Frances Henry

Frances Henry:


(From The Introduction: THE COLOUR OF DEMOCRACY: RACISM IN CANADIAN SOCIETY 2009 4th EDITION, Toronto: Nelson Thomson)


I am not a racist.

She/he is not a racist.

This is not a racist institution.

Canada is not a racist society.

            In spite of the historical and contemporary evidence of racism as a pervasive and intractable reality in Canada, the above statements have become mantras, which, when repeated, cast an illusory spell that has allowed Canadians to ignore the harsh reality of a society divided by colour and ethnicity. Canada suffers from historical amnesia. Its citizens and institutions function in a state of collective denial. Canadians have obliterated from their collective memory the racist laws, policies, and practices that have shaped their major social, cultural, political, and economic institutions for three hundred years.

           Racialized beliefs and practices, although widespread and persistent, are frequently invisible to everyone but those who suffer from them. White Canadians tend to dismiss evidence of their racial prejudice and their differential treatment of minorities. Victims’ testimonies are unheard and their experiences unacknowledged. Public-sector agencies conduct extensive consultations and then fail to translate their knowledge into substantive initiatives. Government bodies establish task forces and commissions of inquiry on racism to demonstrate their grave concern; their findings and recommendations are ignored. Academics produce empirical studies documenting the ways that racialized and Indigenous peoples are denied power, equity, and rights, and the studies are then buried. Politicians and the power elite rationalize the racial barriers that prevent racialized communities, including Blacks, South Asians, Muslims, and First Nations peoples, among others, from fully participating in the political process, education, employment, media, justice, human services, and the arts.

            In the period between the late eighties and the mid-nineties, racism in Canada received increased attention. Racial unrest in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, and Halifax, and the demands of Should the racialized minority communities for greater participation in Canadian society were difficult to ignore. As a result, during this brief moment in time there were encouraging signs of change. Various levels of government and public-sector organizations, such as boards of education and human-services and cultural organizations, developed policies and programs and modified some of their traditional practices to respond to demands for equity. Money was allocated, racialized-minority communities were consulted, and racialized people in small numbers were being hired and appointed to serve in previously all-White organizations and institutions.

            A significant shift in ideology and practice occurred from about 1995 onward, however. Municipal, provincial, and federal levels of governments began to alter their anti-racism and equity policies, programs, and funding commitments. Perhaps the first and most dramatic change occurred in Ontario with the election of a neoconservative government led by Mike Harris and his common-sense revolution. Almost overnight, the provincial government brought to an abrupt end all anti-racism initiatives. Other provincial and municipal governments followed a similar strategy.

            Thus, fundamental racial inequality continues to affect the lives of racialized and Indigenous peoples in Canada. Stereotyped assumptions and practices are manifested in the workplace and the classroom. The common stereotypes of Blacks, Muslims, and other minoritized communities in the print and electronic media reinforce images of “otherness,” and contribute to the notion that the cultures of certain ethno–racial communities are more deviant and dangerous to the Canadian identity. Patterns of policing and the attitudes and behaviour of police officers and immigration officers toward minoritized communities across this country are still marked by racialized beliefs and practices, resulting in the differential treatment of particular groups, such as Blacks and Indigenous peoples. The schools and universities are sites of struggle and inequity for racialized students and faculty. In some areas, the justice system still fails to give fair and equal treatment to racialized and Indigenous communities. Eurocentric barriers impair the delivery of accessible and appropriate services by social and health-care agencies. The state, through its legislation and public policies, further reinforces neoliberal ideologies and practices that disadvantage racialized people.

            In each of these sectors, resistance to anti-racism policies and programs and the backlash against equity initiatives is found among individuals, organizations, and systems. Widespread opposition to any change in the status quo dramatically reduces the effectiveness of any efforts to promote equity.

            At the federal level of government, there is still no substantive policy to deal with racism (see Chapter 12). Some argue that multiculturalism, as a public policy enshrined in legislation, provides a framework for legitimizing cultural and racial diversity and for ensuring the rights of all Canadians. Yet, despite the Multiculturalism Act’s affirmation of the pluralistic nature of Canadian society, Canadians appear deeply ambivalent about the public recognition of other cultures, the freedom of non-White racial and non-European cultural groups to maintain their unique identities, and the right of minorities to function in a society free of racism.

            Canada’s racist heritage has bequeathed to both earlier and present generations of Canadians a powerful set of perceptions and behavioural patterns regarding racialized and Indigenous peoples. A deeply entrenched system of White dominance perpetuates inequity and oppression against the socially and economically disadvantaged.

            However, racism as a commanding force in this country is constantly challenged and denied by applying the arguments of democratic liberalism. In a society that espouses equality, tolerance, social harmony, and respect for individual rights, the existence of racial prejudice, discrimination, and disadvantage is difficult to acknowledge and therefore remedy. Canadians have a deep attachment to the assumptions that in a democratic society, individuals are rewarded solely on the basis of their individual merit and that no one group is singled out for discrimination. Consistent with these liberal, democratic values is the assumption that physical differences such as skin colour are irrelevant in determining one’s status. Therefore, those who experience racial bias or differential treatment are considered somehow responsible for their state, resulting in a “blame it on the victim” syndrome.

            This conflict between democratic liberalism and the collective racism of the dominant culture creates a dissonance in Canadian society. There is a constant and fundamental moral tension between the everyday experiences of racialized and Aboriginal peoples and the perceptions of those who have the power to redefine that reality—politicians, bureaucrats, educators, judges, journalists, and the corporate elite. While lip service is paid to the need to ensure equality in a pluralistic society, most Canadian individuals, organizations, and institutions are far more committed to maintaining or increasing their own power.

            The multiplicity of ways in which these values conflict is the subject of this book. It examines this phenomenon and analyzes the impact of “democratic racism” on Canadian society and its institutions.

            The fourth edition of this book continues to explore the changing face of racism and the dynamics of democratic racism. We maintain our strong focus on the construct of racist or  racialized discourse, that is, an exploration of the link between the collective values, beliefs, and practices of the dominant White culture and the discourse of racism buried in our language, national narratives and myths, public accounts, and everyday common-sense interpretations, explanations, and rationalizations. Discourse is not just a symptom of the problem of racism (Smitherman-Donaldson and van Dijk, 1988). It essentially reinforces and reproduces the racialized beliefs and actions of the dominant culture. In the chapters dealing with institutions such as policing, justice, human services, education, arts and culture, media, and the state, the authors explore how liberal principles such as individualism, universalism, equal opportunity, and tolerance become the language and conceptual framework through which inferiorization and exclusion are defined and defended (Dei, 2008; Goldberg, 1993; Mackey, 2002).

            A new chapter has been added in this edition of The Colour of Democracy, Racism in Canadian Society. In Chapter 11, Racism in Sports, Tim Rees analyzes the role that sports play in reinforcing racialized ideology. Sports are viewed by many scholars as a powerful socializing agent in promoting stereotypical ideas about Blackness and other forms of “otherness.” The chapter, focusing on how racism affects sports in Canada, explores the intersection between sports and racism in other institutions, including education and the media.

            Certain themes that were woven throughout the text of the earlier editions have been strengthened and updated. We look more closely at how each of our institutions are discursive spaces that intersect with one another and with broader societal discourses, and that function to categorize, inferiorize, marginalize and exclude racialized populations. Using new case studies in the history chapter and each of the institutional chapters, the interconnectedness of institutions such as media, arts, education, policing, justice, social and health services, and systems of governance are examined. This web of institutionalized interactions serves a central function in a society divided by colour, ethnicity, gender, class, and other forms of oppression. These interlocking institutions, structures, and systems, wittingly or unwittingly, support and reinforce racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of oppression in the cohesiveness of their ideologies, discourses, and written and unwritten policies and practices. Each dominant White sector depends on another to give it authority and power. This approach highlights the fact that racialized individuals and communities experience systemic racism  both simultaneously and separately. Therefore, to analyze what is happening “out there,” we need to examine and deconstruct the interrelationships between our social, cultural, political, and economic institutions in terms of the everyday beliefs, values, and norms that support racial inequality.

            This edition continues to emphasize the saliency of racism as a social marker of difference and oppression, but more examples of the intersection of racism with other forms of oppression such as gender and class are presented. The evidence of such intersectionality is seen throughout the text. For example, the authors more fully analyze how the increasing levels of poverty in Canada impact on racialized and Indigenous peoples in every aspect of their lives including employment, education, housing, health, and systems of governance, including law enforcement and justice.

            We have developed new case studies in many chapters, which provide a deeper analysis of the lived experiences of racialized and Indigenous peoples, incorporating their collective stories and voices. These “stories” are more than anecdotal evidence; narrative inquiry is a powerful tool in analyzing human experience, particularly the experience of racism. While the stories are often contextualized in personal and individual experience, they communicate broader cultural assumptions, beliefs, and experiences. The telling and analysis of narratives can serve not only as primary data in academic research, but also as a powerful educational and organizing tool for social change (Bell, 1987; Delgado, 1995; Williams, 1991).

            On the other hand, dominant narratives (the stories told by the White elite) provide a “public transcript” (Scott, 1990) of the beliefs, assumptions, and values that are incorporated into the talk and writing of journalists, educators, politicians, bureaucrats, social workers, police, judges, the corporate elite, and many others. Narrative analysis helps to explore and reflect the dialectical tension between the dominant discourses of the White power elite and the counter-narratives of opposition and resistance articulated by racialized people. These stories serve to give voice and document racial oppression within institutional, administrative, and discursive spaces. The plurality of counter-hegemonic narratives highlights the meaning and significance of race and racism in the everyday lives of racialized individuals and communities in relation to the construction of Canada as a democratic racist society. This edition includes the important work of many more racialized scholars, particularly women whose scholarship, stories, and voices enrich our approach and deepen the analysis of social, political, and economic inequality in Canada.

            Another focus, first introduced in the third edition but expanded in this one, is an exploration of the way in which racism has affected Canadians of Muslim, Arab, and other  Middle-Eastern backgrounds since September 11, 2001. These communities continue to experience racial bias and discrimination in their neighbourhoods, workplaces, and schools. They have been subjected to the racialized discourses of the media, politicians, and other public authorities that have served to reinforce the message of their “otherness.” Issues such as wearing the hijab and other religious symbols have created polarizing debates across the country. In Quebec, the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on “reasonable accommodation” (see Chapter 3) revealed high levels of intolerance toward immigrants, especially Muslims. Public policies such as the Anti-Terrorism Act are a demonstration of a new tension that has emerged in North America since 9/11 that challenges democratic liberal values. The debate over this legislation and other recent policies are symptomatic of a conflict between preserving public rights to security and securing the fundamental rights and freedoms of all Canadians. The reader will find specific examples of how Islamophobia has been embedded in institutional sectors, including, education, media, health and social services, immigration, law enforcement, and justice. The discourse of  “otherness” as it relates to Muslim, Arab, and other Middle-Eastern communities in Canada pervades many everyday conversations and behaviours.

            What is also new in this edition is an attempt to identify some positive indicators of inclusion and equity in some sectors of Canadian society. For example, we explore signs of a gradual opening up of cultural spaces to the contributions of racialized and Indigenous writers, directors, producers, and actors in the chapter on the arts and culture.  This chapter has been substantially updated and its focus is now primarily on indicators of positive change. In the chapter on education, we document a few promising initiatives that may provide more accessible and inclusive school experiences for racialized students.

            We continue to explore the central role of Whiteness as ideology, discourse, and social practice in a democratic racialized society. Throughout the book, the authors analyze how Whiteness functions as a racial signifier in the preservation of systems of domination and as a vehicle to reinforce structural inequality. Whiteness is examined as a process, “a constantly shifting location upon complex maps of social, economic and political power” (Ellsworth, 1997:264). It is important to emphasize that when we speak of Whiteness, we are not critiquing White people as individuals, but rather see Whiteness as an invisible social process by which power and privilege is exercised in a society divided by colour, as well as other social markers.

© Dr. Frances Henry & Carol Tator

Extracts From Writings
The Equity Myth: Racialization
and Indigeneity at Canadian Universities
The Colour Of Democracy:
Racism In Canadian Society

© Dr. Frances Henry