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Sir Geoff Palmer: 'Don’t take down statues – take down racism'

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Professor Sir Geoff Palmer speaking to Euronews on Thursday, June 11, 2020
Professor Sir Geoff Palmer speaking to Euronews on Thursday, June 11, 2020   -   Copyright  Euronews
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Anti-racism protests taking place around the world are renewing calls to take down public monuments celebrating people and events now considered offensive.

But the removal of statues of slave traders and Confederate leaders in the United States and the UK is sparking concerns that important lessons from history might be swept under the carpet.

Sir Geoff Palmer, Scotland's first black professor, does not support removing statues relating to slavery "because this is part of black history".

"My ancestors had to face the slavers and fight. And I think I can face the evil face of a statue and fight," Palmer, an emeritus professor of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, told Euronews in a live TV interview.

He warned that taking down controversial statues and monuments could end up being a distraction at a time when societies may finally be ripe to confront racist behaviours.

"I find it very interesting that it’s probably the first time in the history of slavery that the white community – the white system, so to speak – is extremely cooperative," he said.

"So my view is that the next thing we should take down is racism," he added, calling it "one of the most evil aspects of our society.

"We don't want to leave this so that people looking back in 50 years will say: you know, they took the statues down, why didn't they do something about racism?"

Educating the public

Anti-racism protesters have already taken down some controversial statues, including one of slave trader Edward Colston in the English city of Bristol. In Richmond, Virginia protesters pulled down a statue of Confederate leader Jefferson Davis and threw one of Christopher Columbus into a lake.

Other voices have suggested keeping the monuments in place but providing more context alongside them or even associating them to new statues of protesters pulling them down.

Palmer stressed the importance of facing up to the past and better educating the public about it.

He cited the example of the City of Edinburgh, which has proposed amending a plaque on a controversial monument of Scottish politician Henry Dundas to explain that he was "instrumental in deferring the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade".

The new plaque would give the public the opportunity to see and "actually read the evil that this man has done," Palmer said. "If we take the statue down, this will not be known."

He argued that the whole point of putting the spotlight on these statues, and on our history as a whole, should be to try to change racist attitudes – which even he, a respected professor, continues to suffer from.

"I went to give a lecture recently. When I arrived, I was asked why I was there, and I said I’d come to give a lecture. The young lady said: ‘Well, what time?’ and I said ‘two o'clock’. And she said, ‘you can't be giving a lecture two o'clock, because that lecture is being given by Professor Sir Geoff Palmer."

In other words: the woman could not fathom that he, the black man standing in front of her, was the professor in question.

"This is where we are with our racism today. And we have to do something to change that," Palmer said. "We are one humanity, nothing less."

You can watch highlights of the interview with Sir Geoff Palmer in the video player above.