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Don’t take Black history out of context

Ottawa CItizen by Rakhi Ruparelia 18 February 2015

I hear Sister Sledge’s We Are Family running through my head whenever I see evidence of Canada’s self-congratulatory satisfaction in our professed racial harmony and multicultural success. The most recent trigger was the poster created by the government of Canada in honour of Black History Month. It features strong, dynamic, and inspirational athletes beneath the headline: “Proud of Our History.”

But I can’t help wondering, as a nation, should we be proud of that history?

Certainly, our Black citizens deserve recognition for their extensive achievements and contributions to Canadian society (and for more than one month out of the year). But an account of Black history in Canada is woefully incomplete without an understanding of how racism has informed and shaped it. Ironically, February’s feel-good Black history celebrations often ignore the very historical context that would prevent us from repeating past injustices.

The truth is that all of our key social and political institutions were founded on racist beliefs and practices. Take, for example, our criminal justice system. Freely available and widely used narcotics such as opium and cocaine were first criminalized in an attempt to socially control particular racial groups, including Chinese immigrants and African Canadians. Today, those laws are firmly entrenched in our ongoing “war on drugs.”

As Canadians, we like to congratulate ourselves for not being the United States, but we, too, participated in slavery, discriminated through our immigration policies, and segregated schools and residences. In fact, the last segregated school in Canada remained open until 1983!

Racism in our country may be less overt today, but it flourishes in new and often more sophisticated forms. Rather than fixating on whether or not specific incidents are racist, we should be asking how our institutions are embedded with racism and what we can do about it.

Are we, for instance, really still debating whether white performers dressing up in “blackface” is racist? When a white actor in Quebec recently painted his face black to portray hockey star P.K. Subban, the artistic director of the theatre company was “shocked, outraged, and humiliated” by accusations of racism. She admonished critics for taking the portrayal too seriously (funny how so many of us seem to lack a sense of humour about racism). While some commentators flatly denounced what happened, others suggested that it wasn’t derogatory or humiliating. One claimed that it depended on whether Subban himself was offended. This type of debate survives only when we deny the racist roots of “blackface” performances and diminish the collective harm that Black and other racialized communities experience when confronted with such practices.

Ignoring historical context makes it easier to downplay the racism that racialized Canadians experience today. It enables us to blame Black Canadians and Aboriginals for their disproportionate rates of criminalization and incarceration, for their devastating levels of unemployment and poverty, and more generally for the individual and systemic discrimination that they encounter at every turn. It also allows us to discount racism as aberrant, as the deplorable acts of a few bigots, rather than understanding it as structural, institutional and omnipresent.

Historical context forces us to confront the inconvenient truth: the playing field is not level, and we don’t always earn our successes and failures. The effects of centuries of racist treatment do not magically disappear because we choose to disregard the past; to the contrary, they persist in our stubborn denial of their continued relevance.

As a nation, we created the conditions in which Black citizens had to struggle against racism, to become resilient, to achieve against odds. So it’s hypocritical to celebrate the individuals who were forced to overcome barriers without also recognizing our own role in erecting them. Black History Month is not only about Black Canadians; it’s about the history we all share and the role we all play in dismantling racism, regardless of our skin colour. 

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