Skip to content

Column: The sins of empire

Sheelagh Matthews: Best Interest
sheelagh matthews
Sheelagh Matthews/Best Interest

I watch in awe as wave after wave of Black Lives Matter marches sweep the world like a great tide coming in to wash away our sins of empire. And I don’t mean wash away, as in forgive, although that would help with healing.

I mean clean up and never let systemic racism—or any other kind of falsely entitled power-tripping—happen again.

Sure, I’ve had my share of fear-based thoughts and a few scary experiences too, but in truth, they seem like nothing compared to what so many others face daily. After all, as a white female Baby Boomer born and living in Canada, I have been pretty darned fortunate. I do not know what racial discrimination feels like because I have what they call “white privilege.”

Despite its benefits, and there are many, having white privilege to me means walking this world in a state of sin. For white privilege comes with a very dark history. It’s like being born with Original Sin, the sin of Eve eating the apple in the Garden of Eden. Newborn babies have done nothing wrong, yet they are tainted with Eve’s sin on their souls as they enter the world.  So, what is this dark history of white privilege? It’s called “empire,” and it is alive and well today. It’s what drives our economic systems. It shapes our institutions, from policing to education. Indeed, it is the very basis of our white-privileged society.

It’s important to remember where white privilege in North America got its start. In Canada, white privilege is very much associated with what we once knew as the British Empire, where the ruler is a monarch, a king or queen, by virtue of their bloodline.

The British Empire claimed and colonized countries around the world to exploit the animal, plant, and mineral riches of those foreign lands. American white privilege shifted from the British monarchy when the American Revolution ended in 1783. The monarchy elite was then replaced by a different kind of elite class, the wealthy individual. Today, the uber-wealthy elites are referred to as the one per cent. 

Many of this select one per cent are elected to government, or they pull the strings of government, whether ruled by a monarchy or not, via lobbying and funding election campaigns. For the most part, the elites want nothing more than to retain their powerful status quo; particularly, their sense of entitlement, their domination over people, and their ability to make as much money as possible. Government policies can either open or close the doors to monetary accumulation. The one per cent prefer those doors being wide open, not closed, and not even partially closed due to inconveniences like living wages and environmental regulations.

In the Venn diagram of life, if you have enough power and you have enough people (whom, whether through debt, slavery, or illegal immigration you can force to work for you for a pittance or less), you have the potential to acquire incredible wealth.

Since riches equal power in our society, that leaves the rest of us out in the cold. And it seems pretty clear that our white-privileged system is rigged to be harsher with descendants of slaves from Africa, and immigrants of different colours and cultures.

My question is this: Just who gave white people the right to plant a flag on some foreign land and claim it as their own?

Atoning for the sins of empire, then changing our ways so we can peacefully and proudly stand beside each other as equals—no matter what our race—now that’s in our best interest.