How to Grieve a Colonizer
Queen Elizabeth II passed away yesterday. Having lost my own mother, I felt sad for those around her who can no longer share this life with the woman that they loved so much. Simultaneously, the only reason I know this woman’s name is because she occupied the throne that has invaded all but 22 countries in the world. We must hold that tension. Many of those who suffer the effects of British Imperialism today do not care about and may celebrate her passing. To reject that reality is to flatten out a world in desperate need of nuance, context, and the ability and willingness to empathize. And at the same time, to dismiss the grief of her loved ones is to allow the ignorance and hatred of empire to have a victory over our humanity that God did not intend.
The Apostle Paul in his letter to the church in Rome calls us to mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15) and I believe that instruction is consistent with the heart of God towards all people made in His image. So I can mourn with those who mourn the Queen's death, and the far greater number who mourn her life. I can certainly grieve the loss of a mother, sister, a friend, and a deep confidant to the comparatively few who had that pleasure. I can grieve a person, but certainly will not lament a colonizer; she was both. Queen Elizabeth sat atop the wealth of one of the world’s largest empires — one of white supremacy’s highest peaks. Yet she was no more worthy a person than me or the untold millions like me whose deaths put her in power.
“Be civil. Don’t politicize death.” The only reason we are marking her death is because of her family‘s political power and position. Without her bloodline and perch in Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth’s passing would matter just as deeply to her loved ones, but we never would have heard of her.
“But can’t the politicizing go too far? How can people celebrate at this time?” We’ve forgotten how people danced in the streets of New York City after the US military killed Osama bin Laden and one of his sons in front of his teenage daughter. People do not often mourn their enemies, and she made many. Kenyans are unlikely to forget her nation’s forced labor and prison camps to “rehabilitate” people fighting colonialism. Her soldiers killed hundreds in modern-day Yemen as rebel forces successfully expelled Britain’s last colony in the Middle East. The palace lobbied for royal exemptions to one of Britain’s landmark anti-racial discrimination laws because it was, as one of the Queen’s officials put it to Parliament, not the “practice to appoint coloured immigrants or foreigners.” She has staunchly refused to respond to the many countries protesting her family’s visits and calling for repentance and reparations regarding her empire’s historical tyranny. And all of that is just the beginning of the oppression under her reign.
So if we dive into the tension of her life and history, it should make sense that Irish people are chanting in celebration at a soccer game while the BBC wants you to know her great grandkids called her “Gam Gam.” That the descendants of the victims of imperial violence are rejoicing that the person who presided over the demise of their ancestors is dead should come as no surprise. And, of course, powerful, white, decorum-respecting people are swiftly silencing the Black and Brown voices in that chorus. That was predictable, and we do not need to pile on.
Those who want us to detach Elizabeth the person from how she obtained her opulence are not humanizing her. They are dehumanizing those Britain crushed — relegating them to the status of a footnote in her otherwise majestic biography.
It is true that I don’t come from the same emotional place as many in dominant, white culture when it comes to these events. I have never been to Europe and have no interest in going there. In the US, I find it difficult to visit museums or old architecture where precious stolen objects are on display for me to see for a fee while tourists around me ignore the Black and Brown people whose blood and forced labor made it all possible. I don’t need more of that, so why visit Buckingham Palace? I am unable to experience that Anglophilic sense of nostalgia or wonder or whatever it is that my white fellow Americans feel for the Queen’s realm. Even if there was no royal protocol on how to speak and act in her presence, she would have been just another white woman I had to ensure felt comfortable and unthreatened in mine.
So, though I am not naturally inclined toward grief in this moment, I will lean in because every person including Elizabeth Windsor is made in the image of God. The pangs of grief know no status or station when death crosses the threshold of our lives. Her family and many of her subjects are hurting.
But let us not be like the masters who were surprised when slaves wanted to flee or revolt. We need not be confused when others do not grieve. We can face all of the truth at once — that some are sad while others rejoice, some feel weight while others experience relief. I will not wash away my own humanity by choosing to dehumanize those like the queen who dehumanized me. But at the same time, my melanated memory will never forget what she did.