When the Liberal government announced it would talk to Canadians affected by systemic racism as a way to learn about it, there was a mass clapping of hands over ears across the country. “No racism here,” was the general consensus among people who have never experienced racism. “Nothing to see, move along.” Those who had experienced it, meanwhile, were getting their dusty welcome mats out of storage and putting on a pot of tea.
In all the brouhaha, this sentence from a Canadian Press story about the Liberal’s hush-hush strategy is perhaps my favourite, for the way it encapsulates both the learned deafness around the issue, and the way that a hugely important issue is being framed merely as a matter of political inconvenience: “Previous efforts to talk about racism have not gone well.”
I don’t think we need advanced degrees in sociology to understand why that is. If I were a princess sitting on vast parcels of land that I had acquired through various unseen networks that assisted my ascendance, I wouldn’t want to look too closely at the fine print on the deed, either. I, princess, would probably not support any close scrutiny that might deprive me of my lovely land. I would want to burn the fine print in my giant hearth. I would point to all the other princes and princesses who had never had a problem acquiring their masses of land as evidence that the land-management system was working quite well, thank you.
And all those people who somehow didn’t get any land from their parents, old friends, parents’ old friends, and land merchants who only sell to people whose names they can pronounce? Well, those people just need to work harder and fit in a bit better. Also, their complaints are too loud. Hush, now. Royalty is trying to sleep.
It’s painful to listen, I get that. There’s so much noise out there. But if you choose to listen to viewpoints that might be new to you, you’ll hear some fascinating and disturbing revelations about this country we love so much. Consider the report of a United Nations working group that consulted across Canada in 2016 and uncovered a legacy of anti-black racism that exists to this day, preventing many Canadians from achieving fair outcomes in education, housing and employment: “Canada’s history of enslavement, racial segregation and marginalization of African Canadians has left a legacy of anti-Black racism and had a deleterious impact on people of African descent.”
As Robyn Maynard writes in her 2017 book Policing Black Lives, this can be a difficult proposition to reconcile with our ideas of ourselves as tolerant, fair and founded on meritocracy: “Anti-black racism in Canada has been continually reconfigured to adhere to national myths of racial tolerance.” She then carefully lays out evidence of how this is so – how the criminal justice, education and social-welfare systems continue to discriminate against people in the black community. As she writes at the end of her book, “Reforms that do not also challenge the underlying systemic racism that creates disparities in the distribution of wealth and power in the first place are unlikely to effect meaningful change.”
This should not be a surprise. If anyone has read the barest minimum about carding or police profiling, or taken any interest in the systemic oppressions facing Indigenous people, from the disproportionate number of children in care to the lack of funding to support education and health care for those children, the idea that we live in a utopia of equal outcomes is absurd.
The work to reveal these disparities has been done: It’s been done, almost entirely, by people from racialized communities, which is why it’s doubly galling when white Canadians who have never once had to worry about being discriminated against on the basis of race refuse to listen. I think of what Simone de Beauvoir wrote 70 years ago in The Second Sex: ″There’s no good reason to believe men when they try to defend privileges whose scope they cannot even imagine.″ Being blind to your own advantages is comfortable, but it’s hardly honest. That feather bed you’re sleeping on? Maybe you didn’t actually earn it.
And for the people who do the hard lifting to reveal these unpleasant realities, the reward is often abuse. Take a look some time at the comments on the Twitter feeds of Indigenous or black activists and journalists who write on racial issues. You’ll need to put on a Hazmat suit before you do.
When Liberal MP Iqra Khalid sponsored a motion to study Islamophobia and racial discrimination in 2016, she was threatened with death and called a terrorist sympathizer. Critics of the motion she introduced, M-103, insisted it would crush free speech in the country and open the door for sharia law. Astonishingly, Canadians can (and do) still flap their gums at will, and can tune into talk radio to find people just like them flapping their gums in unison. There is, as yet, no sign of sharia councils taking over the local Tim Hortons.
Now, another woman of colour (perhaps the pattern is becoming clear) is facing a backlash for speaking up about systemic racism. Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes, who speaks frankly about the discrimination she hears about and encounters, has herself been called a racist for her outspokenness. Many supporters came to Ms. Caesar-Chavannes’s defence this week, which was a small ray of hope. Because when right-wing male commentators declare themselves experts on black women’s lives and experiences of discrimination, we have indeed tumbled down a rabbit hole. Or perhaps we haven’t: We’re just where we’ve always been, and that’s the problem.
The systemic racism consultation has been framed as a political problem for the Liberals, which seems like the worst kind of short-term thinking. I don’t actually care whether it’s a political problem; that’s for the Liberals to worry about. It’s a Canadian problem, and it’s not going away, even if we cover our eyes and ears and pretend there’s nothing there.