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Being shocked by Charlottesville shows you weren’t paying attention

Ottawa Citizen by Rakhi Ruparelia 18 August 2017

Immediately following what many considered to be Donald Trump’s unexpected U.S. election victory, Saturday Night Live produced a brilliant sketch in which a group of friends gather together for a presidential election party.

The white liberals in attendance, confident that Hillary Clinton will be elected their first woman president, remain in denial of Trump’s pending victory even as the election results roll in. When Trump is finally announced the winner, one of the white women, clearly in shock, proclaims, “Oh, my God. I think America is racist.”

Amused by her reaction and not at all fazed by the election outcome, the two black guests (played by Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock) mock their white friends’ naiveté about racism in the United States. They cheerfully advise the despondent white people to get some sleep in preparation for their “big day of moping and writing on Facebook.”

The tragic and appalling events that transpired recently in Charlottesville, Va., have triggered a similar moment of disbelief and surprise in both the United States and Canada.

Of course, we are, and should be, horrified and saddened by the deadly violence that ensued at a white nationalist rally, which included the killing of a 32-year old woman who was protesting against racism. But what, specifically, shocks us about these events?

Was it the unabashed display of racism and bigotry? The extreme violence? The fact that white nationalists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis continue to live and breathe among us, cleverly camouflaged as regular people and proudly espousing their racist and misogynistic views? (Many of these groups assert not only white superiority but also female inferiority.)

Or is it that one of the most powerful men in the world equates white supremacists with anti-racist protesters in blaming “both sides” for an act of racial terrorism, including an absurd, imaginary “alt-left” that he accuses of being “very violent” in its efforts to challenge white supremacy?

For people who live without the daily burdens of racism, such incontrovertible evidence of its existence may very well be shocking. The more common and more insidious forms of racism, including its subconscious and institutional manifestations, are more palatable and easier to deny, minimize, ignore or rationalize using race-neutral explanations (e.g. “We would like to diversify our workplace; we just can’t find any qualified racialized candidates” or “He was pulled over by the police because he was speeding, not because he is Black.”)

We are taught to identify racism only in its most obvious portrayals – extreme, hostile, unapologetic, in-your-face, KKK-type racism. The very kind we observed in Charlottesville.

“Oh, my God. I think America is racist.”

In Canada, in particular, it is easy to dismiss this kind of overt hatred as a uniquely American problem. Indeed, condemning U.S. racism enables us to feel better about ourselves and our own state of race relations; it makes us feel tolerant and morally superior as a nation. Never mind that Canadians also participated in the Charlottesville rally or that we have an estimated 100 white nationalist and supremacist groups of our own.

When members of one such group, the “Proud Boys,” recently attempted to disrupt an Aboriginal ceremony in Nova Scotia, the incident did not attract sustained attention in the media. The truth is that racism, even in its most visible forms, is alive and well both north and south of the border. We just don’t talk about it as much here. Racism? How decidedly un-Canadian.

Why does it take such a violent and blatant display of racism (and in another country at that) to capture our attention? The test of our commitment to eradicating racism at this juncture is not how noisily we denounce such cowardly and hateful acts, but how we choose to respond to the less obvious forms that plague the existence of racialized peoples every day.

For example, how do we correct the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Black Canadians in the criminal justices system, or the racial disparities in employment, education, housing and health care, to name only a few? How do we ensure that every Canadian has access to clean drinking water, a question that we should be ashamed needs to be asked in 2017, especially in a country as wealthy as ours.

Focusing our attention on more overt demonstrations of racism distracts us from the work we must tackle on so many other levels as well.

The need to denounce white supremacist groups should go without saying, which is why President Trump’s deflection of blame is so unsettling. Citizens look to their leaders in times of crisis. (How hard is it to read a prepared statement from a teleprompter anyway?) But condemning racism rings hollow in both our nations if such condemnation lacks remedial action. That racism persists should not shock us, but our inertia in responding to it in meaningful ways should.

Rakhi Ruparelia is a law professor at the University of Ottawa specializing in issues of racism.