As the University of Edinburgh announced, on Monday 14th September, that David Hume Tower would be renamed 40 George Square (pending a new name), cries of outrage echoed high and low. Newspaper headlines accused the university of bowing to cancel culture, Twitter overflowed with vitriolic complaints, and the consensus seemed to be that the university had blundered in responding to a petition asking for the name to be changed (due to Hume’s racist comments). I, on the contrary, believe that this decision was essential, and should have been made earlier.
For full disclosure, I am an ambassador for BlackED, the group that shared the petition and campaigned for the name change. So boo me, accuse us of cancel culture, or tell me I’m overly PC. But changing the name of DHT was urgently needed to show the university can move towards a more antiracist approach, and was a very late response to demands that the university take the wellbeing of minority students seriously.
First of all, no one is cancelling David Hume. No one is asking for his works to be taken out of circulation. No one is suppressing education, or ignoring history, or forcing ‘ignominy’ on one of the “giants of the Scottish Enlightenment” (as the Times Scotland vehemently decried). The hysterical response to the name change, to me, demonstrates a severe lack of empathy with, or care for, the experience of students of colour, especially black students. Black students at Edinburgh are already marginalised, making up only 0.7 per cent of the student body, and not fully represented by the teaching faculty, as well as facing daily racism and micro-aggressions. To add onto this a major lecture theatre named after somehow who made clearly racist comments is cruel and insensitive, to say the least. Imagine, every day, walking into a building named after someone who described your entire race as “naturally inferior” and uncivilised. This is not something we should force on any student, let alone those already facing the brunt of a white-dominated society. The response to the announcement did not surprise me, but it does shock me that so many are so cavalier about how little they care for the wellbeing of black students at the university. To ignore the significant pain the name could cause, and to believe that boasting about an alumni is more important than the dignity of black students, projects a stunningly exclusionary message.
In addition, to those who argue that racist views were ‘common at the time’, this doesn’t quite apply to a philosopher who was considered a genius, and very much ahead of his time. Hume was aware of the denunciation of racist institutions such as slavery by some of his philosophical contemporaries and correspondents at the time, and, despite his intelligence, chose to ignore them. There were also black people around in the 18th century criticising racism, but despite Hume’s supposed open-minded philosophy, he couldn’t quite listen to them either.
However, regardless of whether or not those views were acceptable once, they are not acceptable now, and are certainly unacceptable for commemoration. Teach David Hume, learn his philosophy, and do analyse if his racism fits with his radical philosophical empiricism, but it is unnecessary, in the modern age, to put racist views on a pedestal. Hume is already mentioned in modules, has a specialist professor, and is honoured as a great philosopher: he doesn’t need a building too.
We must remember that who we choose to memorialise is representative of contemporary times, not of our history. Throughout history, as society changes, building names change, statues are torn down, and ‘giants’ are reconsidered. We must judge veneration of Hume by modern standards- who we choose to publicly commemorate is a conscious choice, and by choosing to hold up those who have made racist statements, the university would be making a clear choice to ignore BME students.
So long live 40 George Square. However, this is a significant, but small victory. The campaign to have the building renamed has demonstrated the immense amount of work needed to make Edinburgh an actively antiracist university. Renaming David Hume Tower was the tip of the iceberg, an easy decision for the university to take, and a good PR move to suggest the university is combating racism. But even this simple change took over three months of campaigning, meetings, and emails by Elizabeth Lund and the founders of BlackED. If the university is reluctant to put effort into a simple name change, will they commit to active antiracism? This is a start, but now the real work must begin, work that requires dedication, time, money, resources, and an ability to take accountability for past mistakes. It is yet to be seen if the university is up to this challenge.
Despite presenting as a bastion of equality and diversity, a simple look at the facts reveals that our university is severely lacking. On the 2019-20 Board of Executives, which consisted of 27 people, there was one person of colour, and no black executives or women of colour. This is the highest decision making body of the university, and its lack of diversity is astounding. How does the university expect itself to be able to cater to the needs and experiences of students of colour when they have no one like them on their governing boards. The EUSA elected trustees are slightly more diverse, but still have no black members.
Perhaps reflecting this unwelcoming environment, Edinburgh University has the lowest number of black students at any Russell Group Uni. In figures from 2017, Edinburgh had the lowest percentage intake for black students out of all Russell Group universities, at just 0.7 per cent. This does not seem surprising when you witness how unwilling the university is to cater to BME students. There are no disciplinary measures specific to racism, an astounding breach of care from the university, as is the fact that the university does not provide any counselling services directed specifically towards BME students. It has been repeatedly proven that the marginalisation and racism BME students experiences can cause a disproportionate mental load on them compared to white students. The university must introduce mental health services that can be specifically tailored towards the mental exhaustion of being a person of colour at a very white university.
On top of this, only 10.8 per cent of our staff are from a black and minority ethnic background, meaning BME students are unable to see themselves reflected in academia, or feel that their backgrounds are represented in what we learn. Staff composition influences the curriculum, creating a narrow and Eurocentric learning experience- not what university is for. The university must commit to more diverse hiring practices for tutors and lecturers, and allow the curriculum to be further decolonised and diversified. The university must listen to people of colour when they explain how the university could better cater to their needs- read BlackED’s original open letter to the university, which has four key demands.
It is time for Peter Mathieson, for the executive board, for EUSA, for staff, for societies, and for us, the students of this university, to decide. Are we going to take advantage of this current moment, of the resources and education and momentum available, to transform Edinburgh into a university that is committed to antiracism, and to its BME students? Or is the university going to let this opportunity slip by? It is up to us, the student body (especially white students), the paying consumers, to hold them accountable in every decision they make, and to push for change.
Image: Graeme Yuill via Geograph