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Whose revolution is it, anyway?

Anyone who has been paying close attention to the Occupy movement knows that “the 99%” is, in fact, several different groups. While it might make for good news reporting, #OWS is not a group with a unified message about corporate greed and income inequality. There is some truth to this narrative, but it is most certainly not the whole story. #OWS can more accurately be described as a collaboration between several different protest movements who have, for the moment, agreed to focus their attention on the overlap between politics and finance, because eliminating the problem will benefit all groups in some way.

There is an easily-drawn parallel between the affiliated causes of #OWS and the atheist/skeptic/freethought movement. They (we) are not a monolithic group with a singular goal – we are better described as a voluntary association of a number of disparate causes. There are freethinkers who wish to see the eventual disappearance of religion; there are others who simply wish religion was out of the public square. There are freethinkers who are activists because of the way religion treats women; there are others who fear for the security of the planet if fundamentalists control nuclear weapons. We do not have a single common goal, but we focus on religion (or, more generally, pseudoscience) because it is a common enemy.

The similarity does not end there, however. Just like religion does not harm all freethinkers equally – think of what an Iranian atheist faces compared to a Norwegian one – rising income inequality may be a universal problem, but there are some fractions within the 99% that, to put it bluntly, have more cause for concern:

The Census findings show a striking difference between racialized and non-racialized Ontarians. Racialized Ontarians are far more likely to live in poverty, to face barriers to Ontario’s workplaces, and even when they get a job, they are more likely to earn less than the rest of Ontarians. Among the core findings:

  • Racialized Ontarians want work but have trouble finding it: While a larger share of racialized workers in Ontario were looking for work, fewer of them found jobs compared to the rest of Ontarians. Higher unemployment rates cut across the majority of racialized groups, accounting for 90 per cent of the racialized population. In 2005, long before the Great Recession wreaked havoc on Canada’s employment scene, the unemployment rate for racialized workers in Ontario was high—8.7 percent—compared to the 5.8 unemployment rate for the rest of Ontarians.

The global recession hit everyone hard, but it has hit minority groups (including women – please think before you quote gender stats to me) much harder. We’ve discussed this pattern of statistics before, wherein for a variety of reasons we see disproportionate harms in minority populations. Ontario is not immune to this effect, and I dare say that I’d imagine this to be more or less the pattern for the rest of Canada. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a group that does excellent social policy research, has pored over the census data in an attempt to show the precise size of the gap in the labour market. Their conclusion: even when controlling for age, immigration status and level of education, there is still a force of racial discrimination in the way we currently employ workers. While I’d like to spend this whole post going over the report in detail, I don’t think there’s anything I could add to their excellent analysis, and there is a larger point I would like to make.

The decisions we make and the battles we fight do not happen in a vacuum. The political and financial system did not come to exist without being able to lean on the patriarchy and white supremacy that underlies North American culture. While we can focus our attention on corporate greed as a major issue (and it undoubtedly is) whose resolution will help many (and it undoubtedly will), failing to pull the system by its roots will only result in it growing back, perhaps stronger. There are groups who have been waiting generations for the revolution to arrive, and who are more than a little annoyed that these fresh-faced (and white) youngsters are getting all the credit, especially when that group uses tactics and slogans developed by those who have been trying to raise consciousness about bigger issues for a lot longer.

The problem with the #OWS model (and, ironically, the problem that only a movement like #OWS could possibly address) is that many of the most visible activists are, relatively speaking, newly arrived to the party. They do not see the struggle that had been raging before they arrived, nor do they see how it is relevant to what they think is the “real problem”. We can look once again to our own community for a parallel. Whenever issues of sexism are brought up, there is a contingent of freethinkers who seek to shout down the discussion by complaining that gender skeptics are “distracting” from the “real goals” of the freethought movement (goals which are, incidentally, rarely defined and usually depressingly myopic the few times a definition is supplied). The problem is not that gender or race skepticism distracts from the True Skepticism(tm); the problem is that many freethinkers simply do not see those issues as relevant.

However, for the same reason that activists who are pro-LGBT, feminist, anti-racist, anti-classist, etc. flock to the freethought movement, many other societal revolutionaries are seeking to have their voices heard in the #OWS movement. The reason is simple: because this is an environment in which a dearth of political power is not a bar to entry. Minority opinions can be heard and become mainstream more quickly than they can in the general public. When there is pushback against people trying to raise minority-group issues in the #OWS forum, much as there has been (and continues to be) pushback against feminist issues in the freethought community, the shock of betrayal is felt much more acutely. After all, this was supposed to be the group that tears down the social norms, not the one that uses them as a club to beat dissenters into compliance.

Whenever we have an example of a social structure – be it religion or corporatocracy – that acts disproportionately against minority groups, we cannot blithely ignore those groups in service of the “real goal”. Not only do we ignore the important fact that the “real problem” is evidently propped up by minority exploitation, but we run the risk of once again ignoring those groups who most need our collective political muscle once the goals of the majority have been achieved.

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  1. Enkidum says

    Agreed. Quick question, though – I haven’t heard the term “racialized” before. Can I parse it as “considered part of a non-majority racial group”?

  2. says

    As an aside, from what I’ve been given to understand, being an atheist in Norway isn’t exactly a picnic either. Even though surveys indicate that Norway is one of the least religious countries around, with only 36% of the population self-identifying as religious (of any sort) in 2005, and only 5% of the population attending religious services weekly in 1995, as of two years ago, the Church of Norway claimed 79.2% of the population as members. Thus, over 40% of Norwegians consider themselves non-religious and yet are counted as members of the Church of Norway. How come?

    Well, the Church of Norway is the state church; it is administered and funded by the government, and the reigning monarch is obliged to profess himself a Lutheran (on account of being the constitutional head of the Church). Registered Church members are assessed a tithe in their government-issued tax bill. You can get out of this, but by doing so, you are in effect excommunicated, and banned from being married, buried or having your children baptized in the Church, which are practices upon which Norwegians still place a high cultural value, even if they are atheists.

  3. Riptide says

    It also, unfortunately, connotes that “white” people don’t have a race. Much like people when from Your Home Town(tm) will say that foreigners “have an accent,” this kind of wink-wink nudge-nudge (perhaps paradoxically) serves to separate people even more firmly. Of *course* people from elsewhere have an accent–and so do you. It’s just a different accent.

    So I’m not “racialized” because I’m part of a “visible” majority that has benefited me simply because of the colour of my skin and the language I speak? To be sure, I’ve not seen as much benefit as other “white” people, partly because I’m part of more than one “invisible” minority and at least one “visible” minority (used to be two, but I got a haircut and started shaving).

    I’m not trying to imply design on the part of the study’s authors, some or all of whom could be PoCs (and all regardless trying their hardest to correct these troubling findings), but these subtle things matter at the margins. How many times does a kid need to hear or read “racialized” to mean “everyone who doesn’t look like me” before some kind of (inadvertent) damage is done? In this way even “PoC” is problematic, though I think less so, as “coloured” is as much an admission of history as it is a description of reality.

    As a prospective resident of Ontario, I sincerely hope The Honourable Mr. McGuinty takes a long look over these figures and strives to correct them. (Side note: I recently discovered that mayors are officially regarded as “His/Her Worship”. How effed in the a is that?)

  4. SallyStrange, Spawn of Cthulhu says

    It’s interesting, actually–”racialized” makes it sound like a process which is being done to you. And it is pretty accurate to say that folks with dark skin get “racialized” by racism while white people don’t.

    ZAP! You’ve been racialized. Before you just had a color of skin. Now it has meaning and symbolism and consequences and baggage.

  5. tariqata says

    Hm – I may be a bit late to the party, but this is an interesting comment. I’m in the social sciences, and the term ‘racialized’ is pretty common in my areas of interest. I’ve always been under the impression that one of the reasons to use the word is to emphasize the fact that in a racist system, the dominant group doesn’t “have a race”, but has the power to assign other people to racial categories and then use those categories as a basis for discriminatory treatment (whether conscious or unconscious). I do agree that there are nonetheless problems with the term, though.

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