Why I, a young black man from Nigeria, have decided to accept the MBE invitation

The Master's tools may never dismantle the Master's house, but they can change who lives there

Ade Adeyemi
Saturday 10 October 2020 16:05
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Back in 2005, foreigners like me, pledging their allegiance to Queen Elizabeth in the London borough of Redbridge, were rewarded with a fine bone china mug, as well as British citizenship

That old letter confirming our UK permanent residency is just as unforgettable as the recent one recognising me as a Member of the British Empire.  

Some might say, besides a couple of port cities like Lagos and Badagry, my people – Yoruba people of Nigeria – have little institutional memory about the worst of the British Empire. Add to that Operation Legacy (the 1950s Foreign Office programme to destroy colonial documents), and the fact there are organisations twice as old as my country (Fabian Society, 136 years old versus Nigeria, 60); these faint temporal landmarks and the desire not to live through a lens of internalised inferiority mean we're rarely in a state of high moral indignation about such things. 

Whilst there are black Britons more “woke” to the impact of post-colonialism, the issue of historical racial crimes does not universally feature across our families.

Accepting the MBE invite in this current climate felt strange but rejecting it looked impossible. My old man, stereotypical Nigerian by most standards, was confused when I suggested accepting the award was problematic. What is bad about receiving a state honour, he thought? There are quite a few people like him, people who reject the legacy of post-colonialism, their ethnic identity being informed in different ways.  

He does not deny the long history of colonialism and cultural imperialism. To varying degrees, for people like him, it just isn't allowed to manifest in how they see themselves or the world. Which isn't to say anyone openly critical of the history of the empire is one dimensional, it's just its path to mainstream discourse isn't yet clear. And it needs to be. If we are still using the political paradigms of left and right in 2021 and beyond, you would hope the far-leftish views that call for structural abolition would have found a more centrist tone and framing. Perhaps more "clean the stain of unearned privilege", less "fight the power and tear down statues". When ethnic identities and their roles in society are being remade at such a high speed, how fit for purpose are references to the past?

The invitation to be a Member of the British Empire was the nightmare manifestation of a dual identity crisis; a dilemma of my modern metropolitan consciousness exposing the otherness of my African heritage within. A heritage sadly stunted by a primary school teacher advising my unsuspecting parents not to speak Yoruba at home. If my dad was bemused about present links to the empire, he was perplexed about the burden of people who reject the award. In the UK today, do we best advance diversity and inclusion by being part of the old, or creating the new? Focus on anti-racism training for old teachers, or hire “better” new ones? To me, the words “diversity” and “inclusion” now feel like what Orwell would have called "dying metaphors". Words devoid of all evocative power because they save people the trouble of doing anything themselves when they ought to.  

The Master's tools may never dismantle the Master's house, but they can change who lives there. On which note, I'm honoured to now be a Member of the British Empire, making it a slightly more colourful club. Reclaiming the tools that built cultural imperialism, to build something new. We have done it before. When the tools of science and religion were used for racist and violent reasons, decent people successfully fought to reclaim it. Which is why we know and believe all people are born equal. A more recent example is the LGBT+ community reclaiming the definition of what it means to be a “Proud Boy” from the far right, after its mention in the US presidential debate.  

Now with the biggest public health challenge in a generation, work is needed to reclaim the narrative of international solidarity and “global health”. To meaningfully reconsider that years of experience battling previous pandemics mean African states were in the unimaginable position to educate others. To meaningfully reconsider the role of leadership, knowledge, and truth in times of public health emergencies.

For now, in true British fashion, we will dust off the commemorative mug and have a socially distanced cup of tea. Reimagining life as a black foreign Member of the British Empire, shaping a new future.

Ade Adeyemi is a global health policy expert who is receiving an MBE for services to global health leadership

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