The R Word

Racism is like alcoholism — you can’t deal with it until you admit that you have a problem with it. Somehow the same people who might agree that Canada is filled with systemic discrimination, in virtually every institution or sector imaginable, also seem to believe that no one is a racist. (Well, maybe those boot-wearing, skinhead white supremacists, but no one else.)

No one in government, education, law, health-care, business, or social services even wants to hear the words “racism” or “racist” – they are just too harsh. How then can we deal with the harsh and deeply entrenched reality of racism if we dare not speak its name?

Over the past few months I have been shocked when a variety of people in a variety of institutions have been unable to cope with a mention of racism. They have an apparently visceral reaction to the word, which results in a range of responses from dismissing it as nonsense to labeling it an extreme allegation.

In my experience the average person is able to talk about discrimination – maybe even racial discrimination. My theory is this: discrimination is an acceptable topic of conversation because it’s a little more inclusive, and many more of us have had to deal with discrimination than have had to deal with racism. Since white people have faced discrimination on the basis of gender, family status, disability or religion, we can talk about discrimination. But the white majority rarely experiences racism – they and the institutions they have created are the perpetrators of racism, and they don’t want to talk about it. If you want to clear the room, just say the R word. It’s much more effective than the F word!

And maybe reference to the F word is relevant. Once long, ago, I lived in a university residence that was home to a fairly mixed population including typical university-aged students and some middle-aged female instructors. We all ate in the residence dining room, sharing tables and conversation without age or gender barriers. The F word was used liberally by university students, a habit disapproved of by some of the middle-aged instructors – and one was more vocal about it than most. She often made remarks like: “Can’t you tell us the story without using THAT WORD?” Finally, one night a student turned to her and said, “Mary, just go to your room and stand in front of your mirror and say THAT WORD to yourself a hundred times until the shock value wears off.”

I don’t know if she ever did, but maybe that’s what we have to do with the R word: Stand in front of our mirrors and say “racist” a hundred times until the shock value wears off. Then maybe we can start having meetings and introduce ourselves: “My name is Ruth and I’m a racist, and this is what I’m doing about it.” (I don’t know enough about 12-step programs to propose a complete program to recover from racism, but I think just making that start would be a step in the right direction. People more in the know than I assure me that other steps would be relevant as well: apologizing and making amends were mentioned.)

Our society is racist and our institutions are racist. We don’t want to talk about it, but until we talk we can’t do anything about it. Maybe we think that human rights codes have been in place long enough that it’s not an issue anymore, but racism persists. People who are quick to recognize discrimination on other grounds pooh-pooh claims of racism, but I see it often. For example, when a white man with a high GPA and LSAT score screws up and fails out of law school we never think “Wow, we’ll never admit one of them again!” However, when an Aboriginal student screws up and fails out of law school I have been told that there needs to be a review of the Aboriginal admissions policy (though oddly there is no need to review the policy about academic support!).

There are lots of studies about what needs to be done about for, or to, Aboriginal people (or the Aboriginal problem) in any given context: justice, education, etc. Now we need to focus the telescope or microscope on the people who normally do the studying. We need to look at, and understand, the racism that the country and all its institutions were built on. We need to look at what all of those institutions did, and are still doing, to Aboriginal people. We need to focus on racism and how to eliminate it. We need to be able to say, and hear, the R word, and then do something about it.

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