Home Perspectives Opinions Shternshis: Addressing racism here at home

Shternshis: Addressing racism here at home


My University of Toronto students and I often discuss what it is like living as an ethnic or racial minority in Canada.

Consider, for example, a rite of passage in many families: the dreaded “race” talk, during which parents of black children explain what to say (and what not to say) if stopped by a police officer on the street, often for no apparent reason. Parents warn their kids not to wear hoodies and not to look down when they walk.

Or, imagine if you are randomly approached by a “friendly person” from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service with a request to help with a delicate problem that might require your expertise. What are the risks if you say no?

If you are a visible minority, then they are considerable, to such an extent that the University of Toronto’s Institute for Islamic Studies, with the help of the Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association and the National Council of Canadian Muslims, has just set up a new hotline to help students deal with these issues. Lawyers are not known to waste their time on things that do not matter, so I would imagine that this isn’t a rare or isolated problem.

Canadian Jews have their share of stories, too. For example, recent immigrants from Ukraine, Israel and Russia report incidents of exclusion, harassment and even discrimination, based on their accent or the lack of knowledge of the subtleties of cultural norms.

Above all, unlike other Canadian Jews, they are most likely to deal with Canada’s immigration authorities in matters such as sponsoring their aging parents or grandparents to come to Canada.

If you are not a citizen of Canada, or even if you are, just try navigating through the immigration bureaucracy. I can almost guarantee that you will experience your ancestor’s anxiety of powerlessness as a Jew trapped in the Russian Pale of Settlement in the 19th century. Yes, I know these are not the same circumstances, and all immigrants suffer from this, not only Jews, but try to call the immigration office and ask for compassion or a special consideration, and then get back to me about how it makes you feel.

Speaking of feelings and big questions, how long does it take for a hyphen in describing a person to disappear? For example, when does an author become a “Canadian writer,” or a musician a “Canadian singer,” as opposed to, say, a Russian-Jewish one?


I recently attended a fascinating discussion on new voices of Russian Jewish American literature at the annual conference of the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies in San Francisco, where I learned how hard it is for writers, especially women, including award-winning ones, to be seen as anything but providing a “Russian” perspective on anything.

The most chilling of all of the talks was from my colleague, Alex Moshkin, who discussed the narratives in a Hebrew-language Facebook group called “Russians Without a Sense of Humour,” where thousands of people share their stories of immigrating from Russia to Israel in the 1990s. Some of them live in Canada now. The jury is still out on what was more traumatic for them – living under communism or being blonde and speaking with a Russian accent in Israel.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in a society where parents of any origin are forced to have “the race talk” with their kids, or where people need a hotline for discreet help with state-run discrimination. I used to live in a country where this was the case and I am not a fan of repeating this experience.

I also do not want my perspective to be boxed as “Russian-Jewish” because the issues that I address concern all Canadians, not just those who are directly affected by prejudice. Above all, I look forward to the time when students attending my seminars will discuss discrimination solely through stories of the experiences of their parents and grandparents, not their own.