by Serah Gazali
As millions of people unite to protest racism around the world, our team in the Women’s Economic Council would like to send our condolences to readers who are coping with grief, anger and anxiety in light of recent events — particularly those who have experienced racism firsthand. Above all, we are saddened that widespread, public recognition of systemic racism only comes after such a traumatic event as the murder of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis City police officer, an event filmed and widely circulated on social media.
Some Canadians might look down at our Southern neighbours and think racism is no longer a powerful force here in Canada. Some might say, yes, Canadians forced indigenous children into residential schools, implemented the head tax after Chinese labour was no longer needed to build the Canadian Pacific Railway, denied entry of British Indians in the Komagata Maru, sent a ship with Jewish refugees back during the Holocaust, forced people of Japanese descent into internment camps, and segregated schools until 1983. Yes, we did all that and more. But now we’ve moved to a post-racial, colour blind era, in which the harsh racist policies and behaviours of the past are just that — in the past.
Those who claim that we have “moved on” say so because they have not been personally impacted by racism. The truth is that racism is alive and well in Canada.
Ask people of colour and they will tell you a very different story.
We have not moved on. First, the impact of historical inequality cannot be erased in a few generations — if ever. Second, people of colour still grapple with racism every day. Look at the recent police shootings in Winnipeg, which killed 3 indigenous people in 10 days. Or read the alarming research report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), “An Online Environmental Scan of Right-wing Extremism in Canada”, published last month. The report is full of contemporary examples of white supremacy and misogyny.
Racism is prevalent in Canada, and the belief that there is little to no racism in Canada is itself an obstacle to addressing racism.
Moreover, racism here is mixed with misogyny, just as it is almost everywhere. Women are more likely to be the target of hate crimes than men, according to Statistic Canada, which found police-reported violent hate crimes against Indigenous and Muslim people are more likely than other hate crimes to involve female victims.
Women of colour are also often labelled promiscuous, angry, and a threat. They have long had to contend with historically rooted stereotypes of “Otherness”, of being built for physical labour, rather than thinking, of being more masculine and less of a woman. Just read the renowned speech “Aint, I a woman” by the Civil-War era abolitionist and feminist Sojourner Truth.
When we talk about hate speech and using stereotypes, such as jokes or posts on Twitter, the impact goes far beyond hurt feelings.
In 2017, Frog Hollow Neighbourhood House, and Kiwassa Neighbourhood House organized a dialogue to talk about racism*. A diverse group, including Federal MP Jenny Kwan, gathered to talk about the impact of racism on their lives and local communities. During the dialogue, a woman of colour courageously stood and explained in a few sentences what systemic racism means to her:
“I don’t care who likes me, who doesn’t like me but there is a need to change the system that allows me to be here as an immigrant but doesn’t allow me to achieve the social and economic integration I am here for. When we talk about racism, we often talk about these experiences as ‘feelings’ – personal attitudes, but racism doesn’t only have impacts on our feelings. It impacts on our lives and life opportunities, it impacts the unemployment rates, domestic violence, mental illness, radicalization, and youth delinquency.”
People of colour cry, scream, protest and go to bed feeling anything but safe. Each time something shocking like the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests happen, people’s attention eventually wanes. Until another life is lost. And the cycle repeats itself.
So what’s next?
If we are to truly face up to racism, in all its manifestations, we must begin by acknowledging a fundamental truth: historically, people defined race as a set of characteristics, ascribed to specific groups; but race is, in fact, a social construct and a relationship between groups, used to define in-group and out-group status — who belongs and who doesn’t. Racial injustice stems from systems of power and exclusion, where one group amasses economic opportunities and advantages at the expense of another.
Canadians, especially non-racialized, need to reflect on how white privilege contributes to injustice and inequality. Let’s start by daring to have difficult and uncomfortable conversations about race and racism and challenge our biases, fears, and assumptions.
We know well that the “master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”, as Audre Lord eloquently described attempts to address systemic oppression by conducting cosmetic changes. Rather, we need to reexamine our policies, our media, the labour market, education, and the entirety of our systems using a racial lens. We should also not merely tolerate people who are different but also embrace difference. And we need to give space to women of colour in our leadership, recognize their intellectual contributions, and learn from their lived experiences.
Serah Gazali is a co-manager of the Women’s Economic Council. She has an M.A. from the Institute of Gender, Race, and Sexuality at UBC.
*In conclusion, the groups generated more than 20 recommendations that were presented to the Canadian Heritage Committee. The recommendations clustered around the following five themes:
- Training and education-related initiatives to increase intercultural understanding.
- Establishing programs to facilitate integration and reduce segregation.
- Improving processes for the labour market and economic achievement.
- Fostering institutional participation and leadership.
- Strengthening legal and regulatory responses to discrimination.