As we celebrate Black History Month, much is being said about the experience of Black people in the Americas and the Caribbean.
The repeated narratives about racism, unconscious bias and privilege are necessary.
It is equally necessary to determine the intentional actions required to dismantle systemic racism, which persists in many institutions today and contributes greatly to the ongoing marginalization of Black Canadians and other minority groups.
Systemic racism occurs when institutions put people at a disadvantage based on their race. Systemic racism may be present in the current membership of an institution, or the legacy of unexamined historical precedent.
The result of systemic racism is disparities in outcomes, such as lower rates of academic achievement, underrepresentation in professions and club memberships, restricted social mobility, and limited access to community services and places of worship.
These disparities indicate the presence of systemic racism even when there may be no racist intent.
For example, organized hockey, from Minor Hockey to the NHL, is predominantly White. Although there is no explicit policy that excludes people of color from participating in organized hockey, there are disproportionately fewer players who are Black or Indigenous. What is it that keeps organized hockey ‘White’?
Playing hockey is expensive, time consuming for families, requires transportation and an accommodating parental work schedule. While there is no explicit intent to exclude non-White, lower-income, shift-working families from playing organized hockey, the system of organized hockey is designed by and for middle-class, professional White families.
This is just one example of an institution, which, like many more institutions in Canada, have not critically examined their historical practices regarding recruitment, which do not accommodate the needs of potential non-White members. Consequently, systemic racism persists, even though there is no explicit racist intent and there is no contravention of anti-discrimination laws and anti-racist policies.
The limitations of anti-discriminatory laws
Through their own struggle against injustice and their insistence upon equality in the law, Black Canadians have bequeathed an impressive structure of constitutional rights from which all Canadians benefit today. Some examples include –
- Fair Practices and Human Rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960s
- The Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982)
- The Employment Equity Act (1986)
- The Multiculturalism Act (1988)
That said, Statistics Canada reported in a 2019 survey, that 46% of Black people over the age of 15 reported at least one form of discrimination in the previous 5 years. This percentage is significantly higher than the 28% result from a similar survey in 2014. T
These results tell us that racism continues to be an unmitigated problem that overshadows the vision of a diverse, inclusive nation that Canada aspires to become.
Laws only establish minimum standards. Laws do not have the power to regulate the intentions of those who enforce the law.
The hard question that must be asked and answered is –
How do we go beyond the narrative and make the vision reality?
Here are a few suggestions. These suggestions apply equally to non-Black and Black people.
Firstly, let’s accept that Black history is not just about Black people. Black history is integral to Canadian history. We all came here in different ships, but we are now all in the same boat.
Secondly, the collective understanding of our history must lead to a critical examination of the state of things now and the definition of the ways in which we will intentionally dismantle systemic racism. We must have the courage to ask ourselves some tough questions about the possible ways we and the institutions to which we belong may be contributing to systemic racism.
- Are we prepared to examine historical precedent and current practices in organizations to which we belong?
- How do we engage during conversations about race? Are we listening and engaging in dialogue with facts, informed opinions and with empathy?
- How can we use our positions of leadership, influence, and privilege to make things better?
Thirdly, let’s commit to being advocates and agents of change. Some ways to do this –
- Create and sign petitions;
- Attend and participate in public hearings and debates;
- Write letters to political representatives;
- Publish articles and opinion pieces on various communication platforms; and
- Challenge organizations in which you belong to be more inclusive in their membership.
Be prepared to have uncomfortable conversations.
We don’t know what we don’t know. When a racially insensitive comment is made, create teachable moments by calmly addressing the issue, and by calmly listening. Listen with empathy. Promptly apologize and promptly forgive.
In my experience, uncomfortable conversations have always started off awkwardly, but they have very often ended amicably, with everyone feeling relieved and reassured.
Admittedly, Canada and the United States have come a very long way on the difficult journey to racial equality and justice. There is much further to go and more work to do. We have come too far to not go the distance.
“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”― Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
See the BIG picture. Focus on what’s important.