Canada’s racism problem is not news to Annette Henry. As a black woman living in a country where white is synonymous with “normal,” racism is always in the background — and often the foreground — of language and literacy education professor’s daily life.
“One of the things that strikes me very often is when I’m teaching — or I’ll be in other places like the grocery store — and somebody will look at me, and I think, ‘I don’t think they’ve seen too many black people,’” Henry said with a laugh over coffee earlier this week the at UBC’s Point Grey campus where she works.
That racism and white supremacy are alive and well in Canada is news, however, to many of Henry’s students, colleagues and the wider Canadian public. Particularly among those who identify as white. Not everyone is convinced it exists, however.
Last month Henry published an article whose title outlined its clear purpose: “Dear white people, wake up: Canada is racist.” It appeared in the online academic-oriented news outlet The Conversation.
“Those who do not experience racism may be unaware of how it functions in Canada — perniciously and insidiously,” Henry wrote in the piece.
“For example, The Black Experience Project, a six-year study released this July found Blacks, when compared to non-Blacks nationally, ‘earn lower incomes, experience higher rates of unemployment, and higher rates of incarceration. They also suffer poorer health outcomes, have more housing difficulties and are more likely to be victims of violence.’”
With over 30,000 reads, and republished in the National Post and National News Watch, Henry’s article sparked a range of responses from incredulity and denial, to support and pledges to use the article in classrooms.
The Tyee sat down with Henry, who is also the education faculty’s David Lam chair in multicultural education, to talk about why some white people remain ignorant of racism around them, and how to push back against it. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why don’t some white people see racism in Canada?
It’s just what people have grown up with and they don’t question it. It’s also very hard, I think, to acknowledge that one has privileges more than another. One of the interesting comments about my piece was a fellow had said, “white privilege is the gift of having no one else to blame.”
It’s a whole system in place, basically. People thinking, “you got there, not on your own merit, but because maybe there was some kind of affirmative action program, so they let you in.” They don’t realize that actually you had to work darn hard to even be seen in the [hiring] pool, and maybe get a few extra credentials to be seen as qualified and competent.
From what I understand, affirmative action programs like the federal Employment Equity Act play a much smaller role in hiring people of colour than a lot of white people think.
Absolutely, and it benefits white women more than anything. Part of the problem here [in Canada] is we don’t disaggregate our data. We talk about visible minorities, we lump everybody together — except Indigenous, of course, is a separate category. So we don’t really know what’s going on [in hiring].
We don’t collect the data that [they] do in the States. We don’t recruit, even, the way they do in the United States. When I was working in [U.S.] universities, they were always looking out for really good people. They would have these programs called Target Of Opportunity, where even though they didn’t have an [employee] search going on, if they saw somebody who was amazing, [they] hire them before someone else snatched them up. It’s where you really target [diversity].
How much of white people not acknowledging racism is about a generational divide?
People who have grandchildren, for example, [tell me] “My grandkids will say, who cares about Martin Luther King? That’s all finished. Why are we talking about this?” So there’s a way in which for some young people, that’s yesterday.
But we are getting more of it in school. Look at what’s happening in the news with the NFL. At least people are talking about racism, Trump and the black athletes — whatever position they take, it’s out there. We’ve had quite a number of shootings over the last few years of black youth by police [in Canada and the U.S.], and young people are very tuned into Black Lives Matter. So I think there is more of an awareness and solidarity.
I was talking to a woman who’s in her early 70s yesterday, and she said, “Oh, if it’s Black Lives Matter, I don’t want to hear about it.” This is a black woman. That turns some people off, and even my article, the picture of Black Lives Matter [Toronto] at the top, I think, really offended some people.
What was the reaction to your article?
I got a whole slew of [comments] like, “This is nonsense.” “It’s not evidence based.” “There’s no research behind it.” “It’s full of jargon.” “What are academics doing these days that’s useful?”
And, of course, I got some “Bravo, I’m sending this to my colleagues in Australia.” “I’m using this in my classes.” So all kinds of interesting comments.
I could have had a more benign title. And I was going to put a cartoon in as the first picture, because there’s some cute cartoons out there about racism. [But] we decided to just say, no, tell it like it is, honey!
I say something [in the article] like, “most residents are ignorant of...” and I could have said, “unaware of.” Some words are triggers for some people. All in all, I’m pleased with the way I wrote it.
What’s the reader’s responsibility when a word triggers them?
[When] we encounter some information, it’s afterwards that we really ruminate over it. So I would hope that they would think about it afterwards.
And I think many people aren’t used to these kinds of articles or saying these kinds of things. That’s OK. It’s a short piece, it might promote some discussion, and that’s what it’s all about.
Do you find you can reach students who resist the idea that racism exists in Canada?
For the most part. Whether [students] self-select to take my courses might be another issue. And I have to realize that everyone is in a different place: some people are quite versed in these issues. Some people haven’t really thought about them too much before. For example, some people think they have no biases because they’re in an interracial relationship.
Some people have really resisted. I was teaching a French class and a student started getting really aggressive with me, [saying] “I don’t even know what you want!” I had no proof, but I felt that she was thinking, “I don’t know why we’re even talking about [racism]. I’m just here to be a French teacher.”
Who are your students?
It depends on the classes I teach. This one class I was talking about was for people who were preparing to be French teachers. So I talked about language and culture, and, for example, at some point I said, “As you’ll notice, all of my PowerPoint slides have people of colour in them,” and this woman at the back said, “It’s about time!”
Of course the doctoral students who work with you are of like mind. People who are interested in or work around race would come to me. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough people, even in my department, doing that kind of work. [Students] will come to me and say, “Will you read this paper?” and I say, “How about your committee reading it?” And they’ll say, “Yeah, but they don’t understand issues of race.”
What role should Canada’s media be playing in response to racism?
I find they often don’t go in-depth enough. Very often when I watch a program I say, oh, this program is for white people. Every now and then I’ll get excited to see there’s a program on blacks in Canada, and then I’ll get disappointed because it’s such a narrow view, and so Toronto-based.
I think we, as Canadians, are afraid to deal with racism. The only way we deal with it is to talk about the mess that America’s in. It’s so convenient to say the States have really gotten themselves in a tangle.
What does media need to go more in-depth on?
We need to really help people understand how racism works, what it really is systemically. We do acknowledge that it exists, but we don’t want to deal with it. That’s the major issue. It offends our national narrative.
What are some Canadian examples of systemic racism?
Missing Indigenous women, that’s systemic. The racial violence against Indigenous people. The fact that there are [Indigenous] communities that are living without proper sanitary conditions, education, healthcare in this day and age. And yet, we look around and we have all these totem poles and Indigenous art to celebrate Indigenous people.
Blacks are now the [fastest growing] population in Canadian prisons. That’s systemic. The amount of black students in special education, and the [high] dropout rate in places where we have a predominant number of black people, like Toronto. Blacks being shot by the police. All of these are Canadian and systemic.
There are white people who believe racism exists, but it’s not their fault and therefore not their problem. What’s your response?
One thing they could do is be more aware of how they’re contributing to white supremacy, to white privilege, to maintaining the status quo. [That] doesn’t mean you have to go out of your way and give a person of colour [your] seat on a plane or something. But you need to be more aware — that’s what I was trying to say in the article. This is part of what Joyce King calls dysconscious racism. The person doesn’t even realize how they’re participating in the system.
What else should white Canadians do to address racism?
You have to acknowledge it really does exist. Then thinking about, OK, it exists. Do I participate in this and how do I participate in this? Are there things I could be doing?
Broadening your horizons a bit, becoming more aware. There’s so many amazing things that one can read or try and diversify what you watch. We live in our own little narrow lives.
How hopeful do you feel?
I have to be hopeful. I know my mother had said to me when I was a child, “Racism isn’t going to be eradicated in your lifetime or mine.” And I believe that. But I do have a lot of hope in the youth that I teach and that are being taught. And I think I have to, or why bother?
Sometimes in response to talking about racism people will bring up that race is not real. Does that have a place in discussions about racism?
Of course it’s a construction, and we’ve made more of it than we should in terms of what separates us as human beings. But it’s real, so that when I’ve talked to [a potential landlord] on the phone, I’m coming over to see the apartment, I get there, and all of a sudden, “Oh! I just remembered, I promised [the apartment] to my nephew.”
Or, I put an ad in the paper when I lived in Toronto, and said there was a room for rent in my house. The [potential renter] knocked on my door, and he saw me and just backed up.
Obviously these things are real. They affect me getting an apartment, they may affect me getting a job. So you can say it’s not real, but it has economic import for my life. You have to think about that a bit.
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