On Sept. 8, 2022, Queen Elizabeth II passed away after ruling over the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth for 70 years. In the days following the queen’s death, people have debated what respect, if any, is owed to her death and legacy. In a tweet removed by Twitter, Uju Anya, a Nigerian-born professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said she hoped the queen’s pain was “excruciating” as she died. Anya expressed her frustration with the British and monarchy for the violence committed against her family in a tweet that has since gathered over 100,000 likes. Anya’s comments garnered attention from those supportive of the queen as well as those critical to the empire. Notably, Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and retired CEO, commented in a tweet, “this is someone supposedly working to make the world better? I don’t think so. Wow.”
The conflict between these two positions speaks to a broader conversation on respectability politics. Respectability politics, first coined by Harvard professor of African and African American studies, Evelyn Higginbotham, is a term used to “describe how early 20th century Black women presented themselves as polite, sexually pure, and thrifty to reject stereotypes of them as immoral, childlike, and unworthy of respect and protection.” It’s the idea that if a marginalized group acts and behaves in ways deemed appropriate by mainstream society, they might be accepted by society and accrue upward “social mobility” themselves. The expectation to behave humbly and compliantly to a power figure, plays into how certain reactions are considered appropriate or acceptable.
Widespread belief that colonial figures are entitled respect contrasts global decolonization efforts and anti-colonial attitudes. Following the queen’s death, colonized people deserve recognition and are entitled to express their feelings whether they be anger or indifference. They have a right to resent the British monarchy’s colonial legacy which still affects them.
In an interview with Brandon Tensley of CNN, Kris Manjapra, a Tufts University history professor, said “the British left a mess behind when formal colonization began to end in the 1960s […] [The queen] never acknowledged the harm caused by the plunder, massacres, deprivation and racism of British rule.” Manjapra continued: “There was this kind of walking away from the mess that colonialism had created, leaving the Caribbean in deep debt, with no resources, with very weak institutions — things people there still suffer from today.”
The detriments of British colonization are not exclusive to the Caribbean islands. The inequalities faced by Indigenous Australians today as a result of British imperialism, the queen’s persistent silence on the topic of racism within the monarchy and its role in slavery, and the many stolen artifacts held in the British Museum are other examples of its legacy. Britain’s colonial history and imperial force are not things of the past, and its legacy continues to affect its former colonial territories, as well as the descendants of these territories.
Yet, it continues to be said that “negative” reactions from those colonized — and those morally opposed to the violence of imperial rule — are not seen as appropriate. The belief that colonized people should keep their grievances toward the Crown to themselves, holds them to an arbitrary standard of perceived “respectability.”
The royal institution’s existence is built upon, and sustained by, oppressive and exclusionary systems and practices. The backlash seen against those perceived as speaking out of turn against the institution is an attempt to reinforce the monarchy’s power.
Demanding palatable reactions from historically oppressed groups comes from a colonialist attitude, and is a standard inconsistent with the values many now hold.
As King Charles III transitions into his new role as ruling monarch, the future is uncertain for Britain and the Commonwealth. Since the queen’s death, some countries, including the Bahamas and Australia, have expressed interest in leaving the Commonwealth. The impulse to defend the queen, and to deflect criticism from those who’ve suffered due to colonialism in her name reveals anxiety about Britain’s future and whether its global power is waning.
In her death, the queen leaves behind a legacy of colonial-era remnants and white supremacist ideals. Although some pearl-clutchers may find responses like Anya’s distasteful, hers is a legitimate emotional and political response. The queen’s death marks the beginning of a new era, both for the British monarchy, and for how we perceive and remember colonial figures, emblems, and legacies.