Shashi Tharoor, Indian MP and former Under-Secretary General at the United Nations, was one of the speakers in proposition of the motion that Britain owes reparations to her former colonies, at a debate held at the Oxford Union in May. In his speech, Tharoor gave a cogent explanation of how British rule had scarred India, yet went on to say that reparation would merely be a “tool for [Britain] to atone” – to apologise rather than to be providing financial aid. Kaz Tomozawa from Hawaii, who is guest blogging for UYJ today, examines how and why such debts still exist and cannot be ignored by today’s citizens.
“We are not arguing, specifically, that vast sums of money be paid. The proposition before this house is the principal of owing reparations – not the fine points of how much is owed or to whom it should be paid. The question is, ‘Is there a debt?’ Does Britain owe reparations?”
Any member of any country with a colonial, imperial, racist or otherwise troubling history must deal with this question. Is there a responsibility or an onus on the posterity of a colonial (to focus on a specific example) power to reconcile the brutal and intentional impacts of colonization towards a now independent ex-colony? Does the stain of colonization (a subject widely explored by Franz Fanon and other ex-colonial authors) remain in the bloodline of the colonizer as well as the colonized?
The mental effects (inferiority complexes are seen as one of the largest effects of colonization), as well as the socioeconomic effects of colonization (removal of raw materials, destruction of domestic production of finished goods, etc.), on the colonized have been widely explored and are often cited as the reason for reparations to be paid. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Someone takes advantage of you, you expect justice to be served for that. Some people argue against this, claiming that the situation of colonization wasn’t so simple.
Let’s put ourselves in a different perspective and see if we can come to the same conclusion: a country is ruled by an autocratic dictator. The country is far from democratic and extremely impoverished: it lacks the basic infrastructure (such as schools, roads, ports, hospitals, etc.) to make any substantial economic growth happen. The people of this country have no ability to hold their government accountable to their needs – quite simply because the dictator cares little about them. The dictator decides to take out a loan from the IMF or the World Bank and agrees to austerity measures as part and parcel of that loan – a decision made with zero input from the citizens of the country. The dictator places the money in an offshore bank account and runs. The IMF or the World Bank knocks on the doors of the country in question and asks for their money. The people have no money to give because they never saw the money they were given. What do they owe to the IMF or the World Bank?
Many arguments have been made, either for or against, on this topic. I would agree with those who say that the citizens of the country owe nothing because they were not involved in the decision to take the loan. How could anyone hold someone accountable for the irresponsibility and wickedness of someone else? It would be like inheriting your parents’ debt (although there are some situations in which money or other assets, intentionally left in a will, are used first to pay the deceased’s debts), if you were not able to make the decisions that led to your parents’ indebtedness, how can you be held responsible for those consequences?
Some people would extend this line of thought to make the claim that the posterity of colonizers owe nothing to that of the colonized. The extension (and in my opinion, perversion) of this one line of thought is wrong. Why? Because it ignores the legacies of colonization. As quoted in Tharoor’s argument, India’s participation in global trade fell from 27% before British colonizers came, to less than 4% by the time of its independence in 1947. The exploitation of and violence committed against the Indian population by the British is well stated in the video, so I will not repeat it here. What is important to recognize is that it is not only that the colonizers of the British Empire benefited from imperial conquest in India and elsewhere, but also that British citizens today benefit from a more developed economy while Indian citizens have suffered from far more than a stagnated economy (see Tharoor’s India: From Midnight to Millennium and Beyond, specifically, chapters 1, 7 and 10). This defining legacy of colonization calls for continual action towards defeating the injustices of the past.
The same can be said about the legacy of racism in the United States. White people, who may have never held a single racist thought in their minds, benefit from a system of privilege that oppresses Black people, Latinos, and other ethnic minorities which allows white people to escape racial profiling and other disdainful and racist practices. The same can be said about the legacy of sexism throughout the world. Men, who may not actually believe in substantial differences between the two genders and who had no choice in being born male, benefit from a system that represses their female counterparts, granting them access to greater opportunities or even paying them higher than their female coworkers. The same can be said about a whole list of other forms of oppression.
So how do we fix this? The question of who ‘we’ are is valid: is correcting past wrongs the new ‘white man’s burden’ or does reconciliation for historical injustice require a concerted effort made by all of humanity? Tharoor jokes that the sun never set on the British empire because God didn’t want to see what they’d do in the dark, but just because the sun now sets on the remnants of that empire does not mean that we allow the sun to set on a history filled with injustice that extends for more than two centuries. As Tharoor suggests, it is not necessarily the point of the argument to determine how much needs to be paid, but that it is necessary to recognize that the debt exists. Many descendants of colonial powers deny this existence, pointing their fingers to the idea that they, much like the citizens of the undemocratic and impoverished country, had no say in whether the system (that they benefit from) was put in place. They didn’t ask for this to happen, so why should they be held responsible? The problem with this thinking is that 1) it represents the misconceived notion that blame is being placed on the individual, and not the system and 2) complicity doesn’t matter when the benefits of a ‘circumstance of one’s birth’ take the price of someone else’s freedom.
What does the white person owe the black, brown, or yellow? What does the man owe the woman? Primarily, a recognition of systems that create oppression and dehumanization and a separation from the fatalism that leaves us lethargic and defensive in the face of large, systematic inequality. Only once people stop trying to deny their passive participation in these systems and recognize the fact that they benefit from it can we begin to think about what actions we need to take. It makes no sense to talk about righting a wrong when so many refuse to believe a wrong has been committed.
Originally published on the author’s personal blog.