Most Canadians would deny that theirs is a racist country. Scholars refer to the White Paper (1976) on multiculturalism and the Multiculturalism Act (1988) as proof that Canadians “celebrate diversity.” But there are many sides to this story. While the idea of race has officially been dispelled since geneticists working on The Human Genome Project found as much genetic variation between members of the same ethnic group as between different groups, the idea of difference persists. The Multiculturalism Act encouraged people of every ethnic group to retain their own languages and cultures while integrating into their lives in Canada. Yet there are constant barriers to this in practice.
Structural and institutional racism
Canadian banks may no longer practice mortgage redlining, but there are plenty of other examples of structural and institutional racism in our society. Carlos Teixeira, an Associate Professor at UBC (Okanagan), did a study in 2006 comparing housing trajectories of Portuguese immigrants from Angola, Mozambique and the Azores. He found that black Portuguese immigrants faced significant racism in the housing market compared to white Portuguese immigrants. Robert Murdie, who has now retired from York University, found similar results in his comparison of Portuguese and Somali housing trajectories (2002). There are many studies documenting the difficulties immigrants to Canada face in the labour market: employers will not hire anyone without “Canadian experience.”
While most Canadians with anglo-sounding names would probably urge incoming immigrants to keep their names, in everyday life it is often just easier for Chinese immigrants to go by their English variants, like Josephine for Ji Ling. Indian immigrants often shorten their names to anglo-sounding equivalents: I recently met a Kal who had shortened the considerably lengthier Kalvinder, and a Dee whose full name was Deepali. Indeed, my adolescence and young adulthood was peppered with anglo-ethnic hybrid names. While we were often criticized for “wanting to become white” (by our co-ethnics) or “losing our roots” (by our white friends), in practice it is just annoying to have your name mispronounced and misspelled on a daily basis.
Philip Oreopolous’ study at the University of British Columbia suggests prejudice against ethnic names may be more than just an annoyance. A Professor of Economics at UBC, Oreopolous created 6,000 mock resumés to represent recent immigrants and Canadians with and without non-English names. They were tailored to job requirements and sent to 2,000 online job postings from employers across 20 occupational categories in the Greater Toronto Area, Canada’s largest and most multicultural city. Applicants with English-sounding names got almost 40% more callbacks from employers than those with Chinese, Indian, or Pakistani sounding names. All applicants had at least a Bachelor’s degree, plus any additional qualifications specified in the job ad, and each applicant listed three previous jobs. Changing only the location of the applicant’s job experience, from Canadian to foreign, lowered callbacks by 5-10%. Employers valued Canadian work experience far more than a Canadian education. Oreopolous concluded that there is considerable employer discrimination against ethnic Canadians and immigrants; even when the person evaluating resumes spoke with an accent or had an ethnic-sounding name, they still preferred English-sounding names by a factor of 1.42. Oreopolous points out that this type of discrimination is illegal under the Ontario Human Rights Act. In this case, both the employer and the potential employee lose; the employer has purposely overlooked a potential employee with the appropriate skills and education. Oreopolous’ results cannot help but highlight institutional racism, which is more than a little surprising in the GTA, which is 46% foreign-born; China, India, and Pakistan are the three top source countries for immigrants. In a city and region so multicultural, that has been an immigrant reception center for over a hundred years, there is no way for employers to tell whether a person is a first-, second-, or third-generation immigrant, solely by looking at their name.
While Oreopolous points out the obvious legal implications of this discrimination, many scholars would call this modern racism rather than institutional or structural racism. Modern racism is a slippery concept: the Ontario Human Rights Commission issued a policy in 2005 stressing the subtler forms of discrimination. Examples of modern racism in the workplace are:
- Exclusion from formal or informal networks
- Denial of mentoring or developmental opportunities such as secondments and training that was made available to others
- Differential management practices such as excessive monitoring and documentation or deviation from written policies or standard practices
- Disproportionate blame for an incident
- Assignment to less desirable positions or job duties
- Treating normal differences of opinion as confrontational or insubordinate
- Characterizing normal communication as rude or aggressive
- Penalizing a person for failing to get along with someone else, e.g. a co-worker or manager, when one of the reasons for the tension is racially discriminatory attitudes or behaviour of the co-worker or manager
Differences in name, accent or manner of speech, clothing and grooming, diet, beliefs and practices, and leisure preferences can bring out subtle acts of racism. Because of language differences, member of various ethnic groups communicate in different ways. For example, in some cultures it is normal to wait several seconds after a person is finished speaking before responding; in anglo-North American culture the pause time is under one second. Those with the longer pause time would think they were being constantly interrupted by those with the shorter pause time. Underlining, or repeating the last few words of a person’s sentence at the same time as they are speaking, is common in some cultures but considered rude by North Americans.
Another common form of subtle racism is co-opting part of an ethnic culture: it is considered fashionable for a white person to wear a sari or practice yoga, but not an Indian person. I would add that in Canada we have the practice of “celebrating diversity” by having silly cultural festivals, yet we do not tolerate difference on a daily basis. A few years ago, a friend of mine told me his daughter was asked to return one day from school because she had henna tattoos on her hands. My friend, a Canadian of Indian ethnicity who is married to a white Canadian, said the school official told him the school did not allow tattoos at school. A few months later, the same official asked if his daughter could bring some sort of Indian food to a school multicultural festival.
Assuming that members of the same ethnicity are all the same is another example of subtle racism. Most of my Indian friends fend off questions about where the good Indian restaurants are, if we like Bollywood movies, and whether we have been to India; yet in most cases, we would have been teased mercilessly for liking Indian food, movies, or culture during our childhood and adolescence. In Outliers (2008), Malcolm Gladwell addresses the assumption that Asians are better at math. We even find examples of racism in terminology: what groups fall under the heading of “Asian”, and can they be grouped together as if they are all similar?
Joe Darden, a Professor of Geography at Michigan State, argues that denial of subtle and institutional racism allows Canadians to avoid changing legislation or monitor practices that discriminate against non-whites. Along with most other scholars, Darden points out that Canada has a long history of racism in immigration policy (The Significance of White Supremacy in the Canadian Metropolis of Toronto, 2004). He suggests that changes in the economy, and not changes in attitudes among white policy makers, were responsible for the removal of discrimination in immigration policy. In the post-war era, the need for skilled workers opened up immigration to non-European countries, while racist attitudes have remained. Like many African American scholars, Darden believes that there has been a transition from overt and institutional racism to subtle racism. Although significant Aboriginal populations have lived in Canada for thousands of years and British Columbia had small Chinese and Sikh populations around the turn of the century, Canada’s racist immigration policies only began to change in 1952. Most non-Europeans in Canada entered the country after 1967 changes to the Immigration Act. Fifty years is not a lot of time to eliminate racist ideologies.
The idea of racism in Canadian society may seem impossible, but various studies have proven there are subtle forms of racism in the housing market, labour market, and in social interactions. Oreopolous’ study shows that racism is present in the most multicultural city in Canada, therefore it must exist in cities with less cultural diversity. Many believe that cross-cultural education is the key to breaking down preconceptions about other cultures, understanding how different communication styles and values. In a multicultural society, cross-cultural training should be offered for all ages, from kindergarten to university, in schools and in the workplace. But Oreopolous’ study, as well as the earlier studies by Murdie and Teixeira, indicate there is also some legislative work to be done, as well as monitoring of employers, housing agencies, real estate agents, and landlords to ensure discrimination is not a factor in hiring, promotion, renting or buying a home in Canadian cities.
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