Reflections on Systematic Racism and Oppression in Canada
Have you heard the phrase “looking through rose-coloured glasses?” It is an idiom that has been used since the 1840’s to describe a way of looking at life with optimism and cheerfulness. According to Grammarist, a person who looks at things through rose-coloured glasses “looks on the bright side, sees the glass half full and looks for a silver lining in all things.” This type of person sees the world as a good place, is upbeat and hopeful, brimming with optimism and positive thinking.
The Cambridge Dictionary describes this type of viewpoint as “a happy or positive attitude that fails to notice negative things, leading to a view of life that is not realistic.” Wiktionary further describes this viewpoint as “seeing something in a positive way, often thinking of it as better than it actually is.”
When my social media newsfeed began filling up with posts about racism and systematic injustice and oppression about a month ago, I commented on several of these posts expressing my shock that racism against the black community still happens in the world today.
I had several conversations with family members on this subject and made the claim that racism against the black community doesn’t happen here at home in Canada.
My father-in-law graciously pointed out that, while I may not have seen racism happening against the black community at home, it is very evident against the indigenous community in our country.
I responded, “Yes, that’s true, but that’s different.”
Then I stopped in mid-sentence and thought about what I had just said.
Why is it different?
Is it because I don’t believe I should be held personally responsible for the injustices committed against the indigenous community by my ancestors when they arrived in Canada? Is it because I deny that my ancestors had any involvement in systematic racism throughout the years? Is it because I don’t think I have any racist attitudes or prejudices?
Most importantly, why don’t I see systematic racism as a problem in Canada?
Then I watched the televised protests that were held in each Canadian province and interviews from black, indigenous and people of colour sharing their stories about their experiences with racism.
That’s when it finally occurred to me that Canada is not exempt from systematic racism; I am not exempt from systematic racism. In fact, systematic racism has always been a problem since the inception of this country, but we have chosen to sweep it under the rug and not talk about it. We are too polite to talk about the horrible things that happened in the past and still happen today.
Sure, in high school I learned briefly about Canada’s shady history, including residential schools and the Japanese internment, but I didn’t learn the details of the horrors of residential schools until I went to university and read the novel, Kiss of the Fur Queen by Thomson Highway, or the consequences of the Japanese internment until I read the novel, The Electrical Field by Kerri Sakamoto.
In fact, my entire high school learning curriculum glossed over anything to do with racial injustice that was considered too graphic or violent. My social studies teacher wanted to show us the film Schindler’s List when we were learning about the Holocaust, but he wasn’t allowed to show it because it was too graphic.
Shouldn’t that be the reason we learn about these horrific historical events?
I believe that if we don’t remember the awful events of the past, then past will repeat itself. In fact, it already has been repeating itself over and over and over again all over the world. And yet we still sit by on the sidelines and turn away when it gets too graphic.
If that’s how we learned about the Holocaust in high school, you can imagine how we learned about the rest of North American history—how we touched upon slavery in the U.S. but glossed over the beatings, rapes and lynchings that form a part of this history; how we brushed on residential schools in Canada but didn’t discuss the child molestations that were committed by the priests; or how we talked about the Japanese internment during WWII but didn’t mention anything about the fact that Japanese Canadians were never adequately reimbursed for all that they had lost.
Even the novels we read in English class were written by long-dead white guys. In fact, I didn’t learn much about the ugly truths of Canada’s history until I attended university English classes that had novels written by Canadians of colour on the curriculum.
Sadly, my “white privilege” upbringing has infiltrated into my own home reading library. As I write this post, I realize I own more books by white writers than I own by people of colour. In fact, the only reason I own books from people of colour at all is because of my university curriculum and book clubs I joined in the past. Rarely have I ever sought out non-white literature on my own.
It has occurred to me that I am a part of the problem.
While I may not have directly lifted my hand in whipping a black slave or in removing an indigenous child from his home and bringing him to a place where he would be molested by a white priest, I am still guilty of participating in systematic racism because I have chosen to see my world through a filter, or what you might call rose-coloured glasses, rather than face the truth.
The truth that my country has a racist problem.
And I chose to turn my face away, not only because it was too graphic but also because it blackened my viewpoint of the world—a world where racism doesn’t exist and every race, creed and sex is given equal opportunity and treatment.
This has been, by far, one of the worst lies I have ever believed in my life.
And I’m disappointed.
I’m disappointed in myself for not asking more questions, for not digging deeper, for not reading between the lines, for not looking beyond my own lens.
I never meant to be racist. I didn’t just wake up one morning and decide my white skin colour made me superior to other skin colours.
I was raised to think this way, whether intentional or unintentional—by family members throughout the generations; by my schoolteachers and school bureaucracy; by my church and religious leaders; by my workplaces, bosses and colleagues; and by my government and political leaders.
That’s why it’s called systematic racism. The entire system is infected with it. It’s a disease that needs treatment to be cured.
So how do we cure systematic racism and purify ourselves from its tyranny?
First and foremost, we need to take off our rose-coloured glasses and see the world as it is without a filter. Let’s see the good in the world, but let’s also see the bad. By pretending the bad isn’t there, we are only empowering it to grow like a fungus in the dark. If left too long, that fungus will eventually seep into the world we want to believe in and, by then, it may be too late to stop the fungus from continuing to consume all that is good.
Second, let’s not only shine a light in the darkness to bring awareness to the disease known as racism but let’s also be the light. Set an example for your children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews, friends and neighbours, coworkers and strangers. Make a conscious effort to eradicate hateful speech from your vocabulary and stereotypes from your belief systems. Take an active part in learning about other cultures by reading their books, watching their films, listening to their music, attending their cultural celebrations, even talking to people of colour directly, etc.
Third, love God and love people regardless of race, creed or sex. Love is our primary obligation in life, as Jesus commanded, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… Love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39 NIV). Love does not come with judgment or prejudice. Love has no agenda or strings attached. Love comes in many forms—kindness, gentleness, patience, humility, honesty, trust, hope, and perseverance. Unconditional love is the most beautiful gift God gave to the world through his Son, Jesus Christ.
Fourth, practice hospitality by inviting people of other races into your home, to your church, into your friendship circles. Don’t exclude someone simply because he or she is from a different cultural background as you. Don’t assume he or she wouldn’t be interested in what you have to offer. Ask first, then listen, and accept his or her response. Also, don’t criticize someone just because he or she doesn’t speak good English. Instead, praise him or her for trying to learn another language. Offer to help him or her learn the language by having conversations with you. Be kind.
Fifth, shut up and listen. If a person of colour wants to talk about his or her experiences with racism, just listen. Don’t try to offer helpful advice, don’t try to justify the racist act, don’t talk about your own experiences unless asked, don’t get angry when you feel their words are directed at your “whiteness.” Listen. Show compassion. Offer a shoulder to cry on, if needed. Healing is messy. Let your friend work through the fear, the hatred, the anger, and the trauma as you walk alongside him or her throughout the entire process.
Sixth, when learning about historical events, ask questions, dig deeper, research, look for alternative perspectives. Challenge your own viewpoint and the things you learned in school or from parental figures. Don’t believe everything you see in the media as many news stories are written from a biased viewpoint. Don’t accept everything at face value. There are always two sides to a story. Find alternate sources. Look for the omitted facts and viewpoints, the voices that have been suppressed.
Seventh, speak up! When a colleague or friend says something laced with racist undertones or hate speech, quietly take this person aside and address it in a gentle manner. Don’t add your own hate speech or guilt tactics to make this person feel bad. Just explain why his or her words were hurtful. Most reasonable people will accept correction and make the necessary changes; however, if this is not the case, take appropriate action, such as by reporting a colleague to a higher level of authority or removing a friend from your life who continues to promote hate.
Eighth, act! If you witness an act of racial injustice or hear racist comments being spoken to a person of colour, say something, stand up for the individual on the receiving end of hate, and/or report it to the appropriate level of authority. Don’t just stand by and let it happen. Racism is never acceptable in any situation and if enough people speak up about it, then perhaps we can finally bring an end to the hate.
I know this is a lot to digest, but I hope reading this blog post will be as helpful to you on your own journey as writing it was to me. By taking the time to reflect on my own personal belief systems and attitudes, I feel like my vision is clearer for the first time since I made the conscious decision to remove my rose-coloured glasses and see the world as it really is, not as I want it to be.
However, I acknowledge that there is still much work to be done. We can’t expect to end racism overnight. It’s an entire process that will require dismantling the belief systems we were raised to believe in, relearning parts of history that were omitted from our history books, eradicating hate speech from our language, and taking steps to move forward in love and acceptance as we walk alongside our brothers and sisters of colour and help them work through the trauma, the hurt and the painful memories.
All of this will take time and will require a lot of patience, persistence, love and grace. Many tears will be shed and there may be a lot of angry words spoken, but I believe healing and unity is possible because we have an all-powerful Heavenly Father who is working hard behind the scenes to unite all of his lovely children together in love.
And with God, all things are possible.
You are not alone.
You. Are. Loved.
I hope you find love, hope and peace in these words.