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The myth of the post-racial society

By on February 24, 2019

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The myth

In a recent interview that set the internet ablaze, actor Liam Neeson recounted how, upon hearing that his friend had been sexually assaulted by a Black person, he proceeded to stalk the town with a weapon, hoping some “Black bastard” would provoke him so that he could kill them. Neil Price, Associate Dean at Humber College, wrote in The Globe and Mail that Neeson’s remarks destroyed the “poisonous and persistent idea that we live in a postracial society.” But what does Price mean by post-racial, and why is it so poisonous?

The esteemed civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw wrote in a 2017 article, “Race to the Bottom,” that post-racialism could be defined as a “veritable orgy of self-congratulation” that uses markers of racial progress to place racism “decisively in the past.” An American herself, Crenshaw used the rhetoric around Barack Obama’s presidency to demonstrate her point. With the election of Obama, she says, liberals and conservatives alike touted the repeal of the “painful, violent legacy of white supremacy… in one miraculous fell swoop.” However, this claim was quickly and forcefully rebuked by the election of Donald Trump, whose policies targeting both racialized immigrants and American citizens have exposed Obama-era claims of racial harmony as a façade. In Canada’s case, we have never elected a prime minister who identifies as a person of colour and acts as the “photographic negative” of leaders like Trump. Yet Price is a Canadian writer writing for a Canadian outlet, suggesting that he believes that the fallacies of the post-racial society are applicable to this country too.

University of Toronto professor and postcolonial scholar Sherene H. Razack undoubtedly agrees. Dialing in on the Canadian identity, Razack argued in “Stealing the Pain of Others” that, through the consumption of media about Canada’s peacekeeping role in the Rwandan genocide, Canada reaffirmed itself as a humanitarian nation, a “compassionate middle power who is largely uninvolved in the brutalities of the world.” In this way, “the pain and suffering of Black people can become sources of moral authority and pleasure, obscuring in the process our own participation in the violence that is done to them.” For example, why does Canada’s support for the Catholic Church, which participated in and abetted the Rwandan genocide, go unquestioned by many Canadians?

While Razack used international examples to explain how Canada forms its mild-mannered identity, I believe her argument fits nicely within Canada’s domestic affairs as well, particularly with regard to the country’s relationship with Black history. Fitting, considering February is coming to a swift conclusion.

What we don’t talk about when we talk about Black history

Consider the narrative of the Underground Railroad. A remarkable feat to be sure  over 30,000 slaves from the American South fled to Upper Canada under the guidance of several leaders including Harriet Tubman in the mid-1800s. But what does it mean to understand this story as foundational to this country’s national history? Portrayed as the destination for fleeing slaves, Canada imagines itself as a safe haven for the persecuted and the enslaved. Not only are racism and slavery relegated to the past, they are conceptualized as geographically separate from Canadian borders.

More recently, consider the new Canadian $10 bill, featuring civil rights activist Viola Desmond. There’s nothing inherently problematic about celebrating Desmond; her act of protest in a Nova Scotian segregated movie theatre deserves to be recognized. However, the ways in which Desmond and her immortalization on the $10 bill are talked about are very characteristic of the “orgy of self-congratulation” that Crenshaw described.

At the new bill’s reveal, Minister of Finance Bill Morneau commented on the importance of Desmond’s pursuit of beauty school. Despite the apparently “hard to believe” fact that beauty schools did not admit Black students, considering this was already the ’30s and ’40s, Desmond shone in a time when “the deck was doubly stacked against Viola, because of both gender and the colour of her skin” — as if women of colour today do not face similar intersectional barriers. To his credit, Morneau acknowledged that “though we’ve come a long way… we do still have a ways to go in our country.”

In a speech marking the beginning of this year’s Black History Month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shared similar sentiments, saying that “Canada is a country built on diversity… a place where everyone is equal,” even though “the struggle for equality continues.” In the same speech, Trudeau said that “Black Canadians face discrimination and systemic racism, and that’s not right,” asserting that his government is making sure that “every Canadian has an equal opportunity and equal chance at success.”

The Trudeau government’s treatment of Indigenous communities across the country makes it difficult to take this commitment to racial justice seriously. The most recent example that has reached media attention is the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s standoff against TransCanada, in which Indigenous people and supporters gathered in the Unist’ot’en camp to prevent employees of the pipeline company from accessing the road and bridge that runs through their territory. In December, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police entered the Nation’s Gidimt’en camp, arresting 14 people while enforcing a court injunction to stop the Wet’suwet’en from preventing workers from gaining access necessary for the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

The treatment of former cabinet minister Jody Wilson-Raybould further demonstrates the lack of consideration that the Trudeau government is putting into reconciliation efforts heading into the federal election this fall. An Indigenous member of the First Nations Summit task force in British Columbia criticized the federal government for this and much more. “The prime minister has said on numerous occasions that there was no relationship more important to him than that between himself and Indigenous peoples of his country,” she said. “There are so many things… that are giving rise to questions… as to whether those words ring hollow, whether his promises ring hollow, because that’s what it’s starting to look like.”

This notion can perhaps be best summed up in the following: Trudeau’s appeal to the dreams of Indigenous people and other racialized Canadians, embodied in his Indigenous raven tattoo, blissfully ignores the criticisms of Robert Davidson, the Haida artist who inspired this very tattoo. Following the Trudeau government’s approval of the Pacific NorthWest liquefied natural gas terminal near Lelu Island, Davidson said that Trudeau “presents himself as an ally… with our ink on his body. We feel he’s stabbed us in the back.” The project threatened one of British Columbia’s largest salmon runs, and one of Haida’s most critical resources. The project has since been cancelled, citing untoward market conditions.

This dismissal of Indigenous rights and priorities is the exact same thing that the Liberal government should have been criticized for during its consultations for a new national anti-racism strategy last year. Rodriguez said that ‘systemic racism’ is “not a part” of his vocabulary, citing the fact that Canada “is not a racist society, wherever one lives.” Pressured by New Democratic Party MPs, Rodriguez eventually walked the statement back. Interestingly, multiculturalism critic Jenny Kwan said that the minister’s remarks were a “slap in the face of Indigenous peoples,” which is undoubtedly true.

His remarks were also a slap in the face to Black Canadians.

Black Canadians make up less than three per cent of the population but are overrepresented in the prison population at about nine per cent. Black students are also by and large being streamed into applied programs instead of academic ones in high school, and 42 per cent are suspended at least once by the time they finish high school, according to data from the Toronto District School Board. Despite the fact that the Black population of Toronto is just 8.3 per cent of the city’s, Black people accounted for 36.5 per cent of fatalities in encounters with Toronto police from 2000–2017.

On a broader level, the idea that Canada is immune to systemic racism is, of course, not true. A 2018 study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found, unsurprisingly, that racialized workers are “significantly more likely to be concentrated in low-wage jobs and face persistent unemployment and earnings gaps compared to white employees” in Ontario. Additionally, racialized women were “25 per cent more likely to be working in occupations in the bottom half of the income distribution than white men.”

How are we doing?

So how is an institution like the University of Toronto dealing with such a reality?

To understand a bit about Black student experiences at U of T, I got in touch with Irene Duah-Kessie, a second-year graduate student in the Master of Science in Sustainability Management program and Communications Officer for the Black Graduate Students Association (BGSA). “I believe every program at UofT can do more to acknowledge and integrate Black history, issues, and scholars into its curriculum,” Duah-Kessie wrote when asked about whether U of T adequately integrates Black history into its academics. “In my first-year as a UofT graduate student, it was quite challenging for me to find a space or people to discuss Black history and some of the issues I was facing specific to the Black student experience.”

Explaining how the BGSA fills those gaps, she said that it plays an “integral role in fostering a stronger support system” for Black graduate students at U of T. “As one of the few Black graduate students in my program, finding out about BGSA was super exciting for me because there was finally a space where I [could] meet people that look like me and understand my struggles with academia and life in general.”

However, Duah-Kessie cautioned that the prevalent academic and social gaps for Black students cannot be filled by groups like the BGSA alone as students can only do so much, but that the group is “a step in the right direction.” She elaborated that “there is still a need for more Black staff, faculty, and support services that address the unique needs of Black students. For instance, I remember wanting to speak with a counsellor of colour after my first year, but unfortunately there was only one available and he was restricted to only servicing students that belonged to a specific program.”

The university, she continued, “should be working closely with its Black students and the community at large to create more services and capacity building opportunities that reflect our needs and experiences. I see UofT taking strides to fill some of these gaps with the Black Faculty Working Groups, Black Student Application Program and the Community of Support Program in the Medicine Department; however, we still have a long way to go to make other Black students, faculty, and staff feel at home at UofT.”

Her previous work with First Nations House opened her eyes to potential models for bettering resources and opportunities for Black students on campus. “It was a great experience as I got to meet with many Indigenous students and staff on campus, where I learned about the various resources, workshops and events they have available to us. I think what stood out to me was their library filled with knowledge from Indigenous scholars, and I thought to myself how cool would it be to access a space at UofT with a library of Black and African-Canadian scholars.”

On Black History Month, Duah-Kessie said that “in a society where people of colour, particularly Black people, still face the challenges of living in a White supremacist world, I personally think that it is important to celebrate Black History Month… I see it as a month where we are able to remind one another of the accomplishments Black people have made to society in the face of systemic barriers.”

While designating February as the special month could limit conversations celebrating Black history, Duah-Kessie wants to have year-round conversations. However, she believes February is an important springboard for broader discussions. “Although some people may argue that Black History Month in February poses barriers on talking about Black history for the rest of the year, I like to think otherwise. I see it is as a month where we can come together in celebration of what our society can begin to look like if we are open and willing to embrace the past, just as much as we embrace the future.”

The myth revisited

Experiences like Duah-Kessie’s demonstrate the need for increasingly inclusive curricula at all levels of education going forward. Initiatives like the Toronto District School Board’s Africentric Alternative School is a great example. The school, which just celebrated its 10-year anniversary, has a curriculum that focuses on “the perspectives, experiences and histories of people of African descent.” Children who attend the school say that their instructors “encourage us to love ourselves,” emphasizing the confidence they gain from attending the school.

U of T can learn a lot from these positive and diverse learning environments. While restructuring the entire institution’s approach to curriculum would be an incredible undertaking, declaring a renewed focus on diversifying the academic voices we learn from, both in person and on paper, would be a huge step in the right direction.

Diversifying the curricula can also help rid us of the persistent post-racial mindset. As Crenshaw said, “The brutal fashion in which Trump’s rise repealed virtually every plank of post-racialist self-congratulation underlines how flimsy and premature the celebrations of Obama’s top-of-the-ticket symbolic breakthrough were.” Post-racial thinking isn’t just delusional, it’s dangerous. We cannot say to ourselves that the mission is accomplished, when it is clearly far from so, especially in Canada where white nationalist Faith Goldy placed third in last fall’s Toronto municipal election.

We, as students and as Canadians, must make a committed effort to creating diverse curricula that exposes us to the multitude of ways in which Canadians experience this country. That, I think, is one of the lasting messages of Black History Month, and one that will help the country grow in constructive ways, hopefully leading to more inclusive environments in institutions and communities that can truly claim to embrace difference.