US Debates Over Racially Charged Statues Are Toppling Others Around the World

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

With the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, advocates are forcing attention and action against racism in every aspect of American culture. Not only has the removal of statues in America, especially in the American South, influenced others worldwide, but so has the reemergence of the BLM movement itself. This movement has been resparked due to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and has expanded to calling out racism in all of its forms. While BLM protests were springing up in almost every city nationwide, countries such as Sweden, England, Japan, Brazil, Spain, Senegal, Denmark, Scotland, South Korea, Belgium, Hungary, Italy, Australia, Poland, Turkey, France, Switzerland, Portugal, Canada, and Germany have all also demonstrated in support of BLM.

Locally, Montgomery County in Maryland is named after a slave owner, Richard Montgomery. One of the top public high schools in the county is also named after a slave owner, Thomas Sprigg Wootton. Most notably, statues of famous Confederate General Robert E. Lee and genocidal colonist Christopher Columbus have either been “repurposed” or taken down by protestors or state and local officials preemptively. Though not all statues are connected to racism or the slavery of Black people, the most important and core message underlying these particular statues is to end the memorialization of unjust leaders, and in turn reveal the truth of history worldwide. While advocates in the United States are calling for removal of both metal and honorary monuments to racism, activists worldwide are taking heed as well.

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The irony of mass global protesting during a global pandemic is just that: it is the perfect storm. Under an almost worldwide quarantine and pandemic, the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and more, as well as the uncovering of social injustices that are only worsened by COVID-19, it makes absolute sense why and how the BLM movement, protesting, and taking down statues is spreading rapidly across the world.

Viral videos such as the ones showing the statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader, being pulled down by ropes and rolled into the harbor or the viral photo of a lynched Confederate soldier over an intersection in Raleigh are both extremely remarkable in their symbolism. In the video of Edward Colston’s statue, his face is painted red, and his feet are roped together to be thrown into the harbor, just as how slaves would be drowned overseas during the Middle Passage. Some protestors even kneeled on the neck of his statue, in symbolism to George Floyd’s chokehold. The bridge overlooking the harbor itself is named “Pero’s Bridge”, after an enslaved man named Pero Jones who spent his life in Bristol, England. In the photo, a Confederate soldier’s statue was lynched over an intersection post with a crowd of ecstatic protestors underneath it, a remarkable parallel to what lynchings used to be like: a Black person hung overhead a crowd of rapturous white folk.

A notable difference between the US response and other countries is whether the response is primarily precautionary or reactionary. Only four of the seventeen international statues that were taken down or planned to be were directly due to protestors or public outcry, the rest were preemptively taken down by the statues owners, organizations, or public officials. Statues in America are only coming down due to direct protesting, or because of the underlying social pressure from the earlier BLM protests that originated in the United States. The US’s own debate with racism in its country and sociopolitical systems are forcing countries globally to reexamine who and what they are truly memorializing.

Who are they taking down?

In London, half of the statues they have or plan to take down are of Sir John Cass. John Cass was a merchant of the late 1600s-early 1700s, noted for his philanthropy, which is why his name is so widespread throughout London. But despite that fact, he actually had an extremely prominent role in establishing the early Atlantic Slave trade and market of England, dealing directly with Carribean and West African “slave agents”, expressing interests in Virginian plantations. Cass was a member of the Royal African Company’s Court of Assistants, and a Director of the Royal African Company, which shipped the highest number of African slaves to the Western Hemisphere than any other company during the Atlantic Slave Trade. Sir John Cass had shares in this company till his death.

As for Oxford, both of the statues they plan to remove are of Cecil Rhodes, the namesake of the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. Rhodes was an imperialist and colonist in both theory and action as the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, South Africa, which is how he funded his renowned scholarship. The 2015 movement titled “Rhodes Must Fall”, which began at Cape Town University following an erection of Rhodes statue, resurfaced its fight alongside the BLM movement that spread its way from the United States.

All four of Belgium’s statues that have been taken down have been of King Leopold II of Belgium, who was known for his involvement in the Congo Free State. Under the guise of what could be summarized under the “White Man’s Burden”, Leopold II claimed the Congo region as his own colony, in which he committed horrible atrocities to the Congolese people such as the famine of millions, forced labor, inhumane punishments, causing 50% drop in birth rate. The latest removal of King Leopold II statue occurred on June 30, the 60th anniversary of Congo’s independence.

In the US, an overwhelming majority of statues taken down are either of Confederates or Christopher Columbus. But in Spain, Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau is not taking down statues just yet- instead, she wants to have a public discussion, believing that Spain “must revisit” its colonial history. Spain is not the only one- the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Latin America, South Africa, and others are also facing the statue debate following global BLM protests. Many are questioning what possible solutions there are to this debate, which have been summarized in four ways: 1) Remove, 2) Replace, 3) Move and Recontextualize, or 4) Change the historical context by adding or editing plaques.

Though it seems like a clear and cut situation, just as how every country and its role of enforcing or being affected by racism and colonization is multifaceted and complicated, so is the case for many when deciding what course of action is best to take. History cannot be erased, but racism and imperialism should not and cannot be commemorated either.

Through Teen Lenses: What are your thoughts on statues memorializing problematic figures?

“In my opinion, it shouldn’t even be a debate. Why commemorate people who inspired hatred and stealing when there are so many people who helped change the world for the better!” Rosa Gherdi, Rising Junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, MD
“Individuals who say taking down statues that glorify slave owners and confederates is erasing history are just grasping at straws to justify the presence of racism within our country. In Germany, Nazi imagery is forbidden yet they all are very educated on the Holocaust. If Republicans really did care that much about history education they would allocate more money into the education budget instead of pouring money into the defense budget.” Alanna Li, Rising Junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, MD
“The unwillingness of the American population to take down symbols that glorify the brutal and discriminatory nature of the past serves as a vessel for future hatred. problematic figures being memorialized keeps the country tied to its roots of white supremacy and there is no possible way they could be beneficial.” Kelly Ji, Rising Junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, MD