Rinaldo Walcott

As it became both popular and influential, the political idea of human rights acquired a particular historical trajectory. However, the official genealogy it has been given is extremely narrow. The story of its progressive development is often told ritualistically as a kind of ethnohistory. It forms part of a larger account: the story of the moral and legal ascent of Europe and its civilisational offshoots. Blood-saturated histories of colonisation and conquest are rarely allowed to disrupt that triumphalist tale.1
Redress, from this position, becomes a public responsibility that looks forward to a healing of the democratic system—and, by implication, of the nation. By situating violated “citizens” inside the nation, the brief portrayed Japanese Canadians not as “victims” but, more significantly, as the agents of change.2
The politics of identity?… [in] the 1970s brought an unprecedented paradox into their lives?… From being social pariahs in the 1940s, “Japanese Canadians” were now reborn as model “citizens,” whose rapid upward social mobility in the aftermath of the mass uprooting demonstrated their loyalty to the nation.3

What does a critical post-colonial commentary on human rights look like? What does such a commentary in the colonial settler nation-state of Canada look like? And, indeed, what kind or kinds of humans are at its centre? This essay proposes that the dominant mode for thinking about human rights as a significant feature of contemporary life has now been popularly and even intellectually reproduced primarily as a consequence of the Second World War. Thus, the 1945 Universal Declaration of Human Rights4 is widely understood to follow in the wake of the tragedies of war and ethnic cleansing in mid-twentieth century Europe. However, I want to propose that the context of nation-state apologies to the Indigenous people of Turtle Island (hereafter Canada) and the desire for reconciliation reference a much longer history of struggles for human rights that are simultaneously the foundation of the 1945 Universal Declaration of Human Rights5 and the evidence of a vicious modernity that cemented European conceptions of Man as if it was indeed the only way to conceive of being human in the world. The impetus of my argument is to point to the ambiguity of the practice of apologies and its resultant politics of reconciliation. My claim is that reconciliation requires a wholesale rethinking of the contemporary stakes of human life for the last 500-plus years.

Susan Buck-Morss has written that the understanding of Western modernity is always problematically formulated if questions of transatlantic slavery are excluded from it.6 One might amend her insights to add Indigenous colonization, attempted genocide, and, in some cases, genocide. Drawing on the case of Haiti, Buck-Morss demonstrates and argues that Western political philosophy failed to implicate slave labour in the colonies and indigenous colonization at the exact same time as the Enlightenment discourse of freedom as “the highest and universal political value”7 was being produced by Enlightenment thinkers. She asked how such a blind spot was possible? And, further still, how is it that such a blind spot continues to be perpetuated today? What Buck-Morss’s questions reveal is that the afterlife of European colonization has as its backbone or foundation the colonization of the Americas, with its near-genocide and genocide and its enslavement of Africans as both its material and intellectual inheritance. Buck-Morss’s claims pose a significant problem for how the politics of reconciliation is understood and practised in late-modern Canada, which must be understood in light of its embedded history in the colonization of the Americas, European global expansion, and the ways in which the ideas of coloniality continue to shape its governing and ordering of geo-political space, people, and institutions.

To fully appreciate the problematics of Buck-Morss’s insights I turn to the Caribbean philosopher, or rather philosopher of the Americas, Sylvia Wynter, to delineate the ways in which European inventions of Man ordered the world and set up the terms of being human for which nation-state apologies are a tactical acknowledgement of having done wrong and, at the same time, are premised upon the perpetuation of European genres of the human invented in their attempt to rule the globe from a perspective that is entirely within their conception of what the globe and being human means.8 Wynter has consistently attempted to make sense of the invention of the Americas or the New World as a problematic of our contemporary global humanity. In an intellectual project that seeks to make sense of how a post-Columbus globe is re-shaped on the terms of shifting European consciousness, Wynter details a religio–secular–politico–cultural complex, crossing a range of intellectual fields, which articulates how the White, the Red, and the Black as types or genres come to be. She maps how Europe’s ideas move from supernatural to religious to secular and how the secular comes to be constituted and lodged in discourses of the political and the cultural. Those discourses of the political and cultural also come to mark the governing logics of “races” and peoples, all of them fundamentally invented on Europe’s terms and simultaneously in resistance to Europe’s reign. These genres of Man’s human others—in this case the Red and the Black—are the infra-humans of which contemporary apologies are meant to signal their pathway into the ranks of Man. Wynter argues that these categories or types of man were invented in the moment of a hybrid European colonial domination that produced “the indio/negro complex” which was later transformed in a degodded Europe to “the nigger/native complex.”9 Wynter suggests that such designations point to how Europe’s conception of Man, which “overrepresents itself as if it were the human itself,”10 is one of the most difficult material and conceptual political, cultural, and philosophical issues facing us today. The end of formal colonialism does not produce any relief from European dominance of what being human might mean and be. Wynter tests her claims in the region of the Caribbean, which has been also the site of Europe’s laboratory for its encounters with its invented genres of Man’s human others and, in particular, its encounters with the question of freedom and unfreedom as Buck-Morss so skillfully points out concerning Hegel and Haiti, the former having theorized his master/slave dialectic at exactly the same time that the Haitian revolution was headline news in Europe’s papers and cafés.

If we take Wynter and Buck-Morss seriously, the question of what constitutes European modernity is a complicated story of genocide, slavery, ecocide, and, most strikingly, the production of a new world not just for those colonized and enslaved but for those engaged in the project of expansion as well. The New World moniker is not a sentimental or history-denying term, but it does reference the brutal realities of life in the Americas as the bedrock of European modernity and its satellite campuses like Canada. The Enlightenment’s naming and ordering of peoples, places, and things has bequeathed to us those namings and orders as the very terms through which it might be challenged. The Haitian revolution of 1791 took up liberty as its central rallying cry from the same French Revolution that sought to crush it. In our time we have become Black and Aboriginal, among other names we have been forced to take on, and internalized them out of the very cartographies of Europe’s global expansion since the fifteenth century. It is indeed these names that only partially make sense in the logics of, and appeals to, the invented genres of European Man that apologies are meant to assuage. The question we are often faced with is: how are we to make other conceptions of being human and of traversing the globe appear? What intellectual, political, and cultural—not to mention economical—space do different conceptions of human life have to offer our present globalized, networked humanity? In my view the politics of reconciliation throws these questions up without offering answers. The politics of reconciliation ask us to come into the apology as the people Europe invented, not as people we once were. And one cannot be romantic about a past, given that how history has intervened to be a part of the conversation often means one must in some way work with Europe’s violently profound re-ordering of the globe and the peoples within. Thus, one is often left asking: what is being reconciled, with whom, and to what?

Reconciliation suggests a past action. It suggests that some wrongdoing has been done for which the possibility of forgiveness is an act of coming together again. Reconciliation suggests a significant rupture of some kind has occurred. Above I have suggested that European colonial expansion from the fifteenth century onwards produced a rupture in the Americas, which in part produced the settler colonial nation-state of Canada, which also produced new states of/for being indigenous peoples and belatedly African peoples. Those kinds of collective namings—Indigenous, African, Indian, Asian, and even European—are the cataloguing evidence of the historical rupture for which European Man comes to overrepresent itself as if it was indeed Man. As Paul Gilroy suggests, the “[b]lood–saturated histories of colonisation and conquest are rarely allowed to disrupt that triumphalist tale,”11 and one that apologies and the politics of reconciliation attempt to make invisible in the contemporary moment. Thus reconciliation also suggests a certain kind of suturing is possible in the aftermath of the brutalities that makes it a necessary response in the first place. But what reconciliation does not appear to do is dismantle the institutional basis of the present arrangements of human life. Reconciliation does not ask us to rethink where we are; it asks us to accept the present as an accumulation of injuries for which apologies must suffice as the entry into the flawed ecocidal, genocidal, anti-human, late-modern world still premised on Europe’s partial conception of the human as the only option for being human in this world. Reconciliation might provide us a view towards new and, or more, hopeful human relations, but it does not allow us to seriously grapple with the brutalities that have brought us together in these new geo-political zones and their multiple disadvantaged relations of Europe’s invented Others. In short, reconciliation does not absolve histories and practices of brutality.

For the immigrant population coming out of the Caribbean who, under the rules of European modernity, had to make themselves “not native to the place we were in,”12 and whose histories of enslavement and colonization entangle in complexly creative and maddening ways with Indigenous cultures of the Americas, the nation-state of Canada’s and European imperial powers’—past and present—apologies and reconciliation mark the perversity and viciousness of modernity and its incomplete promise of human liberation.

For the former slave, indenture, and the hybrids of all sorts in the “archipelagoes” of poverty,13 the struggle to be human is one conditioned by the terms upon which European discourses could both be internalized and turned upside down to produce them as subjects worthy of being considered Man, if only tangentially so. The struggle against Atlantic slavery, especially in imperial Britain, is now understood as the first actual global human rights struggle. The brutalities of African slavery and Indigenous resistance to life-altering colonial expansion are indeed the bedrock of what is now a neutered human rights discourse emptied out of ideas that sought to fundamentally and radically rethink what human life might mean.

It is my contention then that the politics of reconciliation only matter to the extent that such practices tell the alternate and much more disturbing story of global capitalism’s apparent triumph and, concurrently, the attempts to resist it and undo its impacts in the past, present, and future. What is at stake is an exercise that tells the tale of the cost of European expansion as one which is bigger and more brutal than the myth of Europe’s conception of the world being the only valid idea of human life and a brutal practice and logic that must continually repress ideas of living differently in many pre-contact cultures that remain with us still. I have written elsewhere that Black/African diaspora discourses, or the stories of those not fully human in Europe’s terms, matter because such discourses are the B-side to the celebratory narratives of globalization (especially in the academy) now offered as the triumph of Europe’s vision of a global humanity.14 In this view, the brutality that narratives of the black diaspora offer temper and provide other indices of globalization’s history and its impact, as well as its present so that modernity’s vicious charms may be unmasked and its consequences laid bare. Black/African diaspora narratives then are about the historical unfolding of Europe’s run at global domination, but they are also about the continuous refusal of that domination by various global forces since its inception. Significantly, Black/African diaspora narratives are also about the making of meaningful lives within the context of Euro–Western Enlightenment and modernity—both as products of it and crucially as re-signifiers, inventors, and originators of what can only be described as discrepant modernities for those who have borne the brunt of Europe’s expansionist practices.15 In essence, it might be argued that those produced in the crucible of the New World are truly the modern people—that would be Natives/Negros. What I am trying to stress is that the Atlantic region, with its history of territorial theft, transatlantic slavery, and genocide, is the incubator of a set of conditions that we have inherited as a global situation organized on the basis of Euro–Western traditions of thought and the human, and from which we must figure out how to extricate ourselves because it is only a partial story of human existence. A sober conversation about what that extrication means will account for political economy, cultural borrowing, sharing, mixing, and its outcomes and impacts—contradictory and otherwise—and our entangled histories of power, knowledge, and land. I am not sure that apologies and the language of reconciliation takes us there, but as a Western and modern subject I am also not prepared to throw it away just yet either. This is the ambivalence that I signalled above.

One of the central claims of European Enlightenment and modernity was to make a better human, but such desires were premised on making some not human; and then only admitting them into humanity, sometimes partially so, based solely on models from Europe’s perspectives after significant and massive resistance to Europe’s domination. Grappling with such a history would prove useful and powerful as a central aspect of the politics of reconciliation because it is in fact the various ways in which deployments of Western conceptions of the human function that continue to be the basis from which desires for reconciliation are meant to rescue us collectively. Reconciliation is conceived as a practice of forgetting when the violences unleashed by the need for reconciliation remain all around us still. In the case of the “new world” for Indigenous and Blacks, specifically, reconciliation can only be but a beginning towards a much more profound and challenging discussion and towards a potentially new institutionality of what it means to be human that rests upon the multiple perspectives of humanness in which European concepts are but one among many others. Reconciliation might then be partly understood as an element of the process of beginning to recognize the Americas as a zone of creolization where land, violence, and history conspire to produce new modes of being human. Reconciliation is but a beginning or opening; as yet unimagined transformation is the desired outcome.


Rinaldo Walcott is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and the Women’s and Gender Studies Institute, both of the University of Toronto. His teaching and research is in the area of black diaspora cultural studies and post-colonial studies with an emphasis on questions of sexuality, gender, nation, citizenship, and multiculturalism. From 2002 to 2007 Rinaldo held the Canada Research Chair of Social Justice and Cultural Studies where his research was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, and the Ontario Innovation Trust. Rinaldo is the author of Black Like Who?: Writing Black Canada (Insomniac Press, 1997, with a second revised edition in 2003); he is also the editor of Rude: Contemporary Black Canadian Cultural Criticism (Insomniac Press, 2000). These two editions are credited with opening up the question of black Canadian studies beyond the field of history. As well, he is the co-editor with Roy Moodley of Counselling Across and Beyond Cultures: Exploring the Work of Clemment Vontress in Clinical Practice (University of Toronto Press, 2010). Currently, Rinaldo is completing Black Diaspora Faggotry: Readings Frames Limits, which is under contract to Duke University Press. Additionally, he is co-editing with Dina Georgis and Katherine McKittrick No Language Is Neutral: Essays on Dionne Brand forthcoming from Wilfrid Laurier University Press. As an interdisciplinary black studies scholar, Rinaldo has published in a wide range of venues. His articles have appeared in journals and books, as well as popular venues like newspapers and magazines. As well, he has appeared on television and radio to discuss issues of relevance to black Canadian and queer life.

  1. Gilroy, Paul (2010:55). Darker Than Blue: On The Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture. Cambridge, MA: Belnap Press of Harvard University Press.
  2. Miki, Roy (2004:234). Redress: Inside The Japanese Canadian Call for Justice. Vancouver, BC: Raincoast Books.
  3. Miki (2004:310).
  4. United Nations (1948). Declaration of Human Rights, G.A. res. 217A (III), U.N. Doc A/810 at 71. Retrieved 2 November 2010 from: http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml
  5. United Nations (1948).
  6. Buck-Morss, Susan (2000). Hegel and Haiti. Critical Inquiry 26(4):821–865.
  7. Buck-Morss (2000:821).
  8. Wynter, Sylvia (2003). Unsettling the coloniality of being/power/truth/freedom: Towards the human, after man, its overrepresentation—An argument. CR: The New Centennial Review 3(3):257–337.
  9. Wynter, Sylvia (1995). The Pope must have been drunk, the King of Castile a madman: Culture as actuality, and the Caribbean rethinking modernity. In A. Ruprecht and C. Taiana (eds.). The Reordering of Culture: Latin America, The Caribbean and Canada, In the Hood. Ottawa, ON: Carleton University Press: 17–41.
  10. Wynter (2003:260).
  11. Gilroy (2010:55).
  12. Kincaid, Jamaica (1996:29). The flowers of empire (Significance of Botanical Gardens to One Woman). (Excerpt of speech by Jamaica Kincaid.) Harper’s Magazine (April):28–31.
  13. Wynter, Sylvia (1992). Rethinking ‘aesthetics’: Notes towards a deciphering practice. In M. Cham (ed.). Ex-Iles: Essays on Caribbean Cinema. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press: 237–279.
  14. Walcott, Rinaldo (2006). Salted cod… : Black Canada and diaspora sensibilities. In Reading the Image: Poetics of the Black Diaspora. Chatham, ON: Thames Art Gallery.
  15. I am using the term “Euro–Western” to signal the ethno-centred organization of what we have come to call the West. It is a term meant not only to signal Europe but also those satellite settler colonies like the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand who understand themselves to be Euro–Western in founding and organization. However, as much of my argument suggests or implies, the West itself is now so complicated that it would be a conceptual problem to take “new world” black people out of it. Thus, the term Euro–Western works to anchor the particular discourses that I am addressing here to a Europe, at a certain historical moment, understood itself as mono-ethnic insofar as its expansionist project was concerned.