jansenreventlow2_Wiktor SzymanowiczFuture Publishing via Getty Images_repaprations Wiktor Szymanowicz/Future Publishing via Getty Images

Righting Imperialism’s Wrongs, Past and Present

As Western countries and institutions come to terms with their colonial histories, they must do more than issue apologies and toothless statements. To create a more equitable society requires addressing colonialism’s present-day effects on marginalized communities.

BERLIN – At long last, European countries have begun to grapple with their colonial legacies. In the Netherlands, the government has issued an apology for the country’s role in the global slave trade, and the king has “asked for forgiveness.” The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has urged Denmark to “address the negative impacts” of its colonization of Greenland. And in the United Kingdom, media outlets, the Church of England, and cities like Manchester have acknowledged the hard truth: their wealth and power were built on the backs of enslaved people.

While these efforts are rightly recognized as historic, they have also been criticized for a lack of consultation with affected communities and an apparent reluctance to provide meaningful reparations. In fact, these statements and apologies often sidestep the question of what reparations should entail, rendering them toothless gestures of pseudo-accountability.

To be sure, the discussions such public apologies spark help raise the public’s awareness about the horrors of colonialism. The conversations they nurture are crucial, and the fact that they are occurring in Europe’s most venerable institutions – royal palaces, museums, centuries-old foundations, businesses, and media conglomerates – is a testament to the relentless efforts of organizers and communities to keep history from being swept under the proverbial rug.