Thursday, 9 December 2010

White Guilt

So I'm British. Worse than that, I'm also White. And Male. I'm not a Christian, but I am a heterosexual. So why is it that I am not ashamed of my culture and heritage? Don't I owe the rest of the world an apology or an admission of guilt?

Well. First of all I'm not one of those new generation of revisionists, that are apologists for the Empire. Truthfully I am not a historian, but I have no doubt that in many instances the British Empire was a brutal and cruel system of oppression. While I can accept in limited circumstances that the Empire may have provided infrastructure and other useful contributions to areas it conquered, I am under no illusion that, this was not necessarily the case in the majority of circumstances and more importantly was not the original motive.

The British Empire, like the French Empire, and the German Empire and Empires from the Middle-East and Africa and any other Empire that has ever existed was formulated out of a desire of a state to increase its power relative to its rivals. States since the very first moment they were formulated have never been peaceful, but have always been involved in a constant struggle to achieve supremacy in the balance of power. The British Empire was preceded by Christian Europe which often fought each other and at times of occasional unity invaded areas outside of Europe. The Middle-East was the same, as was Africa. Any state that gained enough power would not simply increase their power by invading rivals but also by building colonies and Empires. The only thing that is unique amongst the British state and its pursuit of power was that is was more successful than any other state.

There is one other thing which sets it, and all other so-called 'white Empires' apart. They were considerably more moral and humane than any other Empire. There's no politically correct way to say this next sentence so I'll just say it. I often hear minorities in Britain, particularly blacks refer to the practice of slavery within the British Empire as if it is something that modern Britons should both be ashamed of and even apologise for. This implies many things that are fallacious. First of all it implies that the British Empire was unique in taking slaves. This is completely untrue. When Britain went in to Africa to take slaves, it was continuing a practice that was already taking place. So Britain was no different than any other nation, black or white, in that it pursued as much power as possible at the expense of any other nation in its way, and that it used slavery. There is one other thing which sets Britain apart however. It fought to end slavery. Britain was the first nation to make slavery illegal even when many of its rivals were still using the practice and hence benefiting from it, relative to Britain. America as well fought a civil war and many lives were given to stop the practice of slavery.

Slavery as well as war and power politics were (and in some cases still are) stains on all human beings, but the fight to end slavery before anyone else is a compliment that can only be lain at the feet of the British. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a nasty piece of work that often brings up the issue of slavery as a Muslim living in modern day Britain. However, were it possible to trace her exact heritage and my own there is as much chance that her ancestors in the Islamic Empires of the Middle Ages took part in slavery before the British ever did, as there is that my own ancestors did themselves at some point. The same is true of anyone with a heritage from the African continent.

Another myth of the British Empire is that its benefits were equally shared out amongst those native to the British isles. Wealth and all of the other benefits of Empire were held very highly up amongst the privileged and elite in society, and the lowest classes of Britain lived in appalling circumstances. It is certainly true that they lived in better circumstances than many other parts of the world, but this had nothing to do with slavery or the Empire which the working class themselves had to go out and fight and give their lives for without seeing the benefits of it. The majority of those descended from within Britain at this time, lived in squalid, unhygienic and desperately poor circumstances. A working class white family in 1950s London living below the poverty line has about as much the thank the British Empire for as the Afro-Caribbean family that has moved in next door. In a recent debate Mrs Brown referred to the white members of the audience enjoying those benefits of Empire as if separate to her. This is a complete lie, she benefits from every aspect of infrastructure, wealth and economy in this country just like any one else and as a journalist she enjoys far more benefits and luxuries than most of the white working class will ever be able to dream of.

It is certainly true that slavery was not just a policy of power politics, but many revolting ideologies were created that justified the use of slavery irrespective of economic benefits. The churches preached that Blacks did not possess souls, and scientists, that Black people were 'sub-human'. These same tribal instincts and disdain for the 'other' could be found in every other part of the world. Again, it was only in the West where advances in science and a philosophy of human rights were nurtured that such views began to be over-turned. Again, the West is not unique in having racist and other views hostile to outsiders, but it is unique in bringing an end to those views endogenously and voluntarily.

I believe an individual has to earn credit, not demand it. If the hypothetical heritage test between myself and Mrs Brown took place, and it turned out that my ancestors had fought against slavery in the American Civil War for instance before moving to Britain, and that Yasmin's ancestors had practised slavery for generations without reprieve it would not change my opinion of Yasmin one iota. She is to be judged on her actions and what she can do, as am I. Were I to judge myself on the deeds of those who had come before me however, I cannot think of any part of the world with a better record in every conceivable realm of progress than where I have come from, and that is still true to this day.

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