OBEs are a sign that the empire is still with us

The Guardian - Journal - - Opinion - Priyam­vada Gopal

Acen­tury ago the em­i­nent Ben­gali writer Rabindranath Tagore re­turned his knight­hood to the viceroy of In­dia. The “time has come when badges of hon­our make our shame glar­ing in their in­con­gru­ous con­text of hu­mil­i­a­tion”, Tagore wrote as scores of peace­ful protesters were mas­sa­cred in Jal­lian­wala Bagh. He would now “stand, shorn of all spe­cial dis­tinc­tions, by the side of my coun­try­men”.

In ac­cept­ing the knight­hood, Tagore had been ac­cused of be­ing a colo­nial flunkey, partly be­cause he had ex­pressed reser­va­tions about as­pects of In­dian na­tion­al­ism. The 1919 atroc­i­ties in Amritsar jolted the No­bel lau­re­ate into ac­cept­ing that his knight­hood could not be treated as un­con­nected to the blood­ied re­al­i­ties of that empire’s op­er­a­tions.

The be­lief that ti­tles such as Of­fi­cer, Dame Com­man­der or Mem­ber of the Most Ex­cel­lent Or­der of the Bri­tish Empire can be treated as sym­bolic, un­tainted by the gross bru­tal­i­ties of the im­pe­rial project, ap­pear more plau­si­ble to­day, with his­tor­i­cal dis­tance. Ac­cept­ing his Or­der of the Bri­tish Empire, the his­to­rian David Olu­soga, who has a Nige­rian fa­ther, has in­sisted de­fen­sively that while “the empire was an ex­trac­tive, ex­ploita­tive, racist and vi­o­lent in­sti­tu­tion”, the fact that “there isn’t an empire any more” changes things.

The E-word is now a slightly retro empty term – a lit­tle bit dis­taste­ful, for sure, but hap­pily eman­ci­pated from any his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ence. How­ever, Olu­soga’s com­fort­ing thought runs counter to the Bri­tish es­tab­lish­ment’s own re­fusal, de­spite of­fi­cial crit­i­cism of the word as “anachro­nis­tic” and “in­sen­si­tive”, to sub­sti­tute “empire” in these ti­tles with some­thing less di­vi­sive. It also ig­nores the ex­tent to which as­pi­ra­tions to a resur­gent im­pe­rial global grandeur have resur­faced, so ex­plic­itly and harm­fully in the case for Brexit. Is the empire re­ally over, or has it re­mained a virus-like sleeper cell in the Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal imag­i­na­tion?

The black scholar Paul Gil­roy sug­gests that Bri­tain’s re­fusal to ac­cept the loss of empire has pro­duced “de­luded pat­terns of his­tor­i­cal re­flec­tion and self-un­der­stand­ing”. Surely it is the task of black and Asian Bri­tons to undo, not pan­der to, these delu­sions.

The most elo­quent case for de­scen­dants of the en­slaved, the in­den­tured and the colonised to refuse honours that ex­alt the Bri­tish empire was made by the poet Ben­jamin Zepha­niah in this pa­per. He linked his own re­jec­tion of an OBE in 2003 not just to past atroc­i­ties or a “be­trayal” of en­slaved an­ces­tors but to the very real af­ter­life of empire: racism, po­lice bru­tal­ity, eco­nomic dis­pos­ses­sion and the re­ten­tion of the spoils of empire. is a lec­turer at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity One is ei­ther “pro­foundly anti-empire” or one ac­cepts its many self-serv­ing fic­tions along with the hon­our.

Zepha­niah’s choice was based on clear prin­ci­ples, from a long tra­di­tion of black and Asian re­sis­tance to the global harm in­flicted by empire, and the un­der­stand­ing that im­pe­rial and do­mes­tic rule were main­tained by pa­ter­nal­ism, buy­ing loy­al­ties and head­ing off dis­senters. A se­lect class of non-white lead­ers could be up­held as ex­em­plars of a just sys­tem even as the large ma­jor­ity con­tin­ued to face wide­spread dis­crim­i­na­tion.

Olu­soga sug­gests that, by ac­knowl­edg­ing the achieve­ments of black and Asian Bri­tons, OBEs can be seen as a de­feat of racism. Apart from the ways in which to­kenism en­ables hi­er­ar­chi­cal and ex­clu­sion­ary sys­tems to con­tinue as usual, the more vi­tal ques­tion is whether OBEs fa­cil­i­tate the “need to con­front” the his­tory of empire. The role of an of­fi­cer of the empire is hardly cal­cu­lated to in­duce that con­fronta­tion.

The Bri­tish es­tab­lish­ment, ut­terly re­liant on fic­tions of im­pe­rial glory and benev­o­lence, is not so naive as to fa­cil­i­tate its own un­do­ing. Olu­soga and oth­ers are en­ti­tled to their per­sonal choices and com­pro­mises. What is more ques­tion­able is the pre­sen­ta­tion of these per­sonal de­ci­sions as po­lit­i­cally sound choices made self­lessly in the name of all black Bri­tons.

Does hav­ing a few black names with OBE af­ter them re­ally sig­nify that the Bri­tish es­tab­lish­ment ac­knowl­edges the pro­found his­tor­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions of black and Asian peo­ple to this na­tion? Be­yond ex­cep­tional in­di­vid­ual achieve­ment, non-white Bri­tons have also col­lec­tively or­gan­ised for rights, fought racism and en­gaged in rad­i­cal po­lit­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion. So no: the “only op­tions on the ta­ble” are not “to ac­cept or de­cline” a seat at it. The real task is to bring this coun­try to an un­der­stand­ing of what empire was, did and con­tin­ues to do – and to ques­tion how a gen­uinely demo­cratic de­coloni­sa­tion can be achieved in fu­ture.

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