For as long as I have been a contributor on this blog, lots of my entries have sought to discuss issues of race, both when I was a student union officer and then afterwards following the Murder of George Floyd. And in writing those entires since the second half of 2019, I have also written about Honours. I do not intend to stop now. During the Black Lives Matter resurgence last year after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Black Britain also responded with protests and even in some cases, revisited anti-racism within our insitutions, as well as opening up discussions about racism (and Whiteness somewhat) in the UK. And whilst many designated as spokespeople for Black communities bent the knee in solidarity with Black Lives Matter – in the twelve months since those protests, members of the Black establishment sprinted to Buckingham Palace when they were called for the gong … more like a gong over the head. With all that bending, I do wonder if their backs have now grown crooked.
Last summer, at that point Lewis Hamilton (MBE) was one of the most vocal celebrities when it came to challenging racism only to then upgrade his already accepted MBE (from 2009) for a knighthood (KBE) that December. In January 2019, the famed historian David Olusoga who has been one of the most piercing critics of empire since at least 2010 with his book The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism (co-written with historian Casper Erichsen), took an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to history. Despite that book being about Germany’s colonialism in East Africa, the public history professor has gone on to write books and documentaries featuring the atrocities of the British Empire as well. This is someone whose career has sought to give voice to Black British colonial and postcolonial experiences, including Black soldiers of empire (The World’s War) and the Windrush Generation (The Unwanted: The Forgotten Windrush Files) further to his critiques on enslavement (Britain’s Forgotten Slaveowners) … only then to collect an Order of the British Empire when the state came calling. His contributions to Civilisations are excellent, as are his House Through Time documentaries (really a historian of many talents).
In July 2020, he delivered his MacTaggart Lecture about racism and representation in the media, which makes me think as TweetsbyBilal writes “I truly don’t understand the cognitive dissonance it takes to accept an OBE & simultaneously talk about anti-oppression.” If there was anyone that I would expect to decline Honours, it would be someone that presented themselves as an anti-imperialist and anti-racist historian (while this year presenting Statue Wars: One Summer in Bristol with Marvin Rees critiquing colonial statues). In 2019, finding out he had accepted an OBE, I think I was more gentle with my critiques then than I am now. Having been given time to think, his acceptance in particular sticks in my throat in addition to that of Lewis Hamilton in December 2020. Moving on, Marcus Rashford became MBE for services to vulnerable children last summer responding to the Victorian policies of PM Boris Johnson and his Tories, verily a page straight out of Dickens’ Oliver Twist … Sykes, Dodger, Fagin, Warts and all. This was 2020 but felt incredibly Dickensian and the State saw fit to make the footballer a Member of the British Empire [MBE] for his efforts.
Last year, I saw Marcus Rashford’s accolade as an insult and I still see it as insult now, followed this year with Raheem Sterling being made an MBE for services to race equality. To accept Honours is to condone the horrors of colonialism and the British Empire. I do wonder how much pressure the players recieved from their families for Rashford and Sterling to accept. Rashford is 23 years old, I am 25 and Sterling is 26 (but worlds apart). However, I also know that parts of Caribbean communities both in Britain and on those small islands hold on to things like this. Famed cricketer Vivian Richards has an OBE (1994) and a knighhood (1999) with Andy Roberts AKA The Hitman, recieveing the equivalent of a knighthood from his native Antiguan government in 2014, an award no less in the image of Britain’s own Honours system reaking of imperial delusions in the service of White supremacy.
As Black and Brown people, we should not have to be burdened with the responsibility to change things for people of the same race, but when people have spent their lives criticising the state including empire, and then take medals in its namesake, I then have a problem. In my own life as a creative, many of the creatives whose writing and work I respect, hold empire medals – from Malorie Blackman (OBE) and David Oyelowo (OBE) to David Harewood (MBE), filmmaker Amma Asante (MBE), [Akala’s sister] singer Ms Dynamite (MBE), Beverley Knight (MBE), and MIA (MBE) whose music in large always had an anti-imperialist slant. “When those who have made their names from challenging the lingering evils of the empire jump at the chance of being superficially validated by it, the hypocrisy is extremely grating” writes Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin for Gal-Dem. By all means accept your medals, but don’t call yourself activists and / or even pro-equality. It’s not a hard choice, if you do not want to be part of the establishment with the privileges that entails, and as as Chardine Taylor Stone continues in discussing activist Amika George … “and knowing that’s it’s hypocritical given your takes on colonialism and Empire” (though could just as well apply to most of the mentioned too).
Meanwhile, many big names in D&I are Honours recipients. Marcus Ryder was made an MBE for service to diversity in the media last October. Additionally, from a quick Google I found an Asif Sadiq MBE and Cherron Inko-Tariah MBE at D&I Leaders (there others). Why are so many names in D&I recipients? TweetsbyBilal states that “Well if the end goal is being included and not the dismantling of systems that cause harm, it makes sense”, and he goes on to talk about “To be “included” shouldn’t be the goal. It shouldn’t be about allowing those who have historically been minoritised to also acquire positional power to enact harm through broken systems – the point should be a complete transformation of these systems.” And to transfom these system would not seek to diversify Honours and the establishment, but to abolish Honours completely. If we want to seriously decolonise, we must entertain the fact that things like Honours would need to be abolished, not reformed, not reinvented under new names (i.e British Empire = Commonwealth).
Last summer, many of us were impressed with Sky Sports’ response to Black Lives Matter. As an avid cricketer myself, both as a player and spectator, I was also a victim of the lesser discussed racism that happens in cricket. Say what you want about football, but cricket was constructed to replace the cultural institution of enslavement in the Caribbean and thus rolled out across the British Empire in the first half of the 19th century. It was designed to reproduce the White supremacy of enslavement only across all of Britain’s colonial dominions. Football has its issues with racism, I know this, but cricket still continues to be in service to Whiteness (as much as I do enjoy the game), very much in the UK where there are so few Black and Brown players playing at the national level for England. Coincidence, I think not. In light of her appearance with Michael Holding last year, Ebony Rainford-Brent took her gong for an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours (June 2021) after talking about racism in women’s cricket last summer (cognitive dissonance ahem).
Cricket is one of the most potent examples of privilege, as it is so expensive to get into. When you realise 3 in 5 ethnic minority households in Britain live in poverty, cricket will more likely attract those from more working-middle-class / upper-middle class households. Football famously is a sport seen to help working-class players out of poverty as well (i.e your Marcus Rashfords), while cricket is the sport of private schools (which is how I got into the game, growing up incredibly privileged compared to many people in my community that look just like me). Ebony Rainford-Brent taking an MBE follows the Whiteness of the sport, a game in itself born out of British colonialism in the West indies on those small islands. Nonetheless, I have only listed some of the recent awardees of medals and really until there is a mass boycott of Honours, Black lives will never matter in Britain and our pushes for anti-racism are futile.
This comes in the same breath when seven out the ten of the commissioners of the infamous and horrific Sewell Report have honours, whilst claiming there was no evidence of institutional racism in the UK. Meanwhile, Raheem Sterling was honoured for contributions to race equality or as Aditya Iyer writes, “Poor Sewell and Toby. Must sting to see lesser toadies being rewarded for their service to Whiteness by merely licking the boot whilst those they were deepthroating it.” Although those that take Honours may continue to fight for justice in our institutions, for me that comes at the cost of their credibility (to varying degrees). To tell people how they ought to be doing anti-racism and anti-oppression work, while you are happy to bend the knee to empires of sugar, tobacco, and cotton, is just insulting. So, we must also consider that the history of the British Empire was not a deal-breaker for them to further their ambitions, and in some cases, nor was the murders, executions and rapes, of their ancestors.
As “activists” like Amika George accepted an MBE, it seems “activism” is a symbolic term where she claims that reframing the MBE was “a way of representing my community, showing the next generation of young British Asians that they hold just as much political power as their white friends, and they are just “British” as anyone else …” but as Audre Lorde wrote, back in the 1980s “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” George claimed that she did not have the privilege to decline Honours, flying in the face of the countless Black and Brown Brits that did, including Benjamin Zephaniah, Howard Gayle, and this year author Nikesh Shukla. It would be much easier if these Black and Brown Britons that want the Gong just admit they want to be part of the establishment class experiencing the type of success that treats success as proximity to Whiteness and acknowledgement from the State.
In finding out 1 in 7 nominees at the last round were from an ethnic minority group, it reminds us that State’s tactics will continue to use our bodies as instruments in upholding racist structures. The allure of state recognition plays on the ‘gratefulness’ complex that persists through families that came to the Global North from from Britain’s former-colonies and as Musa Okwonga wrote “… growing up in Britain; it was always a case of making sure I was grateful … after all, my parents were brought to the UK as refugees, fleeing the hyper-violent regime of Ida Amin, and so there was no question that they had been given a second chance at life.” Okwonga’s statement is similar to many of us second and third-generation Africans, Caribbeans, and Asians that have immigrant parents and grandparents that were born British subjects in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. To decline, can in some cases, be seen as being ungrateful.
I hope as our knowledge grows about empire, people of my generation (late millennials) feel that they do not need to accept (to feel validated) and ultimately become agents of Whiteness and as Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin writes, to become “tools for the empire’s PR machine.” After a year where protesters pulled down the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol with educator-activists hosting meetings about teaching empire on school curicula, to then have Black so-called activists and the like buying into the imperialist machine undermines all pushes for social justice – for anti-racism to mean anything and if we want education on empire to mean anything in schools, we must boycott the Honours system. Black people. Brown people. White people too, who think they are above this (whilst histories of colonialism in Ireland continue to have an impact today, as well as the pre-colonial history of oppression in the context of the royals).
As Black people, Brown people and people of colour, we must boycott these “(dis)Honours” from the State as they are examples of Whiteness as a violent material practice. In Northamptonshire, there were recipients who recieved them for acts against COVID, very much a juxtaposition where the manufacturers of inequalities rewarded people for fighting a contagion that did not have to be this way. White people that think of themselves as pro-equality / anti-racists have no business accepting Honours. If you are serious and have any ounce of respect for your Black and Brown neighbours, give the Honours back. The continued acceptance of Honours greenlights the colonial violence and postcolonial struggle, and as Ash Sakar puts it, “the problem with liberal identity politics is that it puts recognition from the state above self-organisation, … collective struggle and above solidarity. So, if we want those ingredients to mean anything we’ve got to divest ourselves of the desire to be recognised by those at the top and start recongising each other.”
The liberal politics of “diversifying the Honours list” insinuates more Black faces in high spaces is what we need to end racism (absolute nonsense) I question why we need an establishment in the first place … unless “inclusion” is just double talk for a privileged minority within an oppressed one? Whiteness appears in Blackface, nothing but a circus with medals and all.
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