of the increase in the number of racial insults at people who look and sound different since the EU Referendum. It is important that we pay closer attention to linguistic xenophobic, but it is equally important to be mindful of the significance of the more subtle ways of Othering as exemplified in NET.

Further reading:

  • Hill, Jane H. 2008. The everyday language of white racism. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Lippi-Green, Rosina. 1997/2012. English with an Accent. Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States. London: Routledge.
  • Markus, Rose & Paula Moya (eds.). 2010. Doing Race: 21 Essays for the 21st Century. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
  • Wu, Frank. H. 2002.  Where are you really from? Asian Americans and the Perpetual Foreigner Syndrome.  Civil Rights Journal  Winter 2002. 16-22.
  • Zhu Hua and Li Wei (2016) “Where are you really from?”: Nationality and Ethnicity Talk (NET) in everyday interactions. In Zhu Hua & Claire Kramsch (eds.), Symbolic power and conversational inequality in intercultural communication, a special issue of Applied Linguistics Review 7(4), 449-470.  The article can be accessed here.
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Is there any value in talking about British values?

This post was contributed by Dr William Ackah, Lecturer in Community and Voluntary Sector Studies in Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies

The controversy over the allegations of ‘extremism’ in a number of Birmingham schools has led to a wider discussion on what constitutes ‘British values’. Michael Gove the Secretary of State for Education and David Cameron the Prime Minister have both responded to the situation in Birmingham by announcing that schools should teach ‘British values’. At a press conference in Sweden on 10 June, Cameron stated that these values should include “freedom, tolerance, respect for the law, belief in personal and social responsibility and respect for British institutions.” One of the questions I would like to explore here is whether an understanding of these ideas of Britishness would really resolve issues of social inclusion and equality in deprived communities or whether the appeal to ‘British values’ is a smokescreen that hides a multitude of equality and diversity issues not dealt with by British public institutions?

There is value in having a public debate about ‘British values’. Political theorists and others have long debated what values and mechanisms are required for arriving at the common good when you have a diversity of competing interests operating in society. Theologians speak of the ‘beloved community’ and explore what are the values, principles and ways of belonging that are required to create and sustain an ideal community. So it is legitimate to ask what type of communities we want to live in. What kinds of schools do we want our children to be educated in? The problem with the current debate is the context in which these questions are being framed.

The current debate is being framed by powerful white male politicians who in talking about ‘British values’ in relation to British Muslim minority communities, turn ‘British values’ into a racial marker or label of racial differentiation. The unspoken assumption being that certain behaviours are labelled as Muslim and that these are not compatible with being British. Hence it is not your passport or the taxes that you pay, but your ‘values’ and specifically ‘Muslim values’ that determine how British you are and the degree to which can legitimately participate in British public life.

It is striking that when other public and private institutions experience a crisis of governance they are not dealt with in this way. Recent crises have beset the newspaper industry, the Metropolitan Police, the National Health Service, the British Broadcasting Corporation, banks and last, but by no means least, MPs and Parliament. Weak governance, lack of due diligence, poor ethical standards, cultures of fear and intimidation can all have been said to have played some role in accounting for their institutional failings. These failings – not exclusively, but in the overwhelming majority of cases – have been perpetrated by members of white, mono-cultural, middle-class communities. They are failings that, in substantive terms, are similar to those attributed to the schools in Birmingham. Are these institutions deemed to be suffering from a lack of ‘British values’? No they are not, hence my contention that the current debate on ‘British values’ is not a genuine attempt to construct a political ethical framework for thinking about the common good, but rather it is a misguided attempt to re-racialise what it means to be British.

There is a need for a genuine discussion and debate to be had on values but the context needs to be reframed. Britain needs a discussion on whether its public institutions are genuine purveyors and defenders of equality and justice for all. Britain needs an honest and genuine reflection on whether its institutional and policy mechanisms are capable of delivering genuine justice and equality in a 21st-century, multicultural, multi-layered and multi-faceted society that incorporates Muslims rather than racialises them as an ‘other’ to be dealt with differently. The discussion needs to be reframed to talk about British institutions and the degree to which these institutions, to which we all contribute, genuinely reflect and represent the diversity of the country. Too many British institutions are woefully unrepresentative of the communities that they serve and too many members of minority communities bear the scars of discrimination, poor service delivery and injustice that they have received from these institutions. Where is the outcry over the lack of British values being put into practice on behalf of these citizens?  It is a long-standing scandal, where no one seems to be being held accountable for the startling lack of progress.  So yes, let us talk about ‘British values’, but more importantly let us see them concretised and realised for everyone and not used as a metaphorical stick with which to beat marginalized minority communities.

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