Stop celebrating racist icons like Scouts Founder Baden Powell


As a diversity trainer, I am often asked what kind of work I do at schools. For context — unless you have had direct experiences of racism at schools, it is difficult for some people to imagine schools as places where racism thrives. However, as we live in a racist world system and schools are microcosms of society, there is sadly a lot of ways in which schools are racist, both as institutions and places where people (principals, teachers, parents, students) who hold racist ideas and ideals are accommodated, allowed and sometimes even encouraged. In South Africa, learners began detailing accounts of racism faced at schools on the back of the #blacklivesmatter social media protests across the world. Learners started the #yousilenceweamplify page on Instagram with many school specific accounts also established to lay bare the horrific experiences of racism, Islamaphobia, sexism, homophobia and other isms experienced by black learners, girl learners, Muslim and LGBTQI learners.

One of the ways in which school’s institutional racism shows up is in the selection of calendar days chosen for celebrations. Schools across the world have set days that they celebrate and even though movements like #blacklivesmatter and #RhodesMustFall forced society to question and re-think our relationship with colonialism, most schools have not reviewed their calendar days. Part of my diversity consulting with schools has been on what approaches to take towards days chosen and icons chosen to celebrate because this communicates specific messages about how far the school is or isn’t in understanding what it means to be part of a diverse society.

One of the days that are often celebrated uncritically is Baden Powell Day, in celebration of the founder of the Scouts. A brief history of Baden Powell shows that he is no different to Cecil John Rhodes and many other colonisers that we continue to celebrate in society. We need to stop celebrating racist colonial figures in a diverse country with a painful history.

Baden Powell’s history also questions the base values of Scouts clubs who use his training as their base foundational theory. Powell was a military man who “trained his men using competitions and games and taught them how to track and live in wild country.” His book “Aids to Scouting” about his methods of Army Training is used as a foundational book for Scout clubs across the world. I would like to unpack this violent history and the sexism still rampant in the Scouts at another time but for now want to focus on the racism of the man and his ideology as written about most recently.

Powell has a history of violence against black people, in South Africa, Kenya and the other parts of the world. Various articles have been written about his legacy and relationship with Hitler.

Tarik Ata writes: “Baden-Powell aligned his ideology to that of fascists like Mussolini (who he admired) and Hitler. He read Mein Kampf and claimed the book was wonderful and had good ideas (Jeal, Baden-Powell, 1989). In 1937 Baden-Powell even held talks with the Hitler Youth Movement and was even invited to meet Hitler (BBC, 2020). He was also a military man, committing crimes in British Kenya, serving out the atrocities of British imperialism.”

In South Africa’s SA history website, his legacy in South Africa specifically is laid bare in the following paragraphs.

“In 1887 he was sent to South Africa where he took part in a campaign against an African chief called Dinzulu. In 1899 Colonel Baden Powell returned to South Africa because there was the possibility of war between the Dutch settlers (Boers) and the British Settlers. War was declared and Baden Powell and 1000 men were left to defend the town of Mafikeng, which was the supply center for the British, He thought up all sorts of schemes to make it look like the town was heavily guarded. When reinforcements arrived the siege had lasted for 7 months. Baden Powell took part in a number of other conflicts and in 1903 was appointed Inspector-General of Cavalry.”

A reminder to South Africans in particular that he is a hero of the same Anglo Boer War where black people were held in concentration camps, starved and tortured, their leaders (chiefs) killed, villages pillaged and entire families killed or captured. Blacks were also forced to pick a side between one coloniser and another, namely the British (who brought imperialism and colonialism) or the Boers (who also participated in imperialism and colonialism and later led Apartheid).

Should our schools be celebrating a man with such a violent and racist history and legacy?

Do we need to now start a #BadenPowellMustFall movement to be heard?

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