Last weekend I attended a facilitator training by CitizenU on Anti-discrimination. Having been part of the ArtQuake team for less than a week, I didn’t know what to expect from the weekend. It turned out to be a wonderful experience. Apart from getting to know and bonding with ArtQuake co-founders Tahia and Jannika, I discovered some fascinating yet disturbing facts about the history of racism in Vancouver, which plunged me into a deep reflection about forms of racism today.
Not too long ago…
For those of us born in the late 80’s it’s always shocking to be reminded that legal and institutionalized racism existed in Canada as little as 50 years ago. Consider that it was only in 1960 that ‘Status Indians’ living on reserves received the right to vote in federal elections for the first time. We watched a documentary during the training which showed that there were growing branches of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in Canada during the 1920s and 1930s, but even in 1980 the Canadian Knights of the KKK had about 2,500 committed Klan members, from recruits in urban British Columbia schools, Vancouver high schools, the University of British Columbia, and the B.C. Institute of Technology, most of which were very young.These members were white supremacists who were against immigration of other races to Canada. Did you know that during World War Two Canadians of Japanese origin, including Canadian-born and naturalized citizens (men, women and children) were detained, relocated, and expelled from their British Columbia homes, and 23,000 Japanese Canadians were sent to detention camps in the interior of BC, Southern Alberta and Manitoba? Chinese Canadians were only given the right to vote in Federal elections in 1947, and Indigenous People were given the right to vote in B.C. in 1950.
Laws change, but attitudes don’t disappear overnight
Yes, we have come a long way as a society; our laws now declare and protect the rights of all people regardless of race, national origin, sex and gender, etc. But deeply-rooted attitudes do not change as quickly as written laws do. There are still many barriers to equality and equity in Canada–mostly due to people’s attitudes and beliefs about other races and cultures. For example, I recently heard a news story that a study at UBC found that people with “white” sounding names were 40% more likely to get a job interview than people with foreign sounding names with the identical resumes. Another example is that ethnic minorities are underrepresented in Canadian entertainment and negative stereotyping is still common. See this article about Racial Stereotyping in the Canadian Media.
Racism is “Beautiful”
One of the most prevalent outlets of racist attitudes is in the beauty industry– not only in Canada but in most of the Western world. It’s apparent to any observer that the ideal of beauty propelled by the media is based on “white” or Western European physical appearance. Most models, actresses and artists in popular media have European features and even the ones that are “ethnic” still have lighter skin tones and features such as narrow noses or finer facial structures. What disturbs me the most is that people of other ethnicities– especially women– have taken this ideal of beauty to be true and then feel pressured to modify their appearance to look more “white.” Let’s look at one example of a physical trait that is closely associated with beauty: hair. If you walk into any hair product aisle in any store in Vancouver you will probably find that most hair products will claim to make your hair silkier, smoother, and less frizzy. Most of the models on these bottles will be showing off long, straight, or wavy silky hair. This is precisely the kind of hair that “white” people have and some other races can never have naturally. I recently watched a great documentary by comedian Chris Rock called “Good Hair.” He decided to make this film after his little daughter came home from school one day crying and asking him why she doesn’t have “good hair.” He shoes how much trouble African American women go through to make their hair look more “beautiful” (by the standard of “white” hair) at the expense of their health and by going beyond their financial means. He also discusses deeply rooted racist attitudes that are behind such behaviour. I highly recommend watching it!
What I can do
The first thing that I am going to do as an individual is to be conscious and to question my own attitudes and beliefs. I recognize that I may be influenced by racist attitudes and notions that are bombarding me in the media. Am I as a young female accepting the standards of beauty that are promoted by the media and by various industries? Am I unconsciously supporting these standards by attempting to conform my appearance? The next step is to engage in discussion with other youth about these issues. It could be an organized event or discussion or it could be as simple as having a meaningful conversation with a friend about the documentary I watched. What counts is the effort to bring these issues to the forefront of popular discourse so that the less obvious forms of racism in our society can be recognized and denounced.
CBC News, “Job applicants with foreign names have lesser chance for interviews: UBC study.” Online at http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/story/2009/05/20/bc-ubc-job-study.html
Uhríková, Dominika. “Racial Stereotyping in the Canadian Media.” Online at http://perspectiveszine.webnode.sk/news/racial-stereotyping-in-the-canadian-media1/
Vancouver Status of Women, ” History in our Faces on Occupied Land: A Race Relations Timeline” Online at http://www.vsw.ca/Documents/RRTimelineJune10thFINAL.pdf