The trouble with celebrating colonialism

Tenaya Alattas had low expectations of college, and even they weren’t met.

For those out of the loop, St Paul’s College recently held a colonial themed ‘British Raj’ party. With male students donning suits and black ties coupled with females in extravagant frocks the stage was set for the recreation of the decadence of British Raj, the heyday of the ol’ British empire.

True to its theme, guests were served by largely sub-continental wait staff. With St Paul’s being representative of an elite institution constituting mainly of beneficiaries of old money (and hence beneficiaries of the expropriation, plunder, and genocide analogous with colonialism) – that this was allowed to happen at all is deeply disturbing (not to mention tacky and offensive).

Initial outrage aside, the intentions behind those who organised and/or designed the theme must be made sense of. Surely an instance of either wilful ignorance (colonialism is a thing of the past) or a case of prejudice (that is an explicit act of racial discrimination) was at fault.

Perhaps, the organisers maybe should have the benefit of the doubt. It might be possible that they thought the British colonialist themed ball was an instance of irony. After all, humour is now a suitable way to frame colonial conquest in a postmodern, post-racial society such as our own.

Yes, British Imperial expansion did leave India poorer and more prone to devastating famine (the famine in Maharashtraand, South India had a death toll of seven million). This may have been caused by destabilising traditional cropping patterns by forced commercial cropping. And although an unfortunate by-product of migration was the outbreak of cholera, influenza, and tuberculosis epidemics, as well as plague… in the spirit of irony let’s push all this aside and figure it okay to recreate the decadence of the ‘glory days’ of British colonialism and make a ball of it. Hilarious.

I think it’s fair to say that this theme implies a celebration of an unacceptable regime. The British Raj oversaw countless atrocities, assumed an immense sense of cultural and racial superiority, the effects of which continue to be felt to this day, and destabilised the autonomous government of India.

Colonialism is not a thing of the past nor is it something to celebrate. Creating a space for the segregation of coloniser and colonised in a contemporary context, that is, in unhinging racism as analogous to notions of structural inequality, historical experiences and anti-racist struggles in a context of irony, gives St Paul’s the unfortunate and unwanted opportunity to parade the rhetoric of race and sexism in a framework that permits an “elite” white student to feel ironically distant from the issues they parody.

Furthermore the response of the colleges has been disappointing if not dire.  With letters from St Paul’s residents unanimously defending the party in all aspects, such a reactionary response has been indicative of a bastion of elitism that has been blinkered in being privy to and founded in extraordinary privilege, as the inheritors of the legacy of the British oppressors. This legacy is not only distressing, but also reinforces a century of racialised power struggle. It does St Paul’s no good whatsoever to plead a petty case of “these facts are incorrect, and we have done nothing wrong” when it does not detract from the fact that the offence still stands, and the outcry is very real and legitimate.

Regardless of the decisions of the individual waiters involved, any engagement with the ‘theme’ of colonialism in such a flippant manner automatically propagates a culture of blatantly conferring benefits on one group, the group holding the party, to the active detriment and discomfort of those bearing the legacy of the oppressed.

If in the worst case scenario this goes unchecked, (even if it has been entrenched over generations), the failure of those currently in power to effectively eradicate it will have the effect of legitimising it further in setting a new precedent and lowering our standards even further. Colonialism is an issue to be understood, not celebrated or made light of.

With Honi Soit editors Bebe D’Souza and Connie Ye.