Submission to The Social Lens: A Social Work Action Blog by Natasha Marriette, SOWK PhD Student
Reactions to Elizabeth II’s death are everywhere. Media outlets highlight the perceived successes of her lengthy reign as a British monarch. She is described as graceful, benevolent, courageous, majestic, steadfast and dignified. She is applauded for reigning during many tumultuous eras and humanized by her love of corgis and Paddington Bear. Entertainers and world leaders (sometimes difficult to tell the difference) post statements honouring her memory. As I drive around the city, I see flags flying at half-mast. Businesses and billboards post accolades to her. So beloved is she that crowds line the streets in the UK, eager for the honour of a look at her lifeless body.
Growing up I never thought much about the British royal family. As I aged, I wavered between a general disinterest to a simmering annoyance at the value placed on what has essentially become a UK tourist attraction. Then I began my social work education, one of the only places I received an honest education on the Western legacy of colonialism. I learned about the racist structures built into Canadian law, and the continued discrimination against Indigenous peoples in Canada. It’s where I began to realize that white privilege did exist, and that white privilege applies to me.
I have had many moments of coming face to face with my white privilege and determining how I would respond as an individual and a profession. It’s been moments in my job as a social worker, when I consider my education goals, and it has occured in conversations with friends and strangers in line at the grocery store. Yet white privilege has never felt so real to me as when Elizabeth II died and I was faced with the choice of continuing work towards being an ally, or participating in the narrative of a gracious monarch.
I credit my social work education with the fact that I expected an immediate dialogue around the dichotomy of a beloved Queen and the history of violence and control that is a part of the British monarchy. Nothing came. Media coverage and official statements focused almost entirely on a seemingly endless positive attributes of Elizabeth II. I had to specifically Google “Elizabeth II colonization” to find anything that spoke about the monarch’s contribution to, maintenance of, and benefit from colonization. Now those of us in the BC public sector are offered a day off with pay to mourn.
I am a social worker in the public sector. My workplace, like many, were caught off guard by the impromptu holiday. After much confusion, leadership went through the office offering us a day off with pay or to work and receive statutory pay. I am beyond confused. Have we not as a society come to a place where, at least in the public eye, colonization is acknowledged as having occurred? And that the effects of colonization are still prevalent, felt throughout the world? Have international leaders not made speeches about working towards reconciliation and righting the wrongs of the past? I have worked, and continue to work, at recognizing my white privilege and working to understand the work I need to do to be an ally and not perpetuate the harm that has and continues to occur. Now I am in a position where I choose how I will continue to benefit from a celebration of colonization.
The sterilized response to the death of Elizabeth II is an embarrassingly blatant moment of white privilege. It perpetuates the idea that whiteness erases all wrongs. As a colleague pointed out, my shock itself is an example of my continued white privilege. I am in a position where I get to be surprised that those in positions of leadership and power choose to ignore the ongoing impact of a colonial reign, to ignore the calls for change, the calls for truth and reconciliation. My white privilege means I look up the legacy of colonization, rather than live it.
Elizabeth II was many things to many people, including a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. I send condolences to those who had a personal relationship and experienced the loss of a family member or friend. However, Elizabeth II was also a very public and influential (white) world leader. Elizabeth II reigned during the continued implementation of the Indian Act, and methods of assimilation such as residential schools and the Sixties Scoop, which continue to have intergenerational impacts on Indigenous people, communities, and land today. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada report Calls for Action called for the Crown to issue a royal proclamation of reconciliation but this never happened. Yet this is not the discussion. Instead, so great was the reign of Elizabeth II that a day of mourning has been ordered, without any acknowledgement of the lives lost to the colonial empire Elizabeth II was Queen of.
It leaves me questioning: Can a “legacy of civility and grace” exist alongside a legacy of oppression?
THE SOCIAL LENS: A SOCIAL WORK ACTION BLOG - The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the original author(s) and do not express the views of the UBC School of Social Work and/or the other contributors to the blog. The blog aims to uphold the School's values and mission.