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People protest to defund the police in front of Toronto Police Service headquarters on July 16, 2020.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Keith Neuman is a senior associate with the non-profit Environics Institute for Survey Research. Michael Adams is the institute’s founder and president.

Combatting racism is now firmly on the public agenda in Canada, reflecting an evolving acknowledgment of the systemic mistreatment of racialized people. This evolution has accelerated in response to important events, including the horrific murder of American George Floyd and the continuing discoveries of unmarked graves at former Indian Residential Schools. But progress in eradicating racism in our country has been slow and at best uneven. Many Canadians are frustrated by what they see as all talk and no action.

What is holding us back? Efforts to eradicate systemic bias in our institutions, including our local police departments, have shown little progress given how deeply it is ingrained. Many organizations have made considerable investments in diversity and inclusion training to educate people and make them aware of their unconscious biases, but studies have shown this training has not had a lasting impact. This shouldn’t be surprising, as it is next to impossible to change people’s deeply held attitudes and values, at least in the short term.

Where else can we turn? One avenue yet to be explored is in changing the social norms that allow racism to promulgate and flourish.

Social norms are widely held, yet mostly unspoken, expectations about what is, and is not, acceptable to say and do in particular situations. Such norms exert a powerful influence over how people act in public and in social situations, apart from what they may think or feel.

Social norms play a key role in the dynamics of racism and prejudice because they establish the boundaries around which people act toward those they see as “the other.” While internally held attitudes, beliefs and stereotyping are stubbornly resistant to short-term change, the way individuals choose to express themselves can be easily influenced by social pressure. Over time, norms can change – in some cases through efforts to positively shape our collective behaviour.

Take, for example, the successful campaign to change norms around tobacco use in public. Just over a generation ago, smoking in public was common, even cool. Today, the behaviour has become effectively “denormalized” as inconsiderate and self-defeating. While a significant minority of the population continues to smoke in private, few dare to do so in the presence of others because they correctly understand it would not be tolerated.

The concept of social norms is not new, but it has been missing from the scope of anti-racism initiatives in Canada and elsewhere. With this in mind, the Environics Institute recently conducted a national survey of Canadians that measured social norms in relation to common types of micro-aggressions directed at people who are Indigenous and/or Black.

Our research reveals that a significant majority of Canadians acknowledge the reality of racism in their communities and social circles. Regardless of their racial background, many of those surveyed say they have personally witnessed, or know others who have witnessed, racist behaviour directed against Indigenous or Black people. This racism has taken many forms, from insensitive jokes or racist gestures in public and private spaces, to derogatory comments on social media or even broad claims that racism simply doesn’t exist.

Most of those surveyed personally believe these types of behaviours are morally wrong. At the same time, our research demonstrated that the current social norms acting to inhibit these racist actions are not especially strong. The survey revealed that Canadians may believe such actions are morally wrong, but often feel unsure about what others around them think and whether they would also disapprove of what is going on in that situation. They may also be unclear about whether the social norms are sufficiently encouraging to support someone who steps up to intervene when witnessing a racist act in public, such as harassment on a bus.

What the research tells us, in essence, is that racist behaviour persists, despite growing disapproval, in large part because Canada’s social norms – the unspoken rules about what is and is not acceptable in public – governing respectful treatment of racialized people are not strong enough to discourage transgressors.

What does this mean for tackling racism? The research tells us that a major obstacle to reducing racism is the absence of social pressures that are strong enough to compel us to treat others with respect (even when we harbour prejudicial opinions about them) and to speak up when transgressions occur. Many Canadians are caught in a form of limbo when confronted with someone acting in a racist manner, not knowing if others around them recognize what is taking place or agree about what it means and what to do about it.

This is why it is so important that we keep talking about racism. The more public conversations we have on this subject, the more people may recognize a shared understanding of what is acceptable and what is no longer tolerated. Each of us needs to think individually about racism and take responsibility for our own behaviour, but this is not enough. We need to engage with others on this issue, in order to create a shared understanding of what we expect from each other in how we live together and treat one another.

Canadian institutions also need to demonstrate leadership in establishing social norms and expectations, and in cultivating spaces that prioritize respect for all. Social norms are often well entrenched but can and do change. Here lies a new opportunity to focus our efforts and realize a more just society.

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