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Why David Hume Tower should be renamed

Elizabeth Kathleen

CW: racism, racial slurs.

David Hume Tower is gigantic. Standing at 14 stories high, every student at Edinburgh has had some form of interaction with it, whether it be waiting for the elevators, hustling up the stairs, or meeting friends in the hub. It is an epicentre of activity on campus, and its giant size is a good indicator of that. So why is it named after a racist?

David Hume, philosopher and Edinburgh alumnus, lived in the 18th century and heavily influenced the philosophical notions of empiricism, scepticism, and naturalism. He undoubtedly made contributions to the field that should not be ignored. In the same vein, however, we must not ignore this quote in his piece ‘Of National Characters’:

‘I am apt to suspect the n*groes to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilised nation of that complexion, nor even any individual eminent in either action or speculation... the most rude and barbarous of the whites...have still something eminent about them...such a uniform and constant difference could not happen...if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men...In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one n*groe as a man of parts and learning: but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.’ (1)

In just this short paragraph, Hume has claimed the following: not only are Black people inferior to white people, but there is an inherent difference created by nature that makes white people superior. Even when presented with evidence to the contrary Hume likens the Jamaican man to a parrot who has learned to talk. This quote dehumanises Black people, demeans Black people, and reinforces the foundations of white supremacy. The effects of this racist piece of writing were momentous.

Though I feel passionate about human rights, I am white. Walking into David Hume Tower doesn’t affect me the same way it affects students of colour, as I continually benefit from white privilege and thus the perpetuation of white supremacy. Since I cannot speak on this subject adequately, I asked students of colour to speak on what David Hume Tower being named after a racist means to them. Included below:

‘As a BAME student at Edinburgh University, it is hard to feel a sense of belonging. The fact that the University still does not have any disciplinary or report measures against racism to protect their BAME students reinforced the sentiment of alienation. However, with the Black Lives Matter movement, more students are gaining strength in their voices to demand changes long due. One of them is renaming David Hume Tower. There is a danger for the University to continue commemorating a single story about David Hume, disregarding his racist views of Black students. Glorifying Hume’s bigotry supports white supremacy and the idea that scientific racism was widely used to justify slavery and colonisation. In fact, scholars like Hume helped to justify through eugenics. The major counterargument to this change was that there is the erasure of Hume’s achievements in history. The same way we do not need buildings and statues named after Hitler in Berlin to learn about him shows that this is not erasure of history. There are still books and the Internet for that. People can still use his theories but the tower should be renamed. We hope that people will understand the non-overt disrespect, offence, and racism that Black students have to go through at the University of Edinburgh.’ Martine Irakoze

Hume’s footnote echoes the racist sentiments expressed through eugenics. This is an important context to have, especially when discussing the University of Edinburgh, which served as a hotbed of phrenology, or the science of measuring the skull. By measuring the skull, scientists believed they were able to determine propensities, e.g. destructiveness, ideality, secretiveness; sentiments which were separated into lower and superior where the latter delineates humans from animals, e.g. cautiousness and benevolence respectively, and faculties, or ability to perceive the outside world. Phrenologists would measure the skull of white people and find that they possessed benevolence, ideality, wit, veneration, et cetera. Then, phrenologists would measure the skull of people of colour, and find combativeness, destructiveness, amativeness, no superior sentiments, and, in essence, deem that person of colour undesirable. In this sense, then, phrenology was used as a scientific justification for racism. This ‘science’ had proven that white people were genetically superior to people of colour.

Which then, in turn, was used to justify colonialism and slavery.

While that may seem like a jump, it becomes more clear when you look at the justifications for colonialism that were used by those committing the atrocities. Without white intervention, it was claimed, these countries, throughout the modern-day global South, would never be ‘civilised.’ It was up to white people, those whom phrenology had proven to be superior, to ‘help’ in the collection and utilisation of resources. This help often included torture, sexual abuse, and murder, and often led to famine, disease, and other plagues that ravaged colonised countries. The most valuable resource, however, was manpower; and since phrenology had allegedly proven the people of Africa lacked the ability to achieve greatness, white people were able to mentally equate Black people and animals and thereby justify crimes against humanity. The conditions on the ships of the trans-Atlantic slave trade that brought kidnapped people to America were so dangerous and disgusting that an average of 15%-33% of captive African people died before they reached their final destination. Upon reaching the Americas, they were subjected to atrocities the likes of which are not worth repeating here.

I recognise this may appear as a slight digression from the topic at hand. Regardless, there is a straight line of logic here. David Hume suggests that there is a natural difference between Black and white people, scientists create a pseudoscience to justify this claim, and that pseudoscience is then used as a justification for kidnapping, murder, sexual assault, et cetera. While it is true that Hume was never a slave trader himself, his beliefs in the superiority of white people absolutely served the horrifying, ever-perpetuating cause of white supremacy.

This petition is not advocating for David Hume to be completely erased from history. It is exceedingly important to understand the horrors and atrocities of the past and learn how they have shaped our present (e.g., the prison industrial complex serving as the new Jim Crow) and what the descendants of those who committed those atrocities can do in the way of reparations. Plus, David Hume was incredibly influential in the field of philosophy, especially during the Enlightenment period. Perhaps, though, we should confine Hume and his teachings to a classroom environment. In this way, we are able to show his racist ideas in conjunction with his philosophical ideas and contextualise how these racist ideas may have influenced his other writings.

(1) An earlier unedited version of this quote expanded beyond Black people and included all people of colour. This version was published shortly before his death and he is thought to have edited it because of criticism he received.


Image: Wikipedia

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