Racism needs to be understood as pervasive and systemic, not simply on a case-by-case basis
Westport, Nfld. has found itself under the microscope for an incident of blatant racism and bullying of an 11-year-old boy, Torrence Collier, reportedly the only black child in the town of 220 people.
The moral outrage by the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as people across Canada, has been swift and justified. In the hours after the story broke, a number of Facebook pages (see here and here) were created to express solidarity with Torrence and to condemn the children, parents, teachers, and the Westport community at large.
On the one hand, it is heartening that so many people are upset about this incident, and it is commendable that so many spoke out and demanded some sort of change. However, on the other hand, if racism is understood only as a once-off aberration that occasionally rears its ugly head or as something that “a few bad apples” did, the underlying structures of a fundamentally racist white society cannot be addressed.
Sometimes also called institutional or modern racism, systemic racism can be defined as an inherent structural bias against an identifiable ethnic group. In his book Systemic Racism, which deals specifically with the United States context, Joe Feagin notes:
Today, as in the past, systemic racism encompasses a broad range of white-racist dimensions: the racist ideology, attitudes, emotions, habits, actions, and institutions of whites in society. Thus, systemic racism is far more than a matter of racial prejudice and individual bigotry. It is a material, social, and ideological reality that is well embedded in U.S. institutions.
A number of studies of systemic racism have been conducted with respect to the Canadian context, some of which are outlined by Ren Thomas with regard to immigrant and refugee experiences, and also by a report to the United Nations by the Canadian Council for Refugees. Other books and reports have noted systemic racism in relation to aboriginals in Canada, such as the collection The Winter We Danced, or this paper by Claire Hutchings, or this article in the Vancouver Sun examining the soaring, disproportional aboriginal prison population.
Systemic racism manifests in a number of ways: in the education system, in the judicial system, in the workplace, in the political apparatus, and more generally in public discourse, though to white society much of this can be invisible. An example of systemic racism coming to the surface in the political arena is of then-Justice Minister Felix Collins’ tirade in the House of Assembly, in which he characterized other nations as contemptible in comparison to Newfoundland and Labrador. Other common examples in the public discourse include the oft-repeated stereotype of aboriginals as “lazy” or “looking for a handout” or other such formulations of racist attitudes.
The overt and clearly visible racism directed toward Torrence Collier is not simply an aberration or a case of a few bad apples, but instead springs directly from the systemic racism at the heart of white-Canadian society. The common failure to connect the specific incident to the underlying conditions rests on the belief that white-Canada is in fact the open and accepting multicultural society it purports to be, as though white Canadians have moved beyond the racism of the past. This produces what may be termed “colour-blind racism”.
It seems to me that one way to move in a positive direction on issues of systemic racism is through a dialog with other forms of discrimination and oppression. Thinking about the specific incident of racism in the Westport school, it is all too easy to fall back to a position of saying something like “not all the white people of Westport are racists,” or “not all the white people of NL are racists,” or “not all white Canadians are racist.”
This is similar, in some ways, to the retort “not all men” to critiques of patriarchy and discussions of violence against women. This phrase has been appropriated by feminists and women’s rights activists, among others, to satirically highlight the systemic nature of patriarchy and violence against women, as opposed to understanding specific incidents in isolation.
Speaking from my own perspective as a man, it is uncomfortable to feel as though I am being lumped into such a broad category, but at the same time I feel that #notallmen (the Twitter hashtag for the discursive intervention) has been important in jarring my thinking about the pervasiveness of violence against women in our society. And indeed, as the blogger elledeeve at Bitchtopia suggested, women recognize it is true that not all men are violent towards women. However, the vital takeaway of #notallmen (at least as I understand it) is that when men use such phrases it closes off the discussion exactly at the point from which it should depart, i.e. the underlying systemic nature of patriarchy and violence against women.
As uncomfortable as it may be, white-Canadian society needs to take a long look in the mirror and try to understand the way racism is, like the example of violence against women, conditioned by an underlying structural context. It is not surprising that on the heels of #notallmen that the hashtag #notallwhitepeople has similarly come to prominence in social media. It is not enough to simply condemn the speech and actions of individuals or to express moral outrage about particular incidents like that experienced by Torrence Collier.
Without serious consideration of the systemic racism inherent in white-Canadian society, apparently isolated cases of overt racism will surely persist.
Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome thoughtful and articulate Letters to the Editor. You can email yours to: justin(at)theindependent(dot)ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.