Exceptionalism has typically been used in the past to describe the mentality that justifies the United States’ many many contradictions–the USA can do something because it’s “different” but when another country does the same it’s suddenly bad. This contradiction can be found in, for example, someone who supports the actions of the United States but condemns the actions of Israel: Israel’s colonization of the West Bank is horrific, but also par for the course in terms of colonization, something which can be extensively described in American history.
Anthony Morgan coined the term “racial exceptionalism” to describe a similar occurrence in Canada, where our self-perception of being “nice” is used to avoid frank conversations about racism. The situation in Flint is horrible, see, but the fact that we have piped poison water into Indigenous reserves is different because mumble mumble something mumble we’re nice.
Melayna Williams has a more comprehensive review of racial commentary in Canada:
It’s difficult to determine what qualifies as “nice.” The words “nice” and “kind” are often used interchangeably. When Canadians are characterized as nice, it has more to do with being polite. And 66 per cent of Canadians believe we’re as nice as the world thinks we are, according to a survey conducted as part of The Canada Project Survey, in partnership with Abacus Data. But this Canadian niceness is worth a closer look, particularly because “nice” is how the world often defines us and how Canadians define themselves. Yet it’s used to erase and undercut many things that aren’t so nice.
Niceness has historically been utilized to undercut progress toward dismantling systemic oppression. In a piece published earlier this year entitled “You Can’t Kill Racism with Kindness,” Lindsay King-Miller wrote: “I can think you’re an asshole and still fight for your rights. You can find me unbearable and still fight for mine. And when we simplify oppression into mere unkindness, we provide cover for friendly people who support oppressive policies.” In Canada, this is all compounded by the fact that nuanced and accurate conversations on race remain rare. Here, niceness and politeness are utilized to shut down race discourse and create what Anthony Morgan calls Canadian “racial exceptionalism”—the falsehood that positions Canadians as too nice to take racist actions and to talk about racism itself. “Having avoided the depth and scope of American Jim Crow, we imagine ourselves innocent,” wrote Rosemary Westwood in a 2016 piece that asked “Is Canada too Polite to Talk About Racism?”
The problem is that there’s a wealth of evidence that racism can actually look like it’s nice. Characterizing racism as mean and blatant is misguided and inaccurate. It also means there’s no accountability for subtle, harmful behaviour that is indeed racist. What Christy DeGallerie aptly describes as “nice racism”—subtle “microagressions” and friendly forms of discrimination—can easily describe what Black Canadians tolerate dressed up with the veneer of niceness. Among these “nice” actions: Being asked where you are from, being told you’re intelligent for a Black person or offhand comments about a hair style. They all serve to center whiteness and frame a racialized identity as different. Blackness (and by default Black experience and Black thought) remains characterized as irrational, angry and misguided, while whiteness remains juxtaposed as rational, calm and intelligent.
Read more here. And never let a Canadian tell you they’re too nice to be racist.