‘White Guilt’ doesn’t help us address a history of injustice  

‘White guilt’ has been one, albeit common, way ‘white people’ within some classes in the UK have responded to the troubled history of British Empire. White guilt works on the notion that white people in UK have benefited, or are still benefiting, from the legacies of slavery and empire. Whilst much wealth has been derived from British Empire, the idea of white guilt amongst some influential middle-classes in the country who seemingly feel remorseful only stifles constructive debate and holds us back from coming to terms with Britain’s role in the world, both past and present.

Black Lives Matter is about justice for disenfranchised black people in the US. It is a political movement galvanising widespread support against gross human right abuses and historical violations visited on a group of people based on the colour of their skin. The movement has taken traction in the UK for similar reasons associated with institutional racism and lingering injustice felt by many. Its popularity in the UK is an indication that this country has yet to properly address in any meaningful way its past.

White guilt and a sentiment of remorse has been a common response to the notion that this country engaged in barbaric and systematic exploitation of whole-group populations. A growing manifestation of white guilt is that Black Lives Matter is fast becoming a brand, diluted in meaning and purpose. In the UK, the movement in many parts of the country is being used as a way of expressing solidarity, even if it mostly selective and done to project an image or label of care. Many promote this sense of selective guilt, a form of virtue-signaling, about black disentrancement and Britain’s role yet continue to espouse racism against other people, most glaringly against Muslims and Arabs and many, many others. This selective guilt and the actions it gives rise to are far from calls for justice associated with the thorough transformation of our cultural, educational and political institutions.

The idea that a group of people should feel guilty about slavery is tantamount to selective amnesia, or in other words, selective solidarity. It is not justice nor does it help us seek it. Indeed, it is worrying when the history of slavery is denounced as a moment of Empire yet other instances of imperial conquer, including what the British Empire did in India and more recently in the Iraq War, is seen as an aberration or instance of blunder and mistake. Slavery, the Iraq War, and a lingering sense of basking in the glories of British Empire today are all closely connected.

Whilst in today’s memory of things this exploitation may have started with slavery, we have to acknowledge it simply didn’t end then, and that the Iraq War was the most recent continuation of British Empire. Only an espousal of revitalized justice – crafted to action and relevancy for today’s world, and pertaining to all who have suffered, can help Britain move forward.

That sense of white guilt, of course, doesn’t work across society in the same way. It operates mostly within white, liberal middle-classes who are more prone to this sense of selective guilt and solidarity based on specific sense of morality.

Other groups and classes in British society, namely lower socio-economic white classes display anger that their historical references and symbolism are being erased and their position in society, even if they themselves enslaved to Britain’s ultra-capitalism, is being threatened.

In the UK’s rigid class system, conversations between classes is not common. In many cases, lower classes are looked down at. As seen from recent protests in the UK, we simply cannot label large parts of the UK as regressive, racists or fascists if indeed symbols that have represented the UK been there for more than the duration of their lifetimes and that our education system continues to champion the British Empire and the promote it as a force for good in the world. Condemnation, or labelling of groups as facists or racists, whilst at times being an immediate response, does much more harm than good.

Unlike the issues raised by historical slavery, for the UK it may be for many too soon to talk about the legacies of the British Occupation of Iraq. But it shouldn’t be. Its long 100-year history of colonialising and interfering in the country exposes the UK’s role in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Australia, to name just a few other countries and regions affected by British Empire.

Black Lives Matter makes us all question our histories and the countries we live in and it should continue to do so for all of us, wherever we are. This is only the beginning, and our calls for a different Britain, one that recognises its past, may lead us to a better society. But we need these debates and discussions now, not later.

Talking about slavery and British Empire’s past actions in places like the Middle East leads us to question the UK’s role in the world. Debates about British slavery, empire and a long history of interference and meddling in other countries bring otherwise disconnected policies, old and new, into thinking about the type of society Britain should be.

What does it mean to be British today and what role can the UK assume to bring about a more peaceful world. These are the type of discussions we need to have, and white guilt as a response  only serves to delay or obfuscate national discussion about issues of justice and basic human rights.

These are difficult times and there will be more difficult questions to address. What we choose to represent Britain should be an ongoing project made on informed debate and recognition that Britain’s history and its role in the world today are indelibly connected.

Painting the world in black and white only fuels the flame of anger and hatred. How we make sense of the past, what type of future we would like to see, starts by moving beyond the notion of white guilt as a response to the issues raised by Black Lives Matter and other global movements and the need to address basic human rights.






About Mehiyar

Dr Mehiyar Kathem is a researcher at University College London (UCL). Mehiyar completed a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) where he researched peacebuilding interventions and the formation of Iraq’s domestic NGO sector after the 2003 War. During this research, he looked at the gradual evolution of Iraq from totalitarian dictatorship through the country’s emerging domestic organisations. His research interests include statebuilding, civil society peacebuilding and the ways in which development, politics and money interact at a local level. In 2012 and 2013, Mehiyar conducted field research in Iraq for his PhD programme, spending a year meeting with and interviewing domestic NGO actors, political parties, government officials and international donors. Previously, Mehiyar worked on a number of grassroots programmes geared to build the capacity of civil society organisations and continues to advise international donors on the effective design and delivery of projects in Iraq. He tweets at @mehiyar

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