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Understanding racism and racial discrimination: Recognizing & responding to the problem in Canada

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We are living in a time when racism and racial discrimination are at the fore globally. The world is being awakened to an issue that is by no means new but has not necessarily received sufficient attention. There is now a global call for radical institutional and systemic changes which acknowledge the equality of racialized persons. While the focus is in many cases on the justice system, it is imperative that the systemic changes, if they are to be effective, must permeate to the core of every society at all levels, including the workplace.

The first step to achieving change is to develop understanding. Most persons have heard the phrases “racism” and “racial discrimination,” but not everyone understands what they actually mean. Racism and racial discrimination, though related, are not the same thing.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (the Commission), in its brochure on racial discrimination, provides guidance to understand the difference. It states that,

“Racism is a broader experience and practice than racial discrimination. Racism is a belief that one group is superior to others. Racism can be openly displayed in racial jokes, slurs or hate crimes. It can also be more deeply rooted in attitudes, values and stereotypical beliefs.”

“Racial discrimination is the illegal expression of racism. It includes any action, intentional or not, that has the effect of singling out persons based on their race, and imposing burdens on them and not on others, or withholding or limiting access to benefits available to other members of society, in areas covered by the [Ontario Human Rights Code]. Race only needs to be one factor in a situation for racial discrimination to have occurred.”

To put it simply, racism refers to a deep-rooted belief system that one group is superior to another. Though morally reprehensible, it is not illegal, unless it manifests as discrimination. Racial discrimination is the act of isolating persons based on their race and subjecting them to differential or unequal treatment because of their race. Racial discrimination is therefore a by-product of racism and is illegal under the laws of Canada.

Canada is recognized as having strong human rights laws; however, Canada is not immune to the problem.  Some may disagree with this statement and state that it is not true of the reality in Canada. The difference of opinion is resolved by the statistics.

The results of an Ipsos poll done on behalf of Global News between April 8 – April 10, 2019,¹ revealed that 50% of Canadians believe it is okay and normal to have racist thoughts.  According to the Race Relations in Canada 2019 Survey² conducted by the Environics Institute for Survey Research and the Canadian Race Relations Foundation,³ Aboriginal or First Nations people followed by Africans or Black people were identified as the racial groups perceived to be most frequently the target of discrimination or unfair treatment in Canada. The perception was noted to be based on personally witnessing discrimination (36%), and 17% of the participants indicated that they personally experienced discrimination.

The statistics also show that one of the places where the problem exists, or manifests is in the workplace. In the Race Relations in Canada 2019 Survey, 40% of the persons who witnessed racial discrimination, witnessed it in the workplace, and 38% of those who personally experienced racial discrimination, experienced it in the workplace.

In the workplace, racial discrimination can exist at an institutional or structural level. It may be seen in rules and structures that are not deliberately or consciously intended to discriminate but have the effect of doing exactly that. More overt forms of racial discrimination are racial jokes, slurs or hate crimes. However, very often, racial discrimination may not be overt but can be very subtle and usually only detected on closer examination. Some of the subtle manifestations recognized by the Commission in the workplace are:

1. Failing to hire, train, mentor or promote racialized persons

2. Subjecting racialized persons to excessive performance monitoring

3. Blaming racialized persons for common mistakes

4. Normal differences of opinion or failing to get a long with a co-worker may be treated more seriously when a racialized person is involved.

I would also add that racial slurs, jokes or comments can also be subtle. For example, a former Senior Project Manager in International Banking on Toronto’s Bay Street said that she was subject to subtle racial slights from colleagues. It was said that the microaggressions to which she was subject came in the form of “derogatory comments about her accent, or expressions of surprise that she was smart and articulate, and presented herself well.”4

The Commission said it perfectly when it said, “[E]ven though you did not intend to, your ’normal way of doing things’ might be having a negative impact on racialized persons.” Organizations have a responsibility to ensure that they are not consciously or unconsciously participating in or engaging in discrimination (systemic or otherwise) or tolerating discrimination from amongst its employees. The steps taken must be proactive. It is good and necessary to have a reporting structure in place where there is an infraction, however, it is also necessary to implement active measures to prevent its occurrence, as far as is reasonably possible. You may not be able to alleviate racism, but you can and should actively combat and/or prevent racial discrimination.

The Commission set out the following considerations that can be used by organizations to identify and address systemic discrimination.

1. Numerical Data – numerical data will show whether racialized persons are being treated equally by or within the organization. The management of an organization can adopt measures to collect this data (such as assessments and surveys) so that they may be informed of what is taking place in their organization.

2. Review of Policies, Practices & Decision-making Processes – Most organizations have internal policies, practices and decision-making processes. It is imperative that these policies, practices and processes (and their implementation) are reviewed to ensure that they do not create barriers for or exclude racialized persons. Further, many internal policies reflect a clear stance on anti-discrimination, however, the problem arises at the implementation stage. We have to recognize the scope for subjective considerations and unconscious biases. It is not enough to have the policies in place, it is important that staff are trained accordingly on their appropriate implementation.

3. Addressing the Organizational Culture – Every organization has its own culture. What needs to be asked is whether that culture is inclusive or has the effect of alienating racialized persons. It is not acceptable for organizations to choose to remain unaware or fail to act when they become aware of discrimination.

4. Training & Education – Educate yourself and your staff on anti-racism, anti-discrimination and anti-harassment.

Assess your organization and determine what, if anything, needs to be done. As Clarence B. Warren said, “Everything can be improved.”


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1 https://globalnews.ca/news/5262461/canadian-racism-ipsos-poll/For this survey, a sample of 1,002 adults living in Canada was polled.

2 https://www.crrf-fcrr.ca/images/Race_Relations_in_Canada_2019_Survey_-_FINAL_REPORT_ENGLISH.pdf

3 Keith Neuman, in an article published by Environics Institute on www.environicsinstitute.ord  on December 10, 2019, described the Survey as “the first of its kind to cover race relations across the country.” Neuman explained that the survey was conducted online between April 17 and May 6, 2019, with a sample of 3,111 Canadians ages 18 and over. He explained that the sample was arranged to ensure representation by province, age and gender.

4 https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/race-relations-study-racism-workplace-microaggressions-1.5389208