Racial injustice has been a personal hot button issue for me for a very long time. My parents were born and raised in India, immigrating to the GTA in the early 80s and I was born in Canada. I've experienced racial discrimination many times before, even though I have several "protective factors" such as being educated, articulate and upper-middle class. Protective factors are in quotes because as a visible minority, nothing can protect you from racial discrimination. At the same time, intersectionality does play a role in increasing or decreasing the level and frequency of discrimination one faces.
Meghan Markle and her family were forced to leave the royal family because despite being beautiful, successful, independently wealthy, eloquent and charitable, the U. K. was not ready to accept a biracial or Black person into such a powerful position. She did not fit the image they had in their minds of who would be a suitable match for Prince Harry. She would never be good enough. The royal family refused to defend her from the constant abuse, although they defend Kate Middleton even when the level of abuse she receives is of much less frequency and intensity. Meghan was seen as 'the other' from the beginning and treated in ways that dehumanized her. She wasn't seen as worthy of protection. People refused to consider that race may be even one factor in the discrimination she was facing. The lack of empathy and compassion was probably also because she was now in one of the richest and most powerful families in the world, being partially funded by the tax payer. The expectation was that the abuse and increased scrutiny was the price she was expected to pay. All sorts of things were said to portray her as a villain in the media, when her only crime was being half Black. The U. K. as a whole will probably take a long time to admit that as they continue to vilify her for stealing Prince Harry (when it was really him who decided to move out of the U. K.). However, what happened to her did cause important conversations to come to the forefront all over the world. I hope that her lawsuit against the British media, regardless of whether it is successful in court, will be a force for change.
When I first saw the video circulating of the police officer kneeling on George Floyd's neck on facebook, my first thought was how is this still able to occur in 2020? After so many incidents like it in the past on recording, you would think that systems would have changed so that this could not happen again. Nevertheless, it happened with 3 other officers present in broad daylight on a busy street in front of numerous witnesses in a first world country. Why? People generally don't do things like this so brazenly unless they think the consequences they will face will be insignificant, or perhaps they think they will get away with it entirely. We have seen this happen before, particularly with White officers and Black civilians. The police have power because of their position in society. Power with an absence of proper checks and accountability lead to the abuse of that power. Targets are typically oppressed groups, particularly minorities, and especially Black people.
With the rise of cell phones, these incidents are being recorded and the truth being exposed so that perpetrators can be held accountable. Convenient excuses used in the past of officers taking innocent people's lives on the premise of defending themselves against aggressive Black men resisting arrest will no longer hold as the public outcry becomes louder, as society demands change. Change will not happen overnight but little victories add up and change on a micro level leads to change on a macro level. Every generation becomes better than the one that came before it.
Overtly racist comments are rarely made in public discussion but the belief that minorities are more aggressive, particularly when standing up for their rights or bringing up systemic discrimination persist. Mistakes are blown out of proportion. Punishments are harsher. Expectations for achievement are lower. The benefit of the doubt is not given as much and there are fewer second chances. There is not as much room for error because judgements of behaviour are immediate and attributed to inherent flaws rather than external changeable factors. Assumptions are made about profession, class and/or social status.
It is frustrating to observe that most people in upper management within organizations or in significant political or judicial decision making roles are White, men, middle or upper middle class, straight, and with no disability. In my view, attempts to increase diversity have been for appearances only. They are tokens to convince people that change is being made by listening to different voices. In contrast, there have been no real changes in who holds the power to make decisions that affect us at the top of organizations, public and private institutions, or at the provincial and federal level. When representatives from stigmatized groups speak up for the interests of that group, they often face consequences internally, their reputations suffer and/or they may lose their positions.
Sadly, people with White privilege often make decisions about people whose lived reality they know (or care to know) very little about, though they may pay lip service to it. Or they may say they "don't see colour", or one is "playing the race card". Race is not a card to be played, it's a non-changeable factor that causes real disadvantages in many areas of life, as evidenced by research in many social contexts. For example, the fact that there is a significant wage gap between Canadian born and educated minorities, and Canadian born and educated Caucasians despite the children of visible minority immigrant parents going to university at much higher rates than the rest of the population. Refusing to acknowledge race is a way for those with white privilege to ignore systemic inequalities, maintain their power and diffuse their responsibility in considering what factors contribute to discrimination and exclusion from the highest decision making positions. By pretending the issue does not exist, it is easier to maintain the status quo that is already in their favour and avoid any change that could upset the power balance. It is easier to silence dissenting voices by inflicting punishment, to teach others vicariously not to speak up.
This lack of empathy for 'the other' dehumanizes the victim, inhibits one's ability to feel their pain, and as a result causes injustices to be swept under the rug or minimized to as great extent as possible. It greatly angers me that when someone complains about racial discrimination, that the judge or person in charge of hearing the complaint is often a White, upper middle class man or woman. Although I have seen a few notable exceptions, people from this privileged group usually lack the awareness and humility to truly understand (or to take the time to learn) the subtle nuances of racism and all the ways in which it has historically (through intergenerational trauma) affected and continues to affect racialized people. These people don't take the time to learn because there are no consequences for them for their ignorance. If you make an appeal, the higher and higher you go up the chain of command, almost all the decision makers are people with white privilege. They have the power and they abuse it because whether consciously or unconsciously, they believe they will get away with it.
As one of my favourite authors Najwa Zebian notes, they often would like to believe something is wrong with you then something wrong happened to you. You are written off as an aggressive or threatening troublemaker when you have the courage to advocate for your rights. This placing of people with White privilege in positions where they have to decide on whether racial discrimination happened, for example in regulatory bodies, organizations, courts and tribunals, shows zero sensitivity towards the complainant and most of the time risks re-traumatizing them in the process. There is usually no way for the complainant to bring up white privilege as a bias or demand that another person of colour investigate the case because it's up to the judge to decide whether they exhibit a bias and take themselves off the case. Bringing up potential bias could risk angering the judge before you start the case and puts you at a further disadvantage. Very few people will recuse themselves if asked on this ground, and there are no consequences if they don't adequately consider the evidence as to why they should.
As a racialized person, I believe the only way to fight back against this is to keep speaking up, keep recording through audios and in journals the microaggressions and keep having the courage to bring up these issues publicly despite attempts that those with power and privilege will make to ruin your reputation. Know in your heart that you are not the labels they place on you. The more people who complain about this treatment, the harder it is for the same person or organization to keep treating people badly. At some point the karma will come back to them. Success is not to be judged just through the outcome, because these justice processes are flawed and the complainant usually has less resources than the defendant. On the other hand, success comes from knowing you used your voice to fight the good fight and you can be proud of yourself for raising awareness and making it easier for the next person who finds themself in the same situation that you did. Behind the scenes the perpetrators do face consequences. This is true even if you are not aware of what the consequences are. Remember that it costs the organization in time and money to respond to the complaint, even if they ultimately settle or win the case. There are tribunals and courts in Ontario that cost very little or nothing to file a complaint, and where the defendant can't get back their legal costs even if you don't win. Organizations do not want more complaints and cases and they do talk to the perpetrators about the impact it has had (or could have in the future) on their reputation. When you put yourself out there, you take a stand for social change.
"We don't change the world when we whisper, we change it when we roar"
- Cleo Wade
In my experience, systemic racism in Canada operates at a much more subtle level, with microaggressions being the norm. As Shakil Choudhury notes in Deep Diversity, minorities do generally have implicit racial bias towards other minorities. Racism is not just from white people towards minorities. There is an automatic preference for white people from most other people regardless of race because there are more automatic positive associations for white people.
For instance, studies show that with identical resumes, those with ethnic names receive far less calls for interviews than names that sound white. This is true even if the person hiring is a minority. The result is that some minorities feel compelled to engage in a process known as whitening the resume, which could include changing one's name, leaving out job experience or achievements which relate to ethnic organizations, and adding in interests that reflect those of western culture. I realize that with a name like Samantha Samuels, I probably got a lot more interviews for desirable roles than with a name that sounds more Indian, like Shivani Kaur. As well, I do not have an accent, so my ethnicity is not revealed over the phone. However, in quite a few instances, once I got to the interview, the change in tone and attitude from phone/email was palpable from the first hello. Sometimes the interviewer would ask general questions and wouldn't write anything down, or they would spend most of the time talking about their organization instead of asking me questions, or they would end the interview in 20 minutes or less. There was an obvious lack of interest in getting to know me and assess my suitability for that specific role. Sometimes they would focus on a factor such as the city that I live in to assume the commute would be too long, or imply that I didn't have enough experience for the role (the city I live in and my experience would have been evident from my resume, so why did you call me for an interview?)
I recall one incident where I emailed a resume to which the clinic director responded that we would meet at a mindfulness conference we both were attending in the next month. He was a White male psychologist who was probably at least 70 years old. As soon as he saw me, I had the intuitive feeling he would not hire me because he was not expecting to see a brown face. Regardless, I wasn't expecting him to evade interviewing me at all. It was the start of the lunch break, I smiled and introduced myself at the time and place we agreed to meet. Without smiling, he said hello and then said "we should find a place to sit down". There were several empty rooms that he made a show of peering into but for some unknown reason claimed those wouldn't work. We could have gotten a coffee at a nearby starbucks but he never suggested that and I knew there was no point in me suggesting it. Instead he said we would meet tomorrow and he would let me know the time later. The next morning, he sent me a text message saying that he couldn't meet and he would phone me during the week. There was no apology for the late notice or reason given for not being able to meet. He never phoned but sent a brief email mid-week stating that since we first had contact that he has had several applicants for the job with more experience than me. It was clear from my resume how much experience I had, and from his website I observed that he did have people working at that clinic with approximately the same level of experience I had. The reason he didn't want to hire me was due to systemic racism, though that probably never crossed his mind consciously. He did after all have a token few minorities on his staff which was otherwise largely composed of white women. There was nothing else to judge me on because we never spoke. After decades of practicing mindfulness, his attitude did not reflect any kindness or humility. I share this story to convey that when microaggressions like this happen, the best way to deal with them is to understand the problem is not within you or with something you said or did, it's with close-minded people like this psychologist, who don't care to do the work in reducing their unconscious bias and the larger systems that enable them to do things like this with no consequences. He knew that there was no one for me to complain about his behaviour to.
This was not the first time I had experiences like this with highly educated people with white privilege and it won't be the last. I've tried to educate people on how their unconscious racial bias has reduced opportunity for visible minorities, and have had them vindictively try to ruin my professional reputation, using their status as leverage. Level of education does not reduce bias, though it often results in people displaying it in a more subtle way. When you persistently follow your goals, the right opportunity will present itself, with people who see your value and treat you accordingly.
There is also an anti-Black bias, which worsens the level of discrimination faced by Black people on top of the level of discrimination that other minorities face. In Canada, Indigenous people probably face the same level of discrimination as Black people. If interested, you may assess your level of implicit bias towards stigmatized groups at Project Implicit.
It's inaccurate to assume you don't have unconscious bias towards stigmatized groups because you have friends from those groups, are married or in a relationship with a person from those groups, that you have been nice to them or that you haven't done anything wrong towards them. The fact is that good people often hold unconscious racial and other types of bias. Holding these biases does not make you a bad person, you just need to recognize that you need to learn more about the nature of these biases and how to reduce them in order to grow as a socially responsible citizen.
One way to do this could be at work. My suggestions are based on what I wish my supervisors and professors (most of whom had White privilege) would have done instead of what they did. To start, if you supervise a visible minority, ask yourself if you are giving appropriate feedback relative to that person's education and experience. The supervisee often can't give you completely honest feedback on your supervisory style because of the imbalance of power. However, if they do, listen with an open heart instead of immediately defending yourself. For example, if you give them a performance review and some of your scores indicate that they were below the expected level of performance in certain areas, be prepared to explain why and give concrete examples to explain your rationale. This is important because there is an unconscious expectation for people to have lower expectations of minorities and be harsher when assessing their performance. If you can't come up with concrete examples, change the score because your assessment is not correct. Check yourself before you suggest that someone should get tested for a learning disability based on their performance on a test or two, or make comments to imply that the program or job they are in may be too complex for them. If they are in that job or degree program, it is because they earned their way in. Ask yourself if your beliefs about someone may be related to a stereotype of their race. For example, I had one professor (with white privilege) suggest to me the first time that I saw her individually that graduate school may not be for me because I couldn't memorize my way through it! She continued that graduate studies require critical thinking and analysis and some people were not capable of this. Although I was angry that she had the audacity to say this to me, as calmly as I could, I asked her what evidence did she have that I memorized my way through my undergraduate studies, where I maintained an A average? She did not even know me. She responded that degrees in psychology just require memorization. She had a doctorate in another subject and I don't think she was ignorant enough to genuinely believe people can do well in any undergraduate degree through memorization. What is more likely was that her belief was actually shaped by the stereotype that Indian students tend to rely on rote memorization instead of critical thinking.
Don't use your years of experience as a sole justification for your scoring. Consider the following questions: What specific actions could the supervisee have done to be better in that area? Were these expectations clearly communicated to them in the beginning? How would you have resolved the problem if you were in their position? If they ask you to explain your scoring in further depth or voice that they feel it is unfair and they explain why they feel that way, don't immediately interpret it as a challenge to your authority. Be willing to hear perspectives of people who are different from you and understand that their experiences are just as valid as yours. Convey that you are hearing them and then work together to find mutually satisfying resolutions. This is where real change happens.
Growth comes from learning about different perspectives and experiences; for example watching films, reading stories or listening to audios/ videos from: women, minorities, immigrants, poor and working class, persons with disabilities, LGTBQ, or people with different religious and cultural backgrounds than your own. These stories are being told and it is up to you to seek them out and listen with an open heart and mind. This process of reducing unconscious bias takes time, effort and a sincere willingness to change.
After realizing to what extent the dominant narrative about these groups is shaped by people who are not a member of those groups, you will start to change your beliefs because your assumptions will be challenged.
I watched the entire series of Little Fires Everywhere in just 3 days and highly recommend it for a thought-provoking look into race and class in America and how it shapes the choices available to us. Elena, an upper-middle class White woman, (who was born into wealth and is married to a lawyer, who is also White) tells Mia, a working-class, lesbian, Black woman who is a single mother, estranged from her parents and was recently homeless, "A good mother makes good choices" to which Mia responds, "You didn't make good choices, you had good choices".
While people can be quick to judge the choices of others, very seldom do they adequately consider what factors led to them having to make that choice, or question if it was actually a choice at all? It is easy to blame others and assume you would do better if you were in their situation but since you lack that lived experience, there is no way to know for sure what you would have done. It does cause discomfort to realize that you may have done the exact same thing if you were them and had the same "choices" to make as they did.
When you have a history of micro-aggressions directed towards you from a variety of places, would you still have the same level of trust in authority figures? For instance, I believe that without recordings, most minorities know that they would not be believed over people with White privilege, particularly those in positions of authority, in court proceedings. That is a prime example of systemic discrimination and is partly due to the decision makers being White almost all of the time. Are White people disadvantaged by not having recordings when they are stopped by police officers? The answer is probably to some degree yes, but they are typically not given as harsh punishments and when in court are often given the benefit of the doubt, even without evidence. However, for minorities, and particularly Black men, recordings are for survival because the understanding is that one is not given second chances without the evidence to back you up.
The power starts to re-balance when we have a collective shift in attitudes and expectations about different groups in society. Choosing to say something is better than saying nothing at all when it comes to speaking about injustice. We need people with privilege to advocate on the behalf of those who don't have it.
When you change your beliefs towards and expectations of people, the way you unconsciously act towards them will change because you will develop more empathy and be less likely to view them as 'the other'. This is making the unconscious conscious so that longstanding behavioural patterns change and we as a society progress in the right direction. I think that's something you can find peace in.
I hope the family of George Floyd finds peace in the fact that his death has sparked a movement worldwide, unlike anything we have seen in the past. He will be used as a catalyst for change. RIP.
Black Mental Health Resources
1. The Most Nurtured https://www.themostnurtured.com/
2. Women’s Health in Women’s Hands http://www.whiwh.com/
3. Black Health Alliance http://blackhealthalliance.ca/
4. Black Youth Helpline https://blackyouth.ca/
Organizations to support Anti-Racism, Equity, and Legal Action
1. Black Lives Matter https://blacklivesmatter.ca/
2. Black Legal Action Centre https://www.blacklegalactioncentre.ca/
3. Federation of Black Canadians https://fbcfcn.ca/
4. The Urban Alliance on Race Relations https://urbanalliance.ca/about-us/
A list of anti-racism resources – including articles, books, and podcasts
Chapters has a list of anti-racism reading resources