Who’s afraid of speaking about Elizabeth II’s colonial legacy?

September 26th, 2022 by Helena Rydén
Royalty - Queen Elizabeth II Visit to Jamaica - Kingston

Troops parade for Queen Elizabeth II as she arrives in Kingston. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh arrived in Jamaica at the start of a three-day Golden Jubilee visit. (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

On September 8, Queen Elizabeth II of United Kingdom died at the age of 96. She reigned longer than anyone else in British history, from 1952 until her death (which is 70 years). She was Head of the Commonwealth, Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and head of state not only in Great Britain, but also in 14 other countries that are part of the Commonwealth realm (including Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, Grenada, and Canada).

The news of her passing caused grief among many in the Western world for Britain’s regent, but it has also sparked debate about permissions for discussions of the system of which the Queen was a part and its legacy of colonialism. The resulting debate has been about whether the colonized are allowed to speak about their colonizers’ abuses, at the time of the colonizer’s death. If yes, can it be considered ethically and morally right to do so? If no, then when is it ever the right time to discuss the colonizer’s abuse?

For many in the countries that have been and/or are still part of the Commonwealth realm, the British monarchy is strongly associated with colonial violence, oppression, and murder. For example, Uju Anya (who is an associate professor of second language acquisition at Carnegie Mellon University) tweeted the following:

“If anyone expects me to express anything but disdain for the monarch who supervised a government that sponsored the genocide that massacred and displaced half my family and the consequences of which those alive today are still trying to overcome, you can keep wishing upon a star,”[1]

Another voice, Zoé Samudzi, a Zimbabwean American assistant professor of photography at the Rhode Island School of Design, tweeted:

“As the first generation of my family not born in a British colony, I would dance on the graves of every member of the royal family if given the opportunity, especially hers.”[2]

Even when Elizabeth II was alive, she was subject to colonial presence. Indigenous senator Lidia Thorpe was due to repeat the oath of allegiance to members of Australia’s parliament at the beginning of August this year. During the repeat, she raised her fist in the air and called the Queen a “colonizer”.[3]

From a Swedish perspective, my experience is that the traditional media coverage here of Queen Elizabeth II has been relatively one-sided. Often one uncritical perspective is raised, and it is about the Queen’s leadership of her institution. How she has dealt with “difficult” situations. She is often portrayed as an innocent matriarch with style, class, and a sense of duty, when in fact she in other parts of the world is seen as an active participant in the preservation of British colonialism. The wealth of the British Royal House, for instance, is largely plundered from the resources of colonizing countries worldwide.

Perhaps Swedish media are influenced by the dramaturgy of popular cultural productions, for example the Netflix series The Crown. Perhaps because Great Britain never in history attacked Sweden militarily? Or perhaps the monarchy in Sweden, as in Great Britain, is seen as a fundamental part of the national identity? Perhaps this is yet another clear example of what is commonly referred to as “white innocence” (in this context, meaning that justifying colonial actions by establishing the notion that the colonizers and their heirs meant no harm). Perhaps this constitutes a school example of the need and relevance for a decolonizing look at media reporting? To paraphrase the title of Edward Albee’s most famous play: Who’s afraid of speaking about Elizabeth II’s colonial legacy?

Unfortunately, I am not sure. What I do know, however, is that one of the Swedish public service media’s most important tasks is comprehensive reporting. That means you must zoom out, watch the whole picture, and dare to see its complexity. In this case, it is about including the voices that live with the aftermath of British colonialism. Inconvenient as it may be for the white, Western majority population, this needs to be told. As for now, these voices are found almost exclusively on social media.

Filip Hallbäck

 

[1] https://twitter.com/UjuAnya/status/1567933661114429441?cxt=HHwWgsDT4fDWtcIrAAAA (2022-09-11)

[2] https://twitter.com/ztsamudzi/status/1567888385347297281?cxt=HHwWgoCxgb6LocIrAAAA (2022-09-11)

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/aug/01/australian-greens-senator-lidia-thorpe-calls-queen-coloniser-while-being-sworn-into-parliament (2022-09-11)

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