Jewel Amoah: An obligation to take responsibility
“We all exist relative to something else. I think that’s really where we get our identity – who I am relative to each of you in age, race and culture?” says Commissioner Jewel Amoah, a Canadian-Trinidadian human rights lawyer, activist and academic. Amoah believes that we are hard-wired to function around comparisons, and discrimination happens when we structure those comparisons to disadvantage others.
Amoah is currently the Human Rights and Equity Advisor with the Halton District School Board. She has also worked with organizations both in Canada and abroad, providing extensive advice on gender equality and legislative reform.
While studying Literature and Political Science, and then going to law school, Amoah was inspired by the events unfolding at that time – the Oka Crisis (Kanesatake Resistance), Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the Gulf War – which all exposed human rights challenges around the world. “In the geopolitical context that we live in, we are grossly advantaged by the disadvantages that many other people experience. And I think that fascinated me personally, and perhaps also inspired me in a professional sense,” adds Amoah. “I was intrigued by the politics of the world, and really fascinated by notions of identity, geography, rights, access to justice, and what all of that means.”
Amoah is a graduate of McMaster University, the University of Ottawa and the University of Cape Town, and lectured for four years at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad. Identity and equality issues are at the core of her research interests. In her doctoral dissertation, Amoah examined the impact of intersecting identities on attaining equality. She developed GRACE, an analytical tool to show how the intersection of gender, race, age and culture affect access to equality rights for girls subject to traditional or customary law as well as modern day civil law in South Africa. Her research pointed her to some socio-economic situations/cases in rural South Africa, where gender, race, age and culture could place an individual at a severe disadvantage since she views these like axes equality operates around.
“Think about GRACE as somebody’s name,” explains Amoah. “If you change any part of your name, it doesn’t mean the same thing. So just as if you remove any aspect of your identity, your outcome doesn’t remain the same. Why is it that a tweak in identity is going to change your outcomes, when if we are really committed to equality, we should all be entitled to the same outcome? Gender, race, age and culture are not really interchangeable – they're immutable, because they all combine to identify who we are and what we get access to in the moment.”
In her role as an OHRC Commissioner, Amoah brings her own experience as a racialized immigrant woman. She believes that issues of race, gender, identity and experiences need to be examined against the current context of post-colonialism, economics and natural environment. For example, she asks: “Why is the economic emphasis centered around North America and Europe, although the majority of people do not live there?”
She adds, “I stand in awe with these power differentials in the world – how they came to be and how they are sustained.” Even in her current role as an equity advisor, she sees how education is itself a factor of colonial structures and by extension, has created room for more inequities.
Amoah views the OHRC as a leader in the community and public arenas, and its policy role is about adapting systems to the reality and needs of individual identities, as well as collective community identities. “There’s a lot of inadvertent exclusion, because people say this is just the way we've always done things,” says Amoah. “And maybe you have always done things in a way that has always disadvantaged others, but now that we are aware of that continued disadvantage, we have an obligation to take responsibility for it.”
Amoah explains how the OHRC looks at ordinary events like policing, housing access, health care, or the right to read or play lacrosse, and identifies areas where things can be problematic: “I think the OHRC’s role is to raise awareness that equality is everywhere, but that means so is inequality. The OHRC’s job is to peel away that facade of niceness that we all like to hide behind... and help understand how we are being conscious and active in identifying and addressing inequality.”
Amoah feels that the background people come from is always important. “But more important is what you do to leverage or interpret those experiences in your background,” says Amoah. “Even if those backgrounds are ones of pure privilege and entitlement, that also has a lot of influence on how you view yourself and your role in the world. So yes, I think where we come from is largely influential in terms of who we become, but not necessarily determinative. At some point we do have to take responsibility for that.”