Am I a traitor if I mourn the Queen, or if I don’t?
When news of the Queen’s impending demise broke on Thursday afternoon, I surprised myself. I cried. The solemnity of the occasion moved me. Huw Edwards was stern and unblinking. The vibrant images highlight 70 years of history and the unarguable fact that another constant in the quickly dwindling constants in my middle-aged life was now gone. I cried, and I wasn’t sorry.
After all, who could blame me? I was born in Britain, lived the vast majority of my life there, and have known no monarch other than the Queen. Add to that that I’m a history major whose love of the subject stemmed from early fixations with the Tudors and Plantagenets, and you have the perfect storm for some serious weeping. Except for one not-so-insignificant factor: I am a second-generation Sri Lankan immigrant.
As all regular news coverage became subsumed by coverage of the Queen’s death and friends and family shared their sadness, a slow trickle into my social media feeds began from other people of color, some angry, some aggressive, some dismissive, and some contemptuous of the torrent of worldwide grief, the seeming unity of opinion that only a head of state so long-lived and well-respected could command.
It was easy, at first, for me to gloss over the opinions of US academics such as Uju Anya and Mukoma Wa Ngugi, whose early adoption of strong anti-imperialist language was widely called-out as insensitive and inappropriate because, of course, they are American. How could they possibly understand why we Brits looked up to the Queen so much?
Yes, they might be right about some things, but she was still the Queen at the end of the day. Our Queen. It’s taken me a few days to think about the ‘us’ and ‘our’ that I automatically insert into my own narrative – why I put them there and what they really mean.
Am I inadvertently aiding and abetting colonial ideology, undermining its unarguable damage on me and mine and pretty much every person of color around the world? Am I showing woeful, embarrassing ignorance of my own history, playing into the hands of the oppressor, and exhibiting the same internalized racism that I’m painfully aware of and have written about at length, the long arm of Post-Colonial Stockholm Syndrome reaching out to grab me at a vulnerable moment? Do I have any right at all to feel sad at the Queen’s death when I have written about how toxic and racist the Royal Family is? What is going on here?
For many non-white Brits, there seems to be minimal conflict in their emotions at this time. The strong chorus of voices in both the press and on social media highlighted the direct impact of colonialism that occurred during the Queen’s reign, the irreparable damage to millions of people enacted in the cause of the Empire, and the Queen’s quiet refusal to acknowledge that harm, never mind return stolen treasures and artifacts, or offer reparations, are a stark reminder of why, logically, I should be joining the call for a republic.
But the conditioning that came from both within my family and the British school system, as well as the social pressures that have shaped my identity, runs deep.
As an increasingly multi-cultural society, we’re becoming familiar with the concept of dual identity – that coming from one place and being raised in and/or living in another creates internal conundrums, complications, and compromises in one’s beliefs and behaviors that can be difficult, if not impossible to reconcile.
We know that this creates a psychological strain, trying to be everything to everyone and be true to oneself while being unsure as to exactly who oneself is. But what if, instead of that duality, there is an imbalance – a borderline singularity with a shadow cast over it (literally) by the small matters of ethnicity and skin color?
Unlike many immigrants from Britain’s colonies, I wasn’t raised to believe I was anything other than British.
My parents, both ethnically Sinhala, born under the Raj (the colloquial term for the British Empire in the Subcontinent considered themselves subjects of the British Crown who just happened to reside in an outpost of the Empire. Britain was the Mother Country; they spoke primarily English and learned English literature and history at school. They wore primarily European attire, watched British and American films at the cinema, and even, in my mother’s case, eschewed most Sri Lankan food and ate an entirely Western diet. When they joined the wave of Commonwealth citizens emigrating to the UK in 1971, they believed they were coming home in a cultural sense. Of course, the ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’ signs on most of London’s property listings told a different story.
They (mainly my mother) had little interest in or knowledge of Sri Lankan history or culture. In school, they had been taught British history as if it were not just their own but the only history worth knowing. They were conditioned entirely to believe that the Empire was a good thing, that the British had been sent to civilize and educate them, and that, having been good colonial subjects, they were now a valid part of the British establishment. However, many times they were treated to the contrary. The worst thing the British ever did, according to my father, was leave.
My parents believed that the Queen was their Queen. My father speaks misty-eyed of being among the crowd during her 1954 state visit to Colombo. My mother taught me to recite the kings and queens of England by heart as a small child. This, I was told, was my history. Never once was a Sinhala ruler mentioned in our house.
Social and cultural conditioning is tough to reverse. Ideas, standards, and expectations you are given as a child sink in deep. So, thinking your way out of them is both time-consuming and exhausting. It also requires an element of breaking of one’s self, enabling you to see and understand things that your conditioning has blinkered you to. Not only is this painful, but it’s also complicated. How much of my Britishness do I erase?
Decolonization is a word we often throw around, but what does it really mean? To throw off the shackles of colonization, to become independent and eject your oppressor, is supposed to be an act of freedom, a positive assertion of identity and sovereignty. Yet the truth is much more complicated because, in both physical and mental spaces, colonization changes the colonized.
You can never go back to the time, place, or identity you would have had had you never been colonized. Your culture is forever altered, from the Georgian mansions and European-style parliament buildings that dot South and South-East Asia to the internalization of the values, habits, and cultural mores of the oppressor. You cannot simply remove them and pretend they never existed. They become embedded into the physical and spiritual psyche of the colonized, and in trying to tear them out, you find you are literally tearing pieces off yourself.
As an ethnic Sri Lankan born in the UK, my fight to assert my Britishness further complicated things. It’s no great secret that Britain in the 80s was a significant and overtly racist place and time to grow up. Being told daily to go back to where I came from only made me want to further cement and entrench everything about me that made me British, to prove my right to exist in the country of my birth.
Aside from being an avid history scholar (all European history, as per the rigors of National Curriculum, where the Empire never died), I took pride in how un-South Asian I was. No, I didn’t watch Bollywood films, wear a sari (I still don’t know how), eat curry (except in the company of white people), or speak a language other than English at home. No, I didn’t have a foreign accent, and yes, I liked the same films and music as my white contemporaries. I supported England at football (yes, American soccer) while drinking lager and eating pork scratchings. How could I not be British?
Did I do those things, love those things, be those things because I had to or wanted to? And do I have to give them up to reclaim my identity as a product of colonialism? Where is the distinction between mourning the Queen and eating pork scratchings? Am I still, inadvertently, trying to prove my Britishness?
The parameters of a constitutional monarchy might seem to offer a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card in terms of building a Britishness for myself that embraces the culture without the structure through the separation of power between Crown and state.
Many Brits who have (not unreasonable) umbrage with our government, both in terms of its actions and what it stands for, are still comfortable in their regard for the royal family and what they stand for as symbols of British culture. There is a strong sense among many Brits, which has synthesized pervasively since her death, that the Queen represented the stability, perceived decency, stoicism, and that mythologized ‘Britishness’ that our corrupt and morally bankrupt government sorely lacks.
Many white British people will say yes, of course, the Empire was evil but still hold up the Queen as a shining example of what is great about their nation, or who think this is the wrong time to have this discussion.
For those of us struggling with this painful and perplexing internal conflict placed inside us by the actions of the Queen’s ancestors, there could be no more appropriate time for this conversation. These hallowed royal values that the Queen’s death brings back into vogue are the same sense of ‘Britishness’ on which the Empire was built. The British Empire long predated our constitutional monarchy. It was initially sponsored by royal charter. Our sense of Britishness is firmly enforced in equal measure with our understanding of otherness and inferiority. How British can we ever really be?
As a beer writer, this conflict of identities presents an ongoing internal battle for me due to the role of beer in the history of the Raj. Drawing on my personal journey into beer through drinking British cask ale, I constantly posit myself as a champion of most British of British beverages. I am a fervent supporter of purveyors of cask ale here in the States and take pride in bringing British beers back from the UK to share with my American friends. I am a regular volunteer at the Great British Beer Festival (and other Campaign for Real Ale events), where I enthuse the virtues of this old-school British beverage for hours a day.
The Queen even ventured into the business of alcohol with the sale of beer and wine brewed from plants grown on her Sandringham estate in Norfolk.
If I start picking at my perceived Britishness, am I still British enough to do this? Perhaps being British isn’t a requirement for my role as a beer advocate, but must I stop thinking of this beer as mine, in the knowledge that logically, it belongs to me as little as the Royal family?
In David Jesudason’s outstanding article Empire State of Mind: Interrogating IPA’s Colonial Identity, he highlights the vast gulf between popular perceptions of IPA as harkening back to ‘genteel’ colonial times and the reality of the greed, violence, and suffering perpetrated by the Raj. The fact that only the white colonizers were even allowed into the elite white-only establishments that served the beverage that now takes the Empire’s name in vain adds an extra layer of colonial narcissism to the great founding myth of the darling of the craft beer industry. This was not so long ago.
Those rules existed during my father’s lifetime. We often visit places in Colombo, such as the Queen’s Club, where he remembers having strict white-only policies and signs saying ‘no natives.’
English IPA should, by all logic, stick in my throat, yet I continue to devour and praise them. I know full well the excessive damage the British East India Company, purveyors of said IPA did to the Subcontinent, how rich they became from plundering our resources and labor, and how that wealth still circulates among the British elite.
How can I, armed with full awareness of the damaging nature of its marketing, enjoy a bottle of Bengal Lancer? And yet not only was it one of the first English IPAs I really rated, I still regard it as an excellent example of the style. Can we separate the beer from its history, its heritage? Can I disconnect my love for it from my own history and heritage?
With an eyes-open understanding of colonialism’s complicity in British beer history and culture, should I really be singing its praises?? And if I choose to stop embracing that culture as mine, with no knowledge or understanding of the culture of my ancestors and no one left to impart that to me, what is, in fact, left for me to claim as mine?
This is when it gets really thorny. I shout a lot about how people of color who join the Tory and Republican parties are traitors, idiots, and self-serving hypocrites – propping up a system that only has their worst interests at heart. If I continue to believe in the British identity that I’ve always held up as my own while knowing it to be fake news, in that I, as an immigrant, can never have the same uncomplicated relationship with my Britishness as an ethnically British white person, am I now also complicit?
Is it my duty to myself and my fellow colonial subjects to eschew everything British I’ve held dear and learn a past, a history, a culture that is (no pun intended) utterly foreign to me? Perhaps, this is why I am now an aspiring American – so that I can attempt to begin again from scratch without the weight of either competing expectation upon me.
In her recent Guardian article on what the Queen’s death means for colonized people, Afua Hirsch cites, “[there is an] emotional labor of processing the memories that other British people refuse to acknowledge.” The concept of emotional labor resonates deeply with me. I’d love the luxury of indulging in the deep and sincere mourning for the Queen around the world – to be part of this moment of history without any caveats.
However, being a product of colonialism, living in a world that is constructed on a divide by that singular process of subjugation, means that whether I like it or not, I am imbued with an awareness of what the Royal family stands for as a symbol of colonialism, and what it has done to millions of people around the globe. The rape of resources, the divide-and-conquer, slavery, subjugation, and domination of nations as close as Ireland and as far as Australia.
And even when the official shackles of the Empire have finally been removed, the legacy remains – an intractable mess of physical and mental disadvantage. From the violent trauma of Partition to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Sri Lanka’s devastating three-decade civil war, the British Empire holds full responsibility for a legacy of suffering across vast swathes of the planet. And even when the violence stops, the former colonies remain robbed of most of their wealth and resources.
They are forever destined to be psychologically maimed by the power of the colonial mindset that projects white superiority into every culture it touches. Why else would toxic, dangerous skin whitening creams be so popular in South and South-East Asia, other than the idea of whiteness has been so profoundly internalized?
While the act of decolonization is and remains essential as a step on the path to creating a better, more equal world, there can never be true decolonization as the present and the future is forever tangled up with the past. We try to move on, yet keep looking back. The wave of dangerously colonial nostalgia that the Queen’s death has sparked is a timely reminder of how close we really are to the time when white Europeans ran the world. Just one lifetime ago.
Taking all this in is exhausting. Interacting with it is exhausting. Reconciling conflicting elements of history that you are not responsible for and an identity you are also not responsible for is, indeed, a labor – an imposition even. But burying my head in the sand is not an option – the reality of the world I live in ensures that. The racism, bigotry, economic, social, and cultural barriers and disadvantages created by colonialism are all around me and will remain long after the Queen and I are gone.
Would every person whose life has been affected by colonialism have had the same experience without the Royal family is something we will never know. It’s all very well to say that the Queen was a product of her time, but the converse is also true. That time was a product of the attitudes and aspirations, including the Royal family, who were keen to make their fortunes out of exploiting foreign nations they had forcibly subjugated.
In addition, the British have instilled a policy of racial and cultural domination that has seeped into the very soul of the world we live in, where it is a struggle for people of color to overcome the racism that colonialism created. That matters.
Honestly, whether I or anyone else chooses to mourn the Queen does not matter at all. The language we, as a society, choose to define her legacy does matter because history is often written by the winners.
Personally, I will try to give the historic weight of the end of a 70-year reign the significance it deserves without white-washing its contents. While I can’t break the cycle of colonialism overnight, in trying to deconstruct the tyrannical hold the Empire has had over my family since way before I was even born, I will attempt to be British, Sri Lankan, and American on my own terms.