Explicit racism is now only rarely heard in Canada. So it is startling when it is directly expressed, especially when it takes on the particular shape of “colourism” – and comes from unexpected quarters.
Last week, the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission concluded that discrimination by reason of colour was a factor in the dismissal of Rachel Brothers, an employee of the Black Educators Association, the purpose of which is to help black children and adults to benefit more from the educational system.
Donald Murray, the board of inquiry chair, found that Ms. Brothers had been undermined by one of her staff, Catherine Collier, who openly criticized her for not being black enough for the job.
“Colourism,” said Mr. Murray, classifies “people on the basis of their apparent ‘colour’ or ‘shade’ in a continuum away from ‘white.’ ” The term “shade-ist” also came up.
Ms. Brothers self-identifies as bi-racial. So does her former colleague Claudette Colley, whom Mr. Murray found to be the one truly independent witness, and who testified that another employee had said Ms. Brothers “should go work for whitey.”
When the commission’s counsel asked Ms. Collier questions about “colourism,” she told him he couldn’t understand it because he was “not black,” though, as Mr. Murray said, the counsel himself is “a person of colour.” All this confirmed the chair’s view that skin colour is “an important human classifier” for Ms. Collier. In 2014, in Canada, it obviously shouldn’t be.
What’s more, Mr. Murray found that the head office of the BEA was aware of Ms. Collier’s views of Ms. Brothers’ supposedly insufficient blackness, and condoned it. A number of other employees seemed to find the whole discussion of shades of skin colour to be fairly normal.
The goal of Canadian law and policy should be to move beyond obsessions with levels of skin pigmentation – to judge people, as Martin Luther King Jr. famously put it, by the content of the character, not the colour of their skin. It should be about entirely ending discrimination on the basis of race, rather than simply modifying the pecking order of who gets discriminated against, and who does the discriminating.