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I don’t know why people get sad when someone famous, old, and comfortable finally dies. It just doesn’t strike me as that devastating; death is the ultimate retirement, and I’ve been trying to be idle since the minute I was born. But on Sept. 8 at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, at 96, Queen Elizabeth II died. She had a long, well-documented, dutiful life: She was the eighth Queen of England, a thorn in the sides of several nonwhite countries for seven decades, and, of course, the reason why immigrant mothers like my own defended Princess Diana so fiercely. The internet appears deeply divided between people dunking on her (myself included) and people mourning someone whose best quality was how much she loved corgis. (Those tweets are also pretty funny but clearly not intentionally so.)
I don’t care that the Queen is dead. She had a good run and I didn’t know her, so why should I waste the six tears I am allotted per year on a stranger? The only reason I’m here is because I delight in upsetting Europeans, a long-held tradition for nonwhite Canadians for at least a century and a half. (Have you ever confused a shepherd’s pie and a chicken pot pie in front of a white person? You should. It turns into a whole thing.) But I struggle with the fact that so many people are actively devastated about her death. We are sure to enter at least a week of celebrations of her very long life, but…why?
Queen Elizabeth’s death, unlike those of other famous older women, signals almost nothing at all for the day-to-day lives of people around the world; it might mean some changes for how we view the monarchy, but politically, her death is a nonevent. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death meant that Roe v. Wade would certainly be overturned (and boy were we right). Queer activist Urvashi Vaid died earlier this spring, a loss to several civil rights movements, from healthcare justice to anti-war efforts. When activist and writer Barbara Ehrenreich died at the beginning of the month, it meant one fewer voice of reason in the public discourse of socialism, feminism, and community.
Queen Elizabeth’s death, conversely, means nothing other than that she opted not to be cryogenically frozen in order to be brought back during the next fall of civilization so she can take more jewels that never belonged to her or her family in the first place.
Do I sound bitter? I do not care. There’s something uniquely pitiful about mourning a woman who has been running an organization notorious for its genocidal tendencies. In the short time since her death, some people have argued that you can mourn the individual without mourning the empire. This, as far as I, a brown person, am concerned, is impossible, because Queen Elizabeth didn’t just profit from the pillaging and racial evisceration her lineage propagated since the beginning of British civilization; she was an active participant. Ultimately, her entire existence was buoyed by the atrocities of her family’s past; her wealth and influence persisted entirely because of colonialism.
I know it’s nice to rewrite history, to present Queen Elizabeth as a softer member of the monarchy. But it’s not like she wasn’t alive during colonialism guided by British exceptionalism or the political unrest it caused (and continues to cause). People who were children when the British ruled their countries are still alive; it was just under a year ago that Barbados removed her as its head of state. Countries like India and Pakistan continue to wrestle with the economic, geographic, and cultural impacts of British colonialism, while others, like Saint Kitts and Nevis, have only recently gained true independence after centuries of meddling from the royals.
There are many photos and videos of the Queen visiting her former colonies, with locals fawning over her as if her legacy isn’t a part of what hurled their countries into upheaval in the first place. I find that coverage creepy, like photos of a prison warden walking the grounds, the inmates grateful to be in the presence of such disproportionate wealth and ambivalence. Why did she keep coming back to India, to Canada, to Ghana? To remind everyone that she still could, that her reach would always extend to their shores?
Nations impacted by the British Empire struggle to own their histories; they’re simply stopovers in the long march of imperialism. The empire didn’t grow organically. Their riches were stolen in the form of labor from enslaved people, pilfered bijous, and of course, tea. Elizabeth could have given any of the wealth back. She could have cemented herself as the royal who redistributed what was taken. She didn’t, though, and that wasn’t by mistake.
Don’t get me wrong; the Queen was certainly historically significant. The royals have always thought they knew how to run countries better than the native populations did; she followed in these footsteps. She had parties where people showed up wearing blackface brooches. She was a walking, living piece of undeniable history. It’s not like anyone was going to, or will, cancel the Queen; she was too fundamental to England and the Commonwealth. Even Canada is still obsessed with her, and we formally cut ourselves off from the royal teat in the late ’70s. We still have a representative of the monarchy in the federal government! She’s still featured on our comically green $20 bills! No wonder everyone else in the UN makes fun of us.
Yet by the end of her life, the Queen had almost no tangible political power. As colonialism became less popular, her influence waned as well. Are you actually powerful if that power comes only through destruction? What global value do you have if your relevancy is tied entirely to what your family has stolen?
Most of us can agree symbols are important. That doesn’t mean we need to mourn when those historical figures take their last gasps. Swastikas are an indisputable part of European history, but most of us agree we don’t need to keep them around in order to remember the Holocaust. (Another thing white people took from Hindus, but, whatever, one enormous trespass at a time I guess.) You can go to all the Jubilees and celebrate all the sesquicentennials you want (a fun word that the Canadian government made all of us learn in 2017 that has never been useful since), but the British Empire has a long, well-documented history of racist violence. The Queen, ultimately, is a symbol of destruction in the same way she’s a symbol of glamour and wealth and history. That’s an unforgettable reality for most of us, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to celebrate it, either.
And frankly, the empire’s history of racism isn’t even that far back in the past. Even the treatment of Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, within both the family and the firm made it clear the monarchy learned very little. British tabloids are brutal, but they would’ve easily bent at the knee had the Queen told them to stop ritualistically harassing the only nonwhite member of her entire lineage. Instead, she toed the party line. Timid in your 90s? What’s the point?
And yet, celebrities like Liz Phair and Paris Hilton (what??) are out here praising her for being the “original girl boss” icon, for not taking shit from men while, let’s say, British soldiers tortured and killed thousands of Kenyans in the ’50s. We’re only just beginning to understand the abuses coming from the British Empire; documents that were thought to be “lost” but resurfaced in 2011 reveal so much barbarity. While she was alive, the Queen never apologized for these crimes done in her name. As the head of the firm, she never even acknowledged England’s grisly history.
I’ve been visiting family in Canada for the last two weeks, perfect timing to be visiting the Commonwealth. My parents are from India; they’re native Kashmiris, a community still reeling from the effects of Partition. My dad was born three years after the British decided to leave, and as such, the Queen hasn’t exactly been held in high esteem by my family. When my dad found out that she died, he barely reacted — if anyone should care, it should perhaps be an Indian Canadian with a Napoleon complex who likes gilded chairs and unyielding allegiance to a cause. Instead, he grumbled how she should posthumously return the Koh-i-Noor diamond to India. “I know she won’t,” he admitted, resigned, while sucking down some falooda. He’s right — apparently, the diamond will go to Camilla, because I guess the royals want my dad to have a heart attack and for my mom to scream at me for a fortnight about why white women don’t even look good in flashy jewelry in the first place.
If you’re sad about the Queen, no matter your nationality, it requires some deep introspection. What are you sad about? What do you feel like we lost? A piece of history already so thoroughly documented? A reminder of what imperialism looked like back when whiteness, wealth, and European domination were even more pronounced than it currently is? Is it nostalgia for a time when things were easier — for you? The monarchy is defunct, its members are institutionally powerless, and now the Queen is dead. The world is moving on past what the monarchy gave us or, rather, what the monarchy took. Diana’s gone, Meghan’s making podcasts in Palo Alto, and you want me to feel sad that the Queen died? Pass. Save your tears for something that matters. ●
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