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Sherene Razack

In this six-part series of interviews, Canadians with a variety of experiences discuss the major challenges our country is facing and how best to address them. This instalment deals with making pluralism work.

Sherene Razack, professor of sociology and equity studies at the University of Toronto, was interviewed on Oct. 7 by Elizabeth Pinnington.

What keeps you up at night?

The growing, institutionalized dehumanization towards specific groups. It's as though society is evolving based on the principle that human life doesn't matter. Every morning, I read about 10 things that make me think we're growing increasingly distant from each other. It begins with race and becomes a structure that invades everything. White people routinely dehumanize indigenous people. I'm talking of a spectrum of violent acts, like police officers who drive a man out of the city and leave him to freeze to death. The principle that this person's life is not worth as much as yours is both an everyday act and a state practice. Look at the "tough on crime" initiatives that conservatives love. What kind of cruelty and disregard for human life do these kinds of policies come out of?

What are some important lessons from the past for Canadians?

I always think about how dominant subjects make themselves dominant. You're not born that way. I tell my class, "No one is born white." You have to learn it and you have to keep performing it every day. People don't easily believe in their own superiority or that others are lower forms of humanity. They have to convince themselves, and they're terribly haunted by it. The settlers had to learn that indigenous people were inferior, were savages. But it was a very hard lesson to learn because, for one thing, they're not. Indigenous people had a lot of knowledge about this place and clearly had a developed society. Because we have to be taught not to recognize the humanity of others, maybe we can interrupt this process.

We have to learn that the colonial project that is Canada is not viable, because it is not structured on the principle of a common humanity. We could look at all the instances where spectacular meanness and repression have not produced anything good, moments when Canada was tempted to be extremely vicious to indigenous peoples. If that principle structures your country, which is what structures this country, then it's almost like you can't go anywhere good from there. We can't move into recognizing the humanity of refugees or other people if our day-to-day life is intensely structured by the inhumanity with which we have treated aboriginal people. Almost everything we do came out of that colonial moment when we tried to figure out how to steal the land. We have to confront this colonial paradigm before we can open the way to others.

How can we confront it?

We've had spectacular moments when we should have stopped and said, "Wow, this is really bad." We have to keep taking these moments and being political about them, organizing about them, educating around them, exposing them. We need to say to white people, "I don't want you to help me. I want you to understand that your life will be really bad if things continue as they are." If you want to live behind barricades and have guns and shoot down everybody who confronts you, if you think that's a good life, then you're not going to see the common cause. But you cannot live enjoyably, let alone ethically, in a society where such bad things are happening to others.

What energizes you?

I'm really glad I live in Toronto. This city is 50-per-cent non-white, and no one group is in the ascendancy. It is an incredible combustion of histories and politics. If there's anything that stands a chance of blowing apart our terrible colonial history, it has to be this extraordinary mix of people together in one physical space. The people here won't put up with oppression as easily as in other places. They're not going to accept being left out.

Possible Canadas is a project created by Reos Partners, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and a diverse coalition of philanthropic and community organizations. For more interviews, or to join the conversation, visit or

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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