Dr. Donald H. Oliver is a retired member of the Senate of Canada.
For the first time in Canadian history, Corporate Canada must now face, address and remove white privilege from all aspects of business. It is the next logical and mandated step in the war against anti-Black systemic racism in Canada.
We’ve heard the speeches, felt the rage, understood the anger, watched and sympathized with the marches and protests and we now finally realize, deep down, that Black lives matter. American writer James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time is still right; it’s time to give love a chance. It is the magical tool that can wrestle white privilege and white supremacy to the ground and that is where both the public and private sectors, including Corporate Canada, must begin their major work of rebuilding.
I started school at five, in a small University Baptist town in Nova Scotia, the only Negro (the word used at the time) child in the class. For the next 10 years or so we all had the same teachers, coaches for sports, most went to the same Sunday school and church, played on the same hockey teams and attended all the same parties and socials. But sometimes when I was engaged in an interesting discussion with teachers or people around the university, or when I was playing sports with my classmates, I would momentarily forget about the colour of my skin.
It didn’t seem that important in the scheme of things. After all, we had so many things in common. Colour was not always the foremost thought in my mind. For a glancing moment, I had a feeling that there really was no difference and that we were indeed intrinsically alike. I had completely forgotten that pigmentation and being Black always denoted a marked physical and psychological difference. Black meant being inferior and less worthy than your white counterpart.
Even though colour was not something that I thought about every hour of every day, it did help orient my entire life. When in the middle of something very important and demanding, I would often receive the strange query – “don’t you realize you’re Black” – and it would come on some of the most unexpected occasions, and I had to be ready.
That is the constant reality for most Blacks in Canada today. We encounter race hatred, discrimination, contempt and prejudice in virtually everything we become part of in our daily lives. My existential position is white-defined by where and how I can exist. “Don’t forget you’re Black!" So, for the Black man to become free, the white man must forfeit something profound, and it is the historical concept of white privilege and white supremacy.
The Black Lives Matter movement that has gained prominence after the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police has brought about a new awareness of systemic racism on the part of Canadians in their own country, so the current stage of this transformational change is that anti-Black systemic racism is no longer a Black problem but the burden has shifted to make it now entirely a white problem. White is not just a colour, it is an attitude. An attitude in which the white privileged must be prepared to share resources, power and opportunities with Black Canadians openly and without racial conditions or limitations.
To all our primarily white Canadian corporations, I say why not start housecleaning by a purge today of every ounce of anti-Black racism ingrained in your systems of pay, promotions and performance reviews, and disclose the changes publicly at the next annual meeting. Accept the unconditional love handed out in the marchers’ plea. Corporate Canada has profoundly failed Black Canada. So, our corporate leaders must now catch up and take the steps necessary to eliminate the concept of white privilege.
The days of corporate tokenism are over. Sprinkling three or four Black faces at middle-manager levels in various corporate divisions in your company is tokenism and racism in the extreme. Where are the talented Blacks on the clear path to succession? Nearly 10 per cent of Toronto is Black, so why can we not have 10 per cent Blacks in your executive suites? It just takes corporate will. Wrapping your corporation in the flag of diversity when, for board and senior executive positions, it is widely and politely known to mean only gender diversity, means you will have failed Black Canada again.
The recent Toronto chief executives’ launch of the BlackNorth Initiative is a welcome first step, but before the founder and chair Wes Hall and his excellent co-chairs – Victor Dodig, Prem Watsa and Rola Dagher – have their planned July 20 virtual launch, they would be well served to engage Robin DiAngelo, an American social-justice educator who wrote a hugely important New York Times bestselling book titled White Fragility: Why it’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. It’s about how white fragility supports racism and how whites can stop it.
It’s clear to me, however, that putting Blacks on corporate boards and in senior executive suites is only part of the solution. The real work for Canadian corporations is to engage in a wide variety of new initiatives on ways to crush white privilege.
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