A Reckoning with Huxley’s Legacy

Recognition and Redistribution for Imperial College’s Community

This is a guest post by my former colleague, Dr Rahma (Red) Elmahdi, in which she lays our her reaction to the Imperial College History Report, and in particular the recommendation to rename the Huxley Building. I am grateful to Red for allowing me to share her perspective.  


Red making her case in a group discussion

As a former student and member of teaching staff at Imperial College London, I was excited to finally read the Community Report from the College’s History Group, released earlier this month. Despite no longer studying at or working for the College, I consider myself a continuing member of its community, having spent over a decade (including some of my most formative years) learning, teaching and researching there, even spending five years living and working at the College as a subwarden in student halls of residence.

In the last few years of my time at Imperial, I became increasingly involved in ongoing efforts for progressive change for equity, diversity and inclusion, particularly working with Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) groups in the College to increase representation and foster a stronger sense of identity as members of the college community. Efforts such as these are usually uncontentious and considered a reflection of an institution’s commitment to improving the lot of the underrepresented groups who study and work there.

In keeping with these efforts, and following the lead of many international universities in exploring the roots of structural discrimination in their own institutions, Imperial commissioned the work to “report on the current understanding and reception of the College’s legacy and heritage in the context of its present-day mission”. Among the recommendations of the report, which was supported by two independent external Russell group advisors, was the removal of a bust of Thomas Henry Huxley (first Dean of the Royal College of Science, renowned 19th century naturalist and principal defender of Darwin’s theory of evolution) and the renaming of a building which currently bears his name. This recommendation was made because Huxley used racial divisions and hierarchical categorisation in his work that might now be called ‘racist’. Despite being only one of many recommendations put forward by the report, this stirred the most media attention and the strongest criticism of the History Group and the College as a whole. Headlines in online newspapers from across the political spectrum accused the College of giving in to wokery, erasing its history and effectively besmirching the name of one of the UK’s greatest scientists and educators who was even a known slavery abolitionist.

Making sense of the criticisms of recommendations such as this are never easy. Even for those of us who are genuinely trying to engage in our shared history with the intention of learning from the past for progressive future change, it often boils down to an issue of ‘recognition or redistribution’, to quote Nancy Fraser. After all, how can the renaming of a building or removal of a bust of a man (who most students and staff only have a vague notion of anyway) help with the challenges experienced by black and brown students today?

Speaking as a black woman, (and I think my identity matters here) I think that this has everything to do with these challenges. If Imperial does not honestly contend with its history of racism, it makes it easy for Black students and staff to continue to feel excluded, and othered in their own institution. I appreciate and value the work of the History group and take its recommendations seriously for this reason. Providing more opportunities for talented Black students to gain good degrees from a university with a history of racism, without acknowledging the deeply exclusive historic (and ongoing practices) of that university, does not allow us to move forward honestly. Therefore, I believe that between recognition and redistribution, a reckoning is necessary for reparation.

The challenge in the criticisms here can be surmised as two questions. 1) Is it morally correct for the College to continue to honour Thomas Henry Huxley (and by proxy his racist views)? 2) How do we contend with the fact that the bricks and mortar of the building (regardless of what it is called) is part of an intellectual legacy of dehumanising Black people at Imperial that cannot be undone?

I admit that the latter is far more important for both the education of all staff and students and for fostering an understanding of minority staff and students’ struggle in the correct context. We cannot change where the money to build our institution came from or what the product of the research undertaken in it has meant for the lives of countless people deemed scientifically inferior by the likes of Huxley. We can however attempt to highlight the legacy of Huxley’s work and the role Imperial has had to play in creating ‘evidence’ for racialised exploitation under empire, through the lens of those affected.

The first of my two questions is an easier one for me. The purpose of naming a building after someone is to honour that person. It is paying homage to their work, what they contributed and what they stood for. Whether that is ever a good idea is another question, and I think Gary Younge has made a very persuasive case that it isn’t. There is no one person in history who has held perfect morals by modern (and changing) standards of acceptability and so perhaps there is no use in honouring anyone with a statue, bust or by naming a building after them. Racist views however are clearly not something we should want to honour at the College “in the context of its present-day mission” and I think it is an insult to the Black people who continue to work and study in a building named after a person who was so adamant in questioning their capabilities and equality.

We all understand why the Imperial College Business School was renamed from Tanaka, so why is it so different in the context of Huxley? No one accused the College of ‘Cancelling Tanaka’ but isn’t this the same thing? We are not obliged to preserve, in reverence, the names of slavers, oppressors or racists and if we do so in the name of ‘history’, we are doing a deep disservice to those who suffered because of Huxley’s views and the work he produced. What is worse, we are contending that, at one point in time at least, racism and sexism were fine. Just because some views and actions were historically commonplace, it does not mean they were correct and they were certainly never correct in the minds of those who suffered because of them at the time (or continue to suffer because of their legacy). This line of argumentation only serves to continue to normalise sexism and racism by insisting that they were once acceptable. Acceptable to whom? Certainly not to me or to those like me who Huxley deemed inferior.

One of the more interesting and surprising critiques of the report came from Kenan Malik in an Observer article where he likened Facebook’s recent rebranding to the recommendation for renaming the Huxley building. This parallel is unhelpful for many reasons, but particularly because the arguments for maintaining the building’s name and the place of the bust essentially boil down to ‘white supremacy was normal in Victorian England’. In itself this is unimportant for Black staff and students living with Huxley’s legacy at the College today. The interests of intellectual classes of Victorian Britain fall outside of the remit of the History Group. Malik also reasons that Huxley was not as big a racist as say, 18th century slave trader Edward Colston, and that by “damning both equally as racists who do not deserve commemoration is to abandon historical evaluation for a crude mode of moral judgment”. This argument in particular misinterprets the entire notion of racial equality. Just because Huxley’s work or views did not directly subject black people to violent degradation and exploitation in an utterly dehumanising system for economic gain, does this mean that they were not racist? It is the same argument that those who misunderstand calls for equality make when they equate bigotry and racism, disregarding systemic contributors to the discrimination experienced by Black people every day.

Huxley’s contribution to scientific racism has arguably had a far more profound and longer-lasting impact on racial discrimination than slavery alone. Although Huxley disagreed with the application of his work to Social Darwinism, and was no advocate of eugenics, his belief in the deterministic significance of his system of classification of the “higher and lower races” (which he states in his essay Emancipation: Black and White), were undoubtedly significant contributors to the formalisation and normalisation of scientific racism and its subsequent applications. It would have been much harder to create and maintain systems of racial domination without the validation of scientific racism that men such as Huxley helped create and perpetuate.

Ultimately, I am not only in support of the work undertaken by the History Group but also in agreement with their recommendations. Whether or not Huxley’s name remains attached to the mathematics and computing department building, the College must actually identify, disseminate and educate on Huxley’s legacy through the lens of those harmed by his work and that is the reckoning. Without this, there can be no recognition, and the value of redistributive efforts will not be fully realised. These efforts, which include increasing access to Black students from disadvantaged backgrounds to the opportunities that an education from an institution like Imperial can provide, as well as improving retention and career progression of the existing Black staff in the College, are absolutely essential. We need both to address historic legacies of injustice.

You can’t have a true attempt at reparation of institutional discrimination without doing the uncomfortable work of explaining why it was necessary to start with, who lost out, who was exploited and who continues to be excluded as a result of scientific racism. This means exposing Huxley’s contribution to racist injustice and acknowledging how Imperial benefited from this. It is one knot among many to disentangle in the complex web of historical injustice across British society that we all remain caught up in today. But it is at least one knot less.

Red is currently a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Clinical Medicine at the University of Aalborg, Denmark. She can be found on Twitter as @RahmaElmahdi.


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