House Call with Carol Hughes

Uncomfortable is good if we are ever going to make progress on racism

We have arrived at a point where being uncomfortable about discussions on racism is no longer a valid reason to avoid the topic. We have spent too long worrying about the feelings of people who, “don’t want to hear about it.” We have spent too long allowing casual racist comments to pass unnoticed, unchallenged and as a by-product, accepted as part of a normal conversation. We have spent too long avoiding the work we have to do on a number of important fronts, but we must engage to address racism in society and the lingering effects of colonialism in Canada in order to make change.

A common criticism of the prime minister is that he uses pretty words to pacify people but doesn’t follow up with real action. In some ways, this comfortable arrangement is what Canadians want, but the time to act is clearly upon us. While the bigger metaphoric fire is taking place in the United States, Canada should not get a free pass on the work that will improve race relations and outcomes for marginalized populations. We have a colonial history, the negative effects of which still reverberate through Indigenous populations. We have many of the same issues that plague American discourse as well and would be well served by an examination of who we are and not who we like to think we are.

Privilege is often challenged in these arguments, but it seems the difficult point to make is that the exercise isn’t about stripping privilege from those who hold it, rather extending it to those who don’t. If viewed that way, the notion becomes less threatening.

Pushback is common too. We see it when people invoke the notion that all lives matter in response to the Black Lives Matter sentiment. Whether an individual is using the phrase intentionally or not, it minimizes the immediate argument with an easily accepted adage that mutes the call for justice without acknowledging the circumstances. To better understand this idea, the fire truck comparison is handy. In the sense that all houses matter, the fire truck only attends to the building that is on fire. The remaining houses on the street do not require special attention. So, yes, all houses matter, but the one on fire deserves the immediate attention. That’s an example of how words matter, but actions matter too and that is where the challenges become more difficult.

One of the more interesting elements of the current debate is the challenge being made to those who consider themselves allies of marginalized groups. They are being asked to do more to stand up to racism in a bolder way and to consider whether they are true allies or bystanders. Jagmeet Singh, leader of the NDP, made an insightful observation this week as he related his experiences with the racism he faced as a child while others would stand around watching. Whether they watched in horror or not, he felt their lack of action amounted to a level of acceptance for the way he was being treated.

Racism can’t go unchallenged, but it doesn’t always need to be a grand show-down. Noticing little things and pointing them out in an informative conversational tone can make a point without challenging a person on the nature of their character. And we can understand that an exercise like this isn’t about bashing Canada, it is about improving Canada in a way that allows more people to enjoy the benefits of our nation based on their abilities, not what race, community or circumstances they were born into. We have undertaken some important work in recent years with inquiries into residential schools and murdered and missing Indigenous women, but we have more to do as well. It will be an uncomfortable process that leads to better outcomes and a stronger, more equitable and stable society.