After almost two months, the premier of South Africa’s Western Cape finally apologized for a set of tweets alluding to positive aspects of colonialism.
These sentiments would ring familiar to many Canadians as the two nations share a common history of pass laws and legalized racial separations. Canadian policy served as a guide for the architects of apartheid. Moreover, the arrogance and narcissism demonstrated by the delayed apology is reflective of a malady that is very much alive in both countries, settler amnesia.
Premier Zille’s tweets sanitized the violence of colonial dispossession by employing a progressive or linear understanding of history. Colonialism brought innovative technology thus justifying the horrors of the colonial project. This worldview lacks imagination for the past and present. Such perspectives not only hide the shared horrors of the past but also the contributions of Indigenous and African people.
Zille’s delayed apology demonstrates an intransigence, a refusal to hear out other worldviews or experiences. In Canada, denial persists even after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. One does not have to look very far. In the reaches of high-level government power, we have a Senator who recently felt the need to highlight the “good deeds” of the residential school system, while others feel the need to defend residential schools as providing comparable or better treatment for Indigenous students than for those not in the schools.
Denialism comes in many forms
Similarly, we have all heard calls that the past is the past and so Indigenous folks ought to simply get over it — it* being the horrors of dispossession, residential schools and the ongoing violence of the settler state. All of these narratives simply accept the inevitability and permanence of the Canadian state as well as the dispossession of Indigenous communities.
This inability to accept the immoralities undergirding our nation’s very existence shields us from accepting the emotional and tangible responsibility required to build a truly inclusive society. It also enables settler society to continue to set the national agenda.
Another seemingly innocent form of denialism came to the forefront during the recent so-called appropriation prize scandal. Following criticism of Hal Niedzviecki’s proposal for a prize, and his resignation as editor of the magazine that published it, individuals from leading media outlets pledged to support the prize under the auspices of free speech. While Niedzviecki and his supporters ought to have the right to suggest (and even offer) such a prize, the rhetoric in defense of the prize wreaked of an arrogance and narcissism; complaints of racism and insensitivity were belittled by a community accustomed to being right, to setting common norms.
The lessons from this episode are two-fold. First, settler-hood conditions us to sideline competing opinions as we are used to occupying the center. Second, as Eusebius McKaiser recently argued, complaints of racism, like sexism, ought to be acknowledged at face value. Outside of the courts, legal standards need not apply to such grievances due to the pervasive nature of racism and misogyny in our society.
This common amnesia and refusal to come to term with our nations’ colonial pasts is actually an implicit admission. Deep down, settler communities know that, to put it mildly, something is not kosher. As settlers we must come to terms with our own historical and contemporary dominance, or privilege we enjoy in society. We have two options: we can follow a path of honest engagement, introspection and consequential action guided by humility or we can further try to sweep the very-much-alive past under the carpet through nausea-inducing revisionism.
The first option is one of expanded community and dialogue, requiring patience, the valuation of the pain and experiences of others, and an understanding that not everything needs to revolve around settler-hood. Fundamentally, this is a path to maturity, to adulthood. The second route is one of stubbornness, an unwillingness to accept alternatives, an inability to pause and listen, and a fundamental aversion and incapacity to adapt to a meaningfully transformative society.
As Canada 150 approaches, it’s high-time settler society pursues a coming-of-age.