An Indian politician says Britain owes reparations to its colonies, and his message is going viral.

While we can't change history, it's important that we acknowledge the facts of our colonialist pasts.

In the United States, independence from Britain is a distant memory that we celebrate with burgers and a beer. But in India, the wounds of colonialism are more recent — and more raw.

By the early 20th century, the United Kingdom ruled over one-fourth of the world. Most of those countries didn't gain independence until after World War II, a detail that tends to be overlooked in U.S. history books. And if you think European colonists in America had good reason to rebel against British rule, India definitely did.

Think of India like a big ol' apartment building. The Indian people have been living there for a while — centuries, even — before a new, oppressive, absentee landlord (*cough* Britain *cough*) came along and continually upped the rent while refusing to fix the toilet. Or the mouse problem. And by "toilet" and "mouse problems," I mean introduced violence, slavery/indentured servitude, and the destruction and theft of language and culture, all for profit.


And on top of that, the same terrible landlord didn't even give your security deposit back. I think you'd have a right to be upset. And that's sort of — in a very general, metaphorical way — how some Indians feel about the era of British colonialism.

GIF from the greatest speech ever written in the history of American cinema ("Independence Day")

There are people like Shashi Tharoor who believe that Britain should repay India and other former colonies for centuries of oppression.

Tharoor is an author, politician, and member of the Indian parliament who boasts such an impressive resume that I can hardly even begin to summarize it here. With more than 3 million followers on Twitter, he's also a bit of an academic celebrity.

In May 2015, Tharoor gave a speech that has reached millions of people — proving that his message has an audience.

The speech, which went viral on YouTube and Facebook, took place during a debate on reparations, just one in an ongoing series hosted by the Oxford Union, a prestigious society at the Oxford University.

Tharoor was the seventh out of eight speakers that night, and he totally brought the house down. Here are just a few of the highlights that made it such a hit:


All GIFs via Oxford Union.

Tharoor's speech not only shut down the opposition, but it also reinvigorated the conversation around colonialism and reparations.

At the end of the debate, members of the Oxford Union voted for the more convincing argument. Thanks in no small part to Tharoor's passionate exhortation, the proponents of British reparations won the debate by a tally of 185 to 56.

The speech played well on the Internet, where the message resonated with younger Indians, a sign that the scars of colonialism don't fade away so easily.

There are people who subscribe to the belief that once something stops, it's over and done with. But anyone who was ever bullied or hurt by a close friend or relative will tell you otherwise. Now apply that same psychological scarring to a national identity, and make it last for centuries. You get the picture.

The historical impact of colonial oppression is still felt all across the world — from India to Africa, Asia and the Americas.

Even today, Britain retains a strong presence in India. And India isn't the only country that has struggled with the consequences of colonialism. Nor is the United Kingdom the only country that has systematically oppressed a group of people.

Tharoor's arguments against the benefits of "enlightened despotism" can easily be applied to America's treatment of black Americans and Native Americans. Like the minority outreach panel in 2013 where a participant defended slavery as altruism for giving food and shelter to black people, or literally any reference to Native Americans as being savage or uncivilized before they encountered Europeans.

Here we are, more than a century since the end of an "official" oppression against either group — and yet they still suffer from the effects of colonialism in ways both subtle and obvious (take a look at what's happening with Native Americans right now).

It's not just people of color, either. Speaking as an Irish American, I can point to the experience of my own ancestors, who were driven to migration by Britain's genocidal negligence in the face of the Great Hunger. And while I'm certainly grateful to have been born in this country, I'm also aware of how my name has been Anglicized thanks to Britain's campaign to replace the Irish language with English.

While we can't change history, it's important that we acknowledge the facts of our colonialist pasts — lest we are forced to repeat them.

It's not about the monetary amount Britain should pay in reparations, says Tharoor, "but the principle of atonement." And judging by the success of his speech, it seems this a sentiment shared by many people — in India and elsewhere.

The world is full of shameful histories, but the people in power are the only ones served by not talking about it. Even if Tharoor's speech doesn't lead to any direct reparations (which, unfortunately, is the likely outcome), it's a good reminder that the harmful effects of power and oppression don't just disappear over time, and that the moral fiber of the majority is still swayed toward justice.

Watch Tharoor's full speech below (the whole thing is pretty great):

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

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Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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