ECHOES Q&A

Professor John Oldfield

Emeritus Professor and Former Director of the Wilberforce Institute

John.Oldfield@hull.ac.uk

Now the ECHOES project has formerly ended, Professor John Oldfield reflects on the aims and objectives of the project, its relevance, and its impact.

What was the inspiration for this project and what did you set out to achieve?

The inspiration for this project was what the team regarded as the often problematic ‘silencing’ of Europe’s colonial history and heritage – problematic not only for Europe’s global status and reputation but also for those marginalized by these historical processes, many of them migrants from Europe’s former colonies. By confronting this entangled history, we set out to ‘Europeanize’ difficult colonial heritage. While there are significant barriers to the creation of a shared European narrative of our colonial past, some of them political or related to different interpretations of the colonial past across member states, we believe that we need to arrive at a more equitable representation of colonial legacies across Europe.

What are the challenges/dilemmas that colonialism presents to official narratives of European heritage?

Colonialism was not an event or moment in time but a process involving the often-brutal subjugation of others – a process that created an unbridgeable gulf between colonizer and colonized. Transatlantic slavery, the treatment of indigenous peoples, the imposition of Eurocentric legal and constitutional norms on colonial subjects; all of these are examples of historical processes that were inseparable from ideas of Eurocentric power and racial (and cultural) superiority. Many of these ideas and attitudes live on – as echoes of the colonial past. The recent COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, exposed deep economic inequalities. It has also exposed worrying Eurocentric tendencies, not least when it comes to the treatment of the pandemic – as witnessed by the suggestion by two French doctors that Africa should be used as a testing ground for the efficacy of vaccines. While this was an isolated incident, research and thinking in this area have led to accusations that the Global South has been all but absent in scientific and/or medical collaborations related to COVID.

Or consider the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, which triggered massive protests across the Global South and beyond, focused on anti-racist and social justice messages, most of them embracing the rhetoric and slogans of #BlackLivesMatter. Here again, these protests – pulling down statues associated with European colonialism (Edward Colston in Bristol; King Leopold II in Belgium; Cecil Rhodes in Cape Town and Oxford), calls for the repatriation of colonial objects, renaming roads and buildings, etc. – were fueled not only by the ongoing presence of monuments of a colonial nature in public spaces across Europe but also by the marginalization and structural racism encountered by non-white communities living in Europe’s cities, many of them long-term victims of prejudice and discrimination.

The empty pedestal of the statue of Edward Colton in Bristol, the day after protesters felled the statue and rolled it into the harbour. The ground is covered with Black Lives Matter placards. Caitlin Hobbes, 7 June 2020 at https://twitter.com/Chobbs7/status/1269682491465576448/photo/1

How did you go about achieving your objectives – and what did the project consist of in practice? Any approaches that made this project unique?

Conceptually, our starting point was the notion of colonial heritage – what does it mean? What does it stand for? We understand heritage not as a ‘thing’ – a specific set of (white) achievements — but rather as a discourse: a way of thinking and writing about objects and phenomena that constitutes them as ‘heritage’ through formal and informal acts of recognition. So, in effect, we are talking about a much more expansive and inclusive notion of heritage, both in terms of objects and actors.

To this end, we looked in-depth at a number of different contemporary heritage discourses that aspire to restore, renew, rediscover and acknowledge the multiplicity of lives, experiences, culture and knowledge of formerly colonized peoples. Museums, for instance – particularly those like Amsterdam Museum and the Museum of Warsaw, two of our case studies – have been at the forefront of efforts to decolonize their collections, looking afresh at how they interpret familiar objects and/or imagining new ways of telling familiar stories. In the same way, many contemporary artists – particularly those from non-white backgrounds – have interrogated the colonial past in new and exciting ways, offering insights that act as a form of reconciliation and healing.

Citizens groups, too, have challenged official narratives of European heritage, whether through walking tours, performances or cultural events designed to acknowledge different/difficult ‘pasts’. Again, we mapped a lot of this activity in detail, from Bristol to Marseille, from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro, from Cape Town to Amsterdam. Indeed, one of our objectives was to give voice to these groups, while at the same time documenting the ways in which their varied interventions have helped to advance our understanding of contemporary heritage discourses. In this sense, our project was multi-vocal, deeply attuned to different types of knowledge, as well as different epistemologies.

What are the key lessons or approaches to emerge from this work?

While recognizing the importance of top-down initiatives, the ECHOES project emphasized the importance of grassroots movements and independent cultural actors – whether artists, curators or heritage practitioners. Such ‘mid-space actors’, we believe, bring with them a wealth of experience and knowledge that needs to be incorporated into heritage practices and treated on equal terms with other forms of knowledge. Our work also stresses the importance of intercultural ‘contact zones’, spaces where actors from different cultural backgrounds and with different resources and power engage with each other on equal terms. This necessarily involves ‘Europe’ opening up to and acknowledging the different modes of transculturation practices by marginalized groups and granting them far more agency. It also involves ‘active listening’, an approach to listening that is based on a genuine interest in the other’s perspective. Listening, we believe, is the primary characteristic of two-way communication. Who does the talking and who does the listening is key to this approach, as strengths and weaknesses are part of the positionalities of ALL diplomatic relations; not just in Global-North and Global South relations but in relations within the Global North and Global South. This applies as much to broader debates about cultural co-operation, as it does to the restitution of colonial objects, or the decolonization of museums and galleries.

In what fields might these results have an impact? Why, in the current context of globalization and regional tensions is this work so important?

We see our work having a major impact in a number of related fields, among them history and heritage, political science, museology and curatorship. We also set out to inform current debates around International Cultural Relations, which since 2016 has been the EU’s adopted policy framework, emphasizing (as of 2019) the importance of ‘co-operation with local stakeholders and civil society at all levels’. Our work supports this emphasis, hence the importance we attach to ‘contact zones’ and ‘active listening’ (see above). Indeed, we advocate a ‘new diplomacy’, a kind of reinvigoration of International Cultural Relations that renders the policy/programme fit for purpose. Listening and the ability to foster genuine intercultural dialogue are skills that policymakers and EU professionals at all levels need to exercise routinely. This includes an openness towards integrating a wider range of actors into diplomatic activities and involving them in policy processes.

This work is important for the reasons outlined above. The so-called migrant crisis, COVID and #BlackLivesMatter have all energized debates — across and within Europe — about culture, heritage and Europe’s reckoning with its colonial past. We have also seen how polarized these debates have become; indeed, the use of the word ‘heritage’ itself often gives rise to suggestions that dominant white European cultures are under attack from non-white protesters and radicals. So far from being threatening, we believe that these debates provide an opportunity for Europe to rethink its relations to its colonial past. ECHOES, in sum, proposes that the history of colonialism needs to find its place in our contemporary narratives of Europe. Crucially, it needs to do so in ways which makes this difficult history a productive element in Europe’s and the EU’s engagement with the wider world, rather than an uncomfortable silence haunting its past, present and future.

What is the long-term legacy of the project?

We hope that the ECHOES project will not only shape academic and cultural debates surrounding Europe’s engagement with its colonial past but also have a decisive influence on shaping policy and practice, both within EU institutional activities and programmes. In addition, we hope that Europe and the EU will go further in advocating the acceptance of a multicultural Europe as a precondition for thinking in terms of intercultural relations.

Racial Precedents to COVID-19

Jasmine Holding Brown

‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

j.holding-brown-2019@hull.ac.uk, #FallingThroughTheNet

As part of the ‘Falling Through the Net’ cluster my work examines children and childhoods that are exposed to exploitation. In the first six months of my PhD the focus of my research has shifted, more than once. Currently my interests lie in exploring ideas relating to rescue: the rescuers and the rescued.

The two central topics of my comparative study, British child migration and Indigenous Canadian child removal (between 1850 and 1970) were, on the surface at least, supposed to ‘save’ children from something: poverty; sin; poor parenting; limited social and economic opportunities; indigeneity. Frequently these ‘rescued’ children were placed in highly exploitative and harmful situations.

To stretch the initial analogy further though, there are children that these particular ‘nets’, however poorly designed, were never designed to catch. I suggest that by looking closely at the particular characteristics of the ‘rescued’, including the ‘non-rescued’ and the ‘rescuers’, we can attain a clearer understanding of the social dynamics at play. The intersections of class, gender and race in the development of policies drastically altered the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, and left many in mass unmarked graves. I intend to explore the underexamined role that ‘white womanhood’ played in the formulation of these child-focused social movements, and their relation to broader settler-colonial projects.

Ultimately, I am interested in the relevance that these issues have to contemporary practices and the protection of ‘vulnerable’ children and young people, dilemmas regarding the ethics of intervention, the distribution of resources and how ‘best interests’ are conceptualised.

The current global health crisis has brought some of these vulnerabilities into stark relief, exposing the rampant social and health inequalities that exist within societies. Despite children being one of the least affected groups in relation to the virus itself, the wider implications of the COVID-19 disease pandemic will undoubtedly impact some young people more than others. This includes the inability to access outdoor spaces and the internet;  reduced contact with support services; and the increased pressures of lockdown on family dynamics for the estimated 2.3 million children in England considered to be at significant risk, but not currently receiving support from social services.

In addition to class distinctions, racial disparities in relation to COVID-19 are now being discussed openly. Analysis conducted by The Guardian called for the recognition of race, and racial inequalities as risk factors for COVID-19. Afua Hirsch, writing in the same newspaper has been highlighting these concerns since early April, when the emerging data appeared to corroborate what many suspected, that individuals from black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) groups are dying in significantly greater numbers relative to their representation in the population as a whole: in the UK this means a 27% higher rate than would be expected. An official inquiry into the issue was recently announced.

The statistics for black American deaths are even more telling; in Chicago black people constitute a third of the population but accounted for 72% of deaths at the beginning of April. It will be some time before we fully understand the correlation between BAME individuals and COVID-19, although it’s likely that socioeconomics, housing, high-risk occupations and higher levels of co-morbidities will be factors. It suggests that the tragic consequences of COVID-19 will also be felt disproportionately by the children of racial minority groups.

The social determinants of health are perhaps even more apparent, when looking at the potential impact COVID-19 could have for Indigenous communities. In Canada, especially areas without access to clean running water, frequent hand washing is not always feasible. Social distancing and isolation are not viable choices in overcrowded living arrangements, and where there are chronic shortages of adequate housing. A significantly higher proportion of the population have underlying health conditions, and there is a very high prevalence of respiratory illnesses. Inuit children, for example, suffer from tuberculosis at 300 times the rate of non-Indigenous Canadians, and, experience the highest rates of chronic respiratory disease in the world. These issues are compounded by limited access to healthcare services, with some remote areas only accessible by air, and others having no resident medical personnel. For these communities the impact of COVID-19 could be devastating.

The legacies of colonialist and racist mentalities have been exposed, in some quarters, in the ways in which the current pandemic has been articulated. Historically, Indigenous children were used as guinea-pigs for experimental and often brutal treatments. An idea invoked recently by a French doctor suggested a potential vaccine could be trialled in Africa. The Bacillus Calmette-Guérin vaccine, commonly known as the BCG, which is currently being examined for its potential use against COVID-19, was tested on Indigenous children in the 1930s to counter ‘Indian tuberculosis’, an example of racialised and pathologizing language that echoes the current American President’s use of the term ‘Chinese virus’.

Brandon Sanitorium for Indians, Brandon, Manitobe, Canada. November 1947.
Racially segregated hospitals originally operated to contain ‘Indian tuberculosis’.
Library and Archives Canada: Available here

From a personal perspective the pandemic has, to some degree, limited my ability to access resources. It has made connections with others more difficult to achieve, and it means events have been cancelled or postponed. They are difficulties though that seem largely trivial, given the struggles many people are facing to access even basic sanitation in order to protect themselves.