Truth and Reconciliation on Race

I wrote this piece for the journal Humanistic Judaism. Volume XLV No. 2 is out now. 

When I was studying for my Ph.D in South African literature, I became fascinated with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). After the end of apartheid there was no feasible way to bring all perpetrators of crimes and violence to justice. Firstly, many of the acts that should have been illegal were sanctioned by state policy. Secondly, there was so much secrecy and such a lack of transparency in government, military, and other institutions that there was no way to find evidence for the numerous crimes committed. And the sheer number of crimes meant that no system could possibly address and redress it all. So instead of trying to foster a model of punishing those responsible, the model became one of peace-building. Rather than pursuing punishment, the TRC’s goal was to pursue truth. If one testified as a “perpetrator,” and sufficiently convinced the tribunal of full disclosure, there was to be no punishment. There was no requirement to show remorse. And, of course, victims could also come forward to tell their stories.

My work focused on women’s testimony (the lack thereof and then, after special encouragements were made for women to speak their own stories, their handling, representation, and impact). But that is a story for another day. Except to say that it fascinated me that this tribunal provided a space for the previously voiceless to have a voice. And a model of restorative justice that, while problematic in many ways for many people, really did bring forth a national narrative of healing. In Canada, we have been undergoing our own process of finding truth and reconciliation with a TRC of our own. Our TRC is focused on First Nations, Metis, and Inuit (FNMI) communities. The treatment of Aboriginal/Indigenous Canadians has been abhorrent. In particular, the history of the residential schools, where thousands of children were taken from their families, mistreated, and robbed of their culture, has never been fully understood or addressed. Up until this day, there are missing and murdered Indigenous women whose disappearances have not been properly investigated. And there are many other examples. My brother is a criminal lawyer who recounts many stories of being shocked by the mistreatment of Aboriginal Canadians in our criminal justice system. And the statistics are clear. Nationally, 1/3 of all prisoners are Aboriginal Canadian. In some areas in Western Canada, that figure is closer to 1/2. It is clear there are systemic and widespread issues that need immediate attention.

There have been many comparisons made between the treatment of FNMI communities in Canada, and the groups classified as “African” under apartheid’s system of classification. Our reservations are a lot like their Bantustans, which are under-funded and lacking in resources. Our institutions, including health care and education, have a history of discrimination and violence towards these populations. Our government has little representation from members of these communities, as South Africa’s government reflected only a tiny minority of the make up of its citizens.

My work in South African literature eventually turned to the Jewish experience. At once part of the “white” majority, which had clear and obvious privilege, but also a targeted minority, on the receiving end of antisemitic violence and discrimination, the double-edged position fascinates me. And in Canada, again, I see similarities. We as Jews are, generally speaking, both a tiny minority still exposed to antisemitism and, simultaneously, part of the privileged race/class groups of our society. Just as I could never understand Jews who could reconcile themselves to living in apartheid South Africa, knowing what we know about oppression, I could never understand anti-Aboriginal racism amongst Jews here. I see it as a Jewish imperative for reasons coming from our history, from our traditions of pursuing tzedakah (justice) and Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), and loving/living with/respecting the “strangers” we live amongst (nevermind that from the Indigenous point of view, we are the stranger!) to understand and honour FNMI peoples.

Aboriginal Canadians are amongst the many groups experiencing systemic racism and discrimination in Canada (and we see parallels in other countries as well). My main realm of understanding how systemic racism works is through the education system. I have taught both secondary and post-secondary classes, and teach at a School of Education and Professional Learning (where we teach new teachers about teaching). In the research on equity and education it is clear that students of minority backgrounds and students of colour experience disproportionate marginalization in classes, have much lower graduation rates, and frequently report experiencing racism (from microaggressions to overt hatred) from students and staff. This reflects my own experience. I recall teaching a high school history class and remarking that the textbook included one or two pages on Aboriginal Canadians, one or two on Black Canadians, and the rest on the history of “Europeans” in Canada. One of my assignments is for students to find topics of interest that are not in the textbook, simply to show that our “history” is selected and curated. Even initiatives such as “Black History Month” make clear that we are not integrating the histories and lived experiences of many of our communities into our curriculum regularly. There is “history.” There is “Black history.” If they are not the same then the former should surely have a racial or cultural marker as does the latter. If one walks down the corridors of the average school, one rarely sees representations of people of colour in powerful roles. High school and University level English literature syllabi have been largely unchanged for decades. In my tenth grade classes we’re still doing Shakespeare and Harper Lee. I love Shakespeare and Harper Lee but it worries me that the majority of students graduate without ever having read a book by a person of colour, and have never had to think about what that means. It wasn’t until I began a PhD in post colonial literature that I read widely in the literatures of Africa, the Caribbean, South Asia and beyond, and began to realize that there was (literally) a world of ideas and dialects and experiences I had never accessed. 

What does any of this have to do with being a Jew? There are the above concerns about Tikkun Olam. We as Humanists have a particular desire to see and value all of humanity equally, so these trends should worry us. But for me, our insider/outsider status in North America of the minority group with social power, of the once stranger who is now largely assimilated, of the original wandering cosmopolitan subject in a world that is increasingly globalized and cosmopolitan, gives us a unique opportunity to build bridges. Our concerns as Jews: exile, diaspora, language, cultural separation and assimilation, nationhood, and belonging, are largely the issues of the other minority groups amongst whom we live. We can talk real about what it means to be different. We can talk real about what it means to be excluded and persecuted. And we can make sure we are never part of a “majority” that silences those experiences. But only if we acknowledge that systemic racism exists, in our schools, in our systems of justice, in our workplaces, and beyond. 

We as Humanistic Jews are in favour of reason and truth over mythology. Much of Canadian and American society has been founded on the idea of “equality.” That we are equal before the law; have equal opportunities in education and employment; and share equally in the resources of our respective nations. And yet, there is overwhelming evidence that suggests that equality remains a dream and not a reality. It can be difficult to acknowledge the fictions and frictions that surround us. But doing so is necessary for us to live full lives as Jews, as Humanists, and as human beings in a very complicated and still very unfair world.