To bring about systemic change, we first need to identify racist beliefs in our racist structures. Photo by Michael Swan

Cathy Majtenyi: Today’s racism built on bedrock of history

By 
  • September 5, 2020

In mid-August, Unilever urged ice-cream trucks selling Good Humor products to play a newly-created jingle.

Normally a statement like this would attract little attention. But in this case, the new jingle is attempting to rectify a racial injustice created more than 100 years ago.

The old jingle was based on the British-Irish folk song “Turkey in the Straw,” which itself is not racist. But in the 1800s, minstrel performers in the U.S. attached racist lyrics to the melody and used these songs during performances portraying African-Americans in offensive, degrading ways. The tune played in ice-cream parlours and later became the sound of the iconic Good Humor trucks.

Unilever teamed up with rap artist RZA to “re-imagine” a new tune, as “it is undeniable that this melody conjures memories of its racist iterations. Racial issues are human rights issues and everyone has a critical role to play in creating systemic change,” says the company’s statement.

If we are to bring about systemic change, the first step is for us to identify racist beliefs and actions arising out of racist structures so that we know where to focus our efforts. But what if we’re unaware of these structures and how they’re being propped up by trends and events that have endured through the centuries, as in the case of the former Good Humor jingle?

Take the present-day situation of a criminal justice system in which Black people are disproportionately represented in arrests, courts and jails both in the U.S. and Canada.

This is where knowing our history becomes so important.

In her powerful 2016 documentary, 13th, filmmaker Ava DuVernay traces the mass incarceration of African-Americans back to the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865 ironically to end slavery in the U.S.

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction,” says the Amendment, which is still on the books today.

“… except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted…” is one very huge loophole. The South needed to rebuild following the Civil War. It was therefore in the best interests of the white economic and political elites that former slaves become “criminals” so that they could legally continue to provide their free labour, often through a practice called “convict leasing.”

Experts in the documentary describe how African-Americans were arrested “en masse” for frivolous “crimes” such as loitering and how a “mythology of Black criminality” was created to justify the incarcerations. The documentary traces the development of this criminal mythology to the present-day situation in which African-Americans are incarcerated on average five times more than white people.

Canada also has a history of using enslaved Africans and Indigenous people to build the new colony’s economy. By the late 1790s, some 3,000 enslaved people of African descent were in British North America, mostly in what is now the Maritimes, with some in Quebec and Ontario.

As the Canadian Encyclopedia notes: “A persistent myth suggests that people enslaved in Canada were treated better than those enslaved in the United States and the Caribbean. But since the belief that Black persons were less than human was used to justify enslavement in all three places, it stands to reason that the treatment of enslaved Black people in Canada was comparable.”

From that “less than human” legacy sprang our own unjust structures that persist long after slavery was abolished here in 1834. Canadians need to become aware of, and challenge, these structures that perpetuate racist beliefs and actions. Key to confronting racism in contemporary times is to move beyond the pervasive view that racism is mostly about someone mistreating another on the basis of skin colour. So, if I’m white and I’m “nice” to a Black person, I’m not racist.

Robin DiAngelo drives this point home in her ground-breaking book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. She shows that racism is a system, evolved over time, that gives the advantage to white people at the expense of people of colour.

DiAngelo says that when white people are challenged racially, they feel anger, guilt, fear and other negative emotions because they think they are being called “bad.” In her must-read book, she urges her readers to drop their defensiveness, see themselves as being part of, and benefiting from, a system created and shaped by history, and be willing to engage with others to create a more just society.

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

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