Darren Lund, University of Calgary
“Overcoming racism compels us to address public policies and private attitudes that perpetuate it. On this International Day, I call on Member States, international and non-governmental organizations, the media, civil society and all individuals to engage meaningfully in the promotion of the International Year for People of African descent – and to work together against racism whenever it occurs.” – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, 21 March 2011.
Doing anti-racism and diversity education in Canada requires an ability to engage in some messy and, at times, contentious and discomforting work. The topic of anti-racism and diversity is one that rarely evokes a neutral response, and is more likely to inflame passions and stir a range of confusing emotions. Very few people feel comfortable talking directly about discrimination, unless in very abstract terms. I expect that most Canadians would agree with the statement: “Racists are bad, and I’m definitely not racist.” In fact, lots of people choose to wear Racism: Stop It! buttons on March 21, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. A large part of the problem is Canadians’ self-understanding of our identity; we are nice people. So how could we allow bad things like racism to exist here?
One dimension of better understanding diversity issues is getting past an overly simplistic view of racism and discrimination. We rarely hear racist jokes in polite company so this might suggest things are getting better. Sure there are still a few racist extremists that we can see on the news, but they are the exception. They also remind us that we are not like them. In fact, some of us are so busy congratulating ourselves we bristle at any critique of our country. Perhaps our efforts to promote a positive view of Canadian citizenship amongst ourselves have been too effective. To paraphrase a famous Hollywood line, perhaps, “We can’t handle the truth” about racism and discrimination.
We live in a great country. Outsiders view Canadians as overly polite, but when it comes to our sense of multicultural pride we positively puff out our chests. A recent Angus Reid poll reveals that a solid majority of Canadians (55%) think that multiculturalism has been good or even very good for our country. Other polls that look at Canada’s ‘management of diversity’ and treatment of immigrants draw even higher ratings from those who think we already have it right. So it’s confirmed: except for a few racists and very narrow-minded folks, most of us are fine with the idea of Canada being multicultural, and just about everyone thinks diversity is a good thing.
It looks like there isn’t much more to talk about, so why do some people still insist on talking about racism and discrimination? This is where things get uncomfortable. White people, the majority, need to learn to see that not everyone is benefiting equally from our way of life, and that there exist major inequalities in the opportunities and successes of people based on the social group they were born into. Inequities are evident from an examination of our schools and curricula, in employment, housing, income, our legal system, and many aspects of life in Canada. Recognizing that we are not perfectly egalitarian and that there are forms of discrimination we need to eliminate is not an indictment of our nation, but a call to make it better for everyone.
Taking an uncomfortable look at our own identities, social privileges, and implication in persistent inequities is exactly the kind of unsettling work that needs to be done to confront and combat racism. Let’s be frank: There is a kind of comfort in being a White person in Canada, even though this is rarely spoken about – and when it is, there is discomfort, denial and sometimes a backlash. We need to disrupt this complacency in order to help us see all of our ongoing roles in maintaining discriminatory attitudes, practices, policies and structures. Recognizing that we hold some social advantages based on our skin colour, for example, doesn’t mean that we have to feel paralyzed by ‘White guilt.’ In fact, some discomfort can be a strong motivator for change.
But do White people even know we are White? Do we ever even think of ourselves as having a racialized identity, the way we associate it with people of colour? Aren’t we’re just normal, the ‘mainstream’? It’s those other people who have racial identities. This ‘raceless’ aspect of our lives is one of the key privileges of being in the dominant group – it is never examined or questioned, and it is rarely on the agenda for discussion in relation to the experiences of others.
Perhaps a few observations will help us with seeing how this works. As a White person, I can be fairly assured that my racial identity will never work against me in any meaningful way. When I look around, on the news and in the daily papers, my people are doing just fine in Canada – with respect to corporate boards, university and college leadership, employment and income measures and, well, just about every other social measure. As Peggy McIntosh noted over 20 years ago, if I come late to a meeting, no one will characterize this as a character flaw associated with my skin colour or culture. When I talk to the principal of my children’s schools, I can be quite confident I will meet someone who looks like me or, at the very least, will not prejudge my kids based on negative assumptions about my racial or cultural identity.
Of course, we still hear some people ask: But where is the racism? What about reverse racism? And why couldn’t my White brother-in-law get a job in the police department? I hear these and similar questions from some of my White friends, family, and students, and these offer moments where the false calm of a ‘post-racial’ society gets disturbed. As an educator, I appreciate these opportunities, and my answers usually express notions to the effect that: first, racism is part of our everyday life, even if some White people are blind to it; and second, citing reverse racism (or political correctness) is a too common way of sidestepping the issue of racism. And, the emotional reaction of ‘white guilt’ too often blocks any analysis of social power and inequities.
There are so many ways we can identify tangible moments where a person’s identity offers an advantage – when filling out a job application or applying for a promotion, lining up to get into a nightclub, passing through customs at a border crossing, seeking housing. The barriers are felt, but often remain invisible. We must begin noticing the inequities and by listening to – really hearing – the lived experiences of racialized others, to see how we are already activists for the status quo if we are not taking concrete steps towards engendering equity.
Canadians can easily recognize the hatred and racism displayed in neo-Nazi demonstrations, or in a racist symbol painted on a wall, but the daily forms of oppression are very subtle. Yes, many Canadians are polite, and even our racism takes on a kind of ‘politeness’ as well. We may not hear racial slurs, but the phrase ‘those people’ substitutes quite well. People may not shout out negative stereotypes about particular groups, but a sustained look at our school textbooks and daily media stories can be very telling about our social hierarchies. Whose stories are getting told and how? Who are portrayed as the heroes? Who are depicted as the leaders and do-gooders and who are shown as the trouble-makers or the deviant? This kind of ‘White normativity’ doesn’t feel toxic, like a swastika or racial epithet. It’s so ordinary. But it has a pernicious and negative effect on those whom it works against. Racism also harms those who ‘benefit’ or are ‘privileged’ by it, because it denies and devalues all of the richness of what each of us has to contribute. In this way we all suffer from the effects of racism.
Why can’t all of us easily appreciate how racism –as sexism and homophobia – works daily to provide some of us with so many unearned social advantages? But that’s how privilege and hegemony work so well! Their very invisibility forces the inequalities to seem normal and natural. Questioning, for example, media representations, differential student opportunities, or university, public or private sector practices, means to disrupt our comfort zones.
An intersectional analysis is important in equity and social justice work. Racism and homophobia are interconnected. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds us, “homophobia is a crime against humanity…. I could not have fought against the discrimination of apartheid and not also fight against the discrimination of homophobia.” Canadians seem to have no problem pointing their fingers at other nations that readily allow women’s rights to be denied, the lives of gay or lesbian people to be threatened, or the imposition of racial segregation and exclusionary policies. But we are almost entirely unable to see these issues in their daily forms in Canada.
The past few decades have been eye-opening for me. I grew up in a working-class suburb of Calgary and never gave much thought to understanding my own social advantages as a White person, never mind systemic oppression. This began to change after some high school students initiated an anti-racism program during my first year of teaching. The successful STOP (Students and Teachers Opposing Prejudice) program went on to last 20 years, and continues to inform my scholarly and community diversity work.
In Canada many Inuit and First Nations people live in substandard conditions that rival those of any “ghetto” in the United States or among the poor in any developing nation in the Global South. This is one topic where our ‘polite racism’ is closest to the surface, when we hear negative anti-Aboriginal sentiments roll off of the tongues of the ‘nicest’ peoples. The virulent ‘native jokes’ that I heard and repeated as a young person have decreased, but our dismissal of First Nations concerns persists, allowing us to sleep at night, as good citizens. Often, many White Canadians sound vaguely patronizing, even when we show sympathy for aboriginal people. However, we seem almost entirely unable – or unwilling – to link our own social status and privileges to their ongoing oppression and dispossession. Guilt has become a dirty word, and something to avoid, but it can be productive if it becomes an important first step at implicating ourselves in the collective struggle for social justice.
This March 21, even for just one day to begin with, every Canadian is called upon to recognize how we all are implicated in racism. We need to commit to understanding and eradicating racism. We must start by embracing our discomfort in talking about racism and other forms of discrimination.
Darren E. Lund is a professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Calgary, and co-editor with Paul Carr of The Great White North? Exploring Whiteness, Privilege and Identity in Education.