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Local business seeks inspiration from British colonial empire

Barfly's new restaurant concept, Waldron Public House, will feature cuisine inspired by cultures colonised by the British Empire.
Barfly's restaurant, McFadden's

Barfly's restaurant, McFadden's /Elizabeth Rogers Drouillard

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BarFly Ventures has enjoyed tremendous successes in the Grand Rapids community. Downtown staples like Stella’s, Hopcat and GRBC are wildly popular destinations for Grand Rapidians and out-of-towners alike. Mark Sellers, the owner of BarFly, has recently announced plans to close McFadden’s, the Irish pub on Ionia Ave, and replace it with another restaurant called the Waldron Public House – a plan that Sellers admits was conceived to generate more revenue from food, BarFly’s biggest source of profit.

In an article published by MLive, Sellers says that the Public House will feature “homemade cuisine inspired by the diverse cultures of the British Commonwealth,” and goes on to remind us that “the British Commonwealth at one point in time included South Africa, Egypt, India, Australia, Barbados and many more...”

A basic understanding of the history of imperialism will tell you that this is not a good idea, nor an appropriate one. The term “British Commonwealth” is relatively recent, bred in 1949 when India sought independence from Britain’s colonial rule. Before the Commonwealth, these territories were known simply as the Colonial Empire – not nearly as attractive of a term.

This intentional softening of language, hardly rooted in historical reasoning, is troubling. Saying “the commonwealth at one point included…” is just not accurate – it was not the commonwealth when these territories were included, it was the empire.

The influence of the Colonial Empire was, and is, inescapable for people that are living in or that are from colonized places. People in these colonized territories were frequently forced into slavery, forced to abandon their sacred religions and traditions. More often than not this was done through violence, manipulation and abuse. Even today the effects of colonialism are largely, if not exclusively, responsible for economic, social and political turmoil in formerly colonized nations.

In the U.S. we see racism and prejudice still present from the lasting effects of colonialism. When we begin to associate imperialism, colonialism and oppression with celebration and inspiration, we begin to erode important parts of history and ignore the violence of our past. The British Colonial Empire (“Commonwealth”) was responsible for the destruction of cultures and for the death of countless native people – and this history, we are told, is supposed to be inspiring.

This is not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with the appreciation and celebration of global cultures and global food. Grand Rapids has excellent non-white food options (with non-white owners) in the community. We are spoiled with excellent Mexican food, Asian groceries and Indian cuisine. Supporting these places is a great way to encourage and embrace diversity and culture in our community. The key element of properly celebrating and encouraging diversity here is in recognizing who you are really supporting – is it someone who experiences the effects of this culture first hand? Or is it someone attempting to appropriate a culture that does not belong to them for financial benefit? We see the latter happen far too often here in ever-gentrifying Grand Rapids, and it is not doing us any good.

Reminiscent of the “oriental” trends of the twenties, this attempt at uniqueness and exoticism by Sellers and his team is, at best, misguided. By clumping these cultures together under the umbrella of the “British Commonwealth,” Sellers is erasing the individual histories and struggles of these cultures. To call these cultures British, to suggest that they ever belonged to Britain, is harmful, problematic and certainly offensive. This is not a celebration of diversity. This is an attempt to profit off of centuries of imperial violence.

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