Demonstrators take a knee to make their point in Toronto. Michael Swan

Cathy Majtenyi: Battling racism starts with looking in mirror

  • June 18, 2020

The horrifying death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer has sparked protests against police brutality and racism in the United States and worldwide.

Lest Canadians view the situation as being an “American problem” that doesn’t happen here because we’re a tolerant, “nice” society that supports multiculturalism, we need to think again.

In demonstrations across Canada, voices of anger and grief have poured out.

Stories of the lived experience of being black in Canada are emerging, stories that have in the past been ignored, politely dismissed or acknowledged with lip service.   

Now is the time to listen to those voices and make real change in government, society and in everyday life.

First off, we need to stop claiming that systemic racism doesn’t exist in Canada. A snapshot of what this racism looks like is found in the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC)’s 2018 report on the Toronto Police Service.

Between 2013 and 2017, a black person in Toronto was nearly 20 times more likely than a white person to be involved in a fatal shooting by Toronto police. This despite the Special Investigations Unit’s finding that “White civilians are more likely to have threatened or assaulted the police than Black civilians.”

Abuses documented in the report include many cases of excessive force levied against black suspects, incidents of racial profiling and random harassment.

For instance, the report describes an incident in which a 14-year-old boy was playing a game with his friends that involved running around in his neighbourhood. Several police officers approached the boy and arrested him for allegedly having a gun and stealing. “They asked for my name and asked me why I was wearing all black,” he said. The officers released him after he explained about the game.

Carding is a racial profiling practice that Amnesty International defines as occurring “when police officers stop, question and document individuals without any evidence that they have been involved in, or have any knowledge of, an offence.”

In its 2019 report on Canada, the global human rights watchdog says black people living in Halifax were six times more likely than white people to be carded by police. In Ottawa, black drivers are stopped 2.3 times more frequently than the rest of the population. Almost 26 per cent of black respondents to a survey the OHRC conducted in 2015 reported being carded by Toronto police.

On a societal level, black people fare poorly compared to their white counterparts. A June 4 CTV report quotes statistics showing black Canadians earn significantly less on average, have higher unemployment rates and are less likely to think they can earn a university degree.

To close the gap in this disparity, and to stop abuses, a number of proposed reforms are being discussed in the areas of policing and access to affordable housing, education and opportunities for employment and career advancement, among others.

Even with changes in these areas, meaningful, lasting transformation won’t be achieved until we commit to ending racist attitudes, beliefs and behaviours in ourselves and those around us.

That involves the challenge of being able to recognize racism within ourselves.

Blatant racism, such as what happened to George Floyd and other people highlighted in various human rights reports, is relatively easy to spot. Much harder to pinpoint is subtle racism that may occur even when we’re being “nice” and well-intentioned.

This springs from our unconscious bias, which a Canadian government training module describes as being an “implicit attitude or assumption, unintentional and a result of our life experiences.” These thoughts are involuntary; we are unaware of them.

The module says biases are “shortcuts” our brain forms based on culture, what other people tell us, our own lived experience, institutional influences and other external influences such as social media.

We become aware of our unconscious biases by first admitting that we have them. To measure our unconscious bias, a helpful tool is the Implicit Association Test. These are tests in a number of areas — race being one of them — developed by three American universities.

We can then actively replace our stereotypes with information we gather through research, listening to and understanding peoples’ lived experience, and by implementing biblical and Church teachings on inclusiveness and love. 

Admitting that racism exists in our lives and society, and seeking the vigorous renewal of our minds and hearts, are key to creating a just society in which all people are valued for who they are: children of God.

(Majtenyi is a public relations officer who specializes in research communications at an Ontario university.)

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