Your mind isn’t colourblind

Images of empowerment can defeat subconscious racism

A study just released by Statistics Canada projects that by 2031 at least one in three Canadians will belong to a visible minority group. Canada’s attitude toward multiculturalism is paradoxical, simultaneously promoting sustenance of cultural practices while espousing that we live in a colourblind society in which everyone is equal. As Canada’s cultural mosaic becomes more variegated, we must re-open our eyes (and not just our salivating-for-samosas-mouths) to the results of this diversity.    
Last year, Lawrence Hill, author of the prize-winning The Book of Negroes, told The Daily that “racial prejudice and racial discrimination still mark many aspects of Canadian life.” He added, “If you don’t believe it, just ask someone who at two o’clock in the morning is driving in a luxury vehicle, what it’s like to be pulled over because they’re black. I think it is a fantasy that is quintessentially Canadian to say that we live in a colourblind society.”    
The fact is that we have an urge to classify everything, and this includes racial classification. I categorize my high school philosophy teacher – one of the most eloquent, erudite individuals I’ve hitherto encountered – as black. Classification and categorization are psychological inevitabilities that aren’t in themselves condemnable, affirms Michael Inzlicht, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto whose research focuses on the brain’s processing of prejudice and stereotypes.

“Our need to classify and categorize is an essential part of being human. If we didn’t possess and employ this ability, we would literally be like children seeing the world for the first time every time we looked around,” says Inzlicht. “A vast majority of these images of classification are unconscious, arising without any level of volition. The framework of our brains which supports them is necessary for our survival. It only becomes sinister when we assert that one category is intrinsically better than another.”

Because it’s no longer socially acceptable to express antagonism toward any one group, Inzlicht explains that prejudice has developed into two types, modern and implicit, “A modern racist is someone who hides their racism behind things like objections to social policies. But the deeper issue is that most people who are prejudiced and have stereotyped views aren’t aware of it themselves. This is implicit prejudice.”             
These categorizations nestled into our crania are akin to filmstrips that play through our minds without much control. However, these filmstrips have been dubiously recorded. Charmaine Nelson, a professor of art history at McGill who has extensively studied Canadian racial politics, asserts, “We are socialized into a racist society.”

Enter philosophy teacher anecdote: He’s driving with kids and wife in Toronto and speeding to get his kids to a game on time just like the white soccer moms beside him. He is stopped by the police. Having been through this countless times before, he prepares to read off what he dubs the script of Canadianness. The dialogue involves the statement “I’m sorry, I was rushing to take the kids to hockey” (emphasize the hockey), articulated with verbosity. According to him, this assumption of Canadianness, replete with a rich dose of exaggerated diction, lets him off the hook every time.

The empirical evidence for the invented crime of “driving while black” is overwhelming. An investigative report on racial profiling conducted by the Toronto Star last month found that black Canadians are three times more likely than white Canadians to be stopped by the Toronto police. It analyzed 1.7-million “contact cards” collected by the police from 2003 to 2008 that identified the characteristics of the individuals stopped by authorities. The study confirmed that belonging to a visible minority group is undeniably a red-card trait for possible criminal tendencies as evaluated by the Toronto police. This racism is felt by its victims. Statistics Canada’s Ethnic Diversity Survey found that 32 per cent of the Canadian participants who identified as black reported experiencing some form of racial discrimination, either sometimes or often.      

Despite these telling statistics, there are skeptics who rebut that these claims of discrimination are the paranoid, self-inflicted result of a bad case of imagined racism with which Canada is afflicted. One of these naysayers is the National Post’s Barbara Kay. In her article “Multiculturalism was Canada’s Biggest Mistake,” Kay states that “Multiculturalism is idealistic in theory, but its real effect has been the entrenchment in our intellectual and cultural elites of an unhealthy obsession with a largely phantom racism amongst heritage Canadians that no amount of penance or cultural self-effacement can ever transcend.”

However, the Toronto Star report proves that racism does exist. Furthermore, a study recently conducted for the Association for Canadian Studies came to the chilling conclusion that many people condone these racist practices. The study found that almost two-fifths of Canadians support the use of racial profiling.

 Whether or not we choose to recognize it, inequality is widespread. A report issued by the United Nations concluded that visible-minority Canadians face rampant discrimination in policing, education, and labour, based on findings from visits to Canadian cities, including Montreal, in October 2009.  
Inzlicht notes that, psychologically speaking, this discrimination is the response of “racist attitudes which are a result of different parts of brain which contribute to certain emotional responses. For instance, in research subjects, the activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain in the frontal lobes in which activity is triggered by weariness and fear, spikes significantly more when presented with images of black people than when presented with images of individuals belonging to other racial backgrounds.”      
This phenomenon is a result of empirical reality and a deeply-yet-unconsciously embedded internalization of a history that has institutionalized racial hierarchies. The empirical reality in Canada is that Caucasian people still form a majority – five out of six Canadians are white. Human psychology is such that we discern things that are unfamiliar and conspicuous to us as discomforting. The white identity has been normalized and universalized as the ideal identity of beauty, power, and recognition.

The infrastructures of these institutions leave scant space for realistic understandings of racial politics. Due to centuries of racism, visible minorities often project inferiority onto themselves. In the book Crafting Selves: power, gender, and discourses of identity in a Japanese workplace, Dorinne K. Kondo, professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California, asserts that, “People inevitably participate in their own oppressions, buying into hegemonic ideologies even as they struggle against those oppressions and those ideologies.” People of colour are the most racially-aware and racially-classifying because they experience race. Therefore, they are certainly complicit in sustaining a racial matrix.

This matrix is the deeply-inscribed modern collective psyche which has been wired according to the vestiges of centuries of European racial “sciences,” which were created to justify the colonial projects. These “sciences” institutionalized a polygenetic consciousness that created and maintained a racial hierarchy with whites at the top and blacks – considered subhuman – at the bottom. Despite the fact that we now recognize the absurdity of these racially stratified theories (though for an anomaly, see current University of Western Ontario professor Philippe Rushton) our institutions have nonetheless inherited elements of this history.

These Eurocentric hierarchies characterized “blackness” as a derogatory, monolithic identity whose worth was to be determined in terms of its proximity to whiteness. Nelson explains that the underlying basis for modern racial socialization hearkens back to the early eras of slavery: “Slavery was extensively premised upon the institutionalized rape of black women by white men. These women were exploited as commodities, breeders of more slave labour. This was a built-in incentive for an owner to rape and impregnate black women. As slaves are getting lighter and lighter because of generations of miscegenation and gradients of blackness gradually lighten, terms such as mulatto, quadroon, octoroon emerge within European racial discourses to express racial proximity to whiteness. And the nearer you were to the white tip of the spectrum, the more beautiful you were considered.”

This slave mentality undeniably penetrates into contemporary consciousness. Consider that the vast majority of black women within mainstream media, or at least those considered the most beautiful and powerful – Halle Berry, Tyra Banks, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Vanessa Williams – are light-skinned black women.

This mentality has likewise infiltrated the field of interpersonal relationships. In an episode of Banks’s talk show, she interviews black men who actively pursue blonde partners, saying that they never find black women attractive. Never? You’ve met all the black women out there?
“Desire is socialized,” Nelson declares, adding that, “If there is a black man telling you that he will never date black women – women who look like him – we must consider how this is produced in part from consuming white-dominated media and from a resulting self-loathing that comes from being forced to consume derogatory images of black people.”

In this respect, Nelson observes, “Interracial dating can be fraught with danger insofar as it can be a terrain where people replicate colonial fantasies of racial difference, or what is sometimes referred to for blacks as a ‘slave mentality.’”

The residue of this mentality within the contemporary scope of media and interpersonal relationships was explored by a discussion recently hosted by the McGill Black Students’ network (BSN). The talk, titled “Shades of Black,” aimed to discuss if and how the media inscribes into the psyche of the black community the “vogue” merit of the varying gradients of black. In effect, the dialogue determined to question, first, whether these social divisions are a real issue within the black community, second, if and to what extent skin colour determines how “black” you really are, and third, how colour affects relationships and self-perception.      
One participant shared anecdotes about a friend who liked to date women of various hues, but wanted to settle with dark black women at the end of the day, for darkness bears connotations of stability and domesticity. Another participant from the Caribbean cited the advice she often hears from her elders to marry better, meaning to marry lighter to maximize the economic prospects of her children. Several individuals from Africa and the Caribbean articulated their confusion and unawareness of the black aggressive, ghetto stereotype. Another Sudanese participant shared the commentary a white friend offered up after she spoke about being black: “But you’re not really black.” Really black? How do we calibrate how black one really is? And why do different gradients of black denote economic prospects and stability?
Arash Abizadeh, McGill political science professor, notes in his essay “Ethnicity, Race, and Possible Humanity” that race does not exist independently from social beliefs about race. So although being a black person means a variety of things, beliefs about blackness are central to racial implications.

During the BSN talk, one participant suggested that stereotypes are simply reflections of reality. He asked, who are the producers and entertainers in stereotypical black “ghetto” entertainment? Black people. So the stereotypes are true.

This is true. Just as true as the fact that there are some white people who belong to the KKK, and there are some Muslim people who are terrorists.

However, we choose to assign these traits as essential to certain racial identities on our own. Throughout history, white institutions have painted static images, which narrow the space for people of colour’s self-representation. Nelson therefore emphasizes the importance of critical spaces of visual consumption, which are often scarce.

“Nuanced representation of ourselves is difficult to find,” she explains. “If we don’t consume critically – and this is difficult to do because we don’t have a variety of choices from which we can select our representations – we are easily brainwashed by what’s fed to us by the media. Therefore, visually uncritical consumers will perform and internalize these images.”

Even if think we are immune to these images, because we know they’re inaccurate, we must all acknowledge our complicity within these racial dynamics. Nelson explains how empowerment and change depend on all parties working to deconstruct these stereotypes: “Black people can do all they want for empowerment and self-advancement…. However, until white institutions of power begin to actively critique their racial privilege and to value difference as an asset, our efforts will not have as much value as they should.”    
The myth around affirmative action policies – which in fact do not exist in Canada, where non-binding diversity policies are the norm – is that they force institutions to hire unqualified people. That’s absolute bullshit. There is an abundance of qualified visible minorities who will only be considered seriously if affirmative action policies are in place.

Nelson asserts that “Perfect equity is not equitable,” adding that, “Excellence in contemporary society is defined Eurocentrically. Therefore, equity doesn’t have to do with the equitable playing field, because that field was initially plowed by white institutions to suit their needs.”

Despite these virtues, in Canada, equity policies are novel and seemingly ineffective. McGill only ratified a formal Equity Policy that considers racial diversity in staffing in 2007. Look at our sea of professors while considering the international reputation of McGill. Nelson is the first visible minority woman professor I’ve encountered at McGill. And we are still being taught East Asian and African history by white professors. Their positions could have been offered to individuals just as qualified, yet whose representational resonance would be substantially more significant.        
When I was first acquainted with the Benazir Bhuttos, Ayaan Hirsi Alis, Aung San Suu Kyis, Condoleeza Rices, and Adrienne Clarksons of the world, they replaced the Lucy Lius and Li’l Kims as the prevalent images of coloured female power. It was incredibly empowering to see that women of colour in positions of power existed, and to see that they were there not for their T ‘n’ A but for the good ol’ cranium.       
This leads to why Barack Obama’s election was of such importance to black communities around the globe (it always comes back to Obama, I know). That the patron of Western hegemony – symbolizing power merited for intellect and ability defined by white institutions – was for the first time a black man, offered the black community a reflection of their identity that formerly only encompassed negative, fear-inducing categorizations. Obama is an incarnation of the idea that normalized ideologies and identities of blackness could and should evolve into a power distinct from the depictions of blackness previously outlined.      
Placing qualified visible-minority individuals in positions of power provides images of empowerment for visible-minority communities. Moreover, it promotes awareness within the Canadian consciousness that excellence can be colourful. However, these benefits will only happen when Canadians decide to see colour for its virtues.       
We are governed by a prime minister who claimed last year that Canada has no history of colonialism. Do the terms “natives” and “residential schools” not ring a bell to Stephen Harper? We are citizens who claim that we are colourblind. That’s a huge problem. Colours paint onto their subjects a consciousness and experience.  Those who do not undergo the same experiences have a responsibility to recognize these invisible dynamics.            
Unfortunately, this recognition is being deterred by Canada’s libertarian rhetoric of tolerance, which claims “we’re different, so let’s just live and let live.” However, this attitude gilds the concerns highlighted by critics of multiculturalism, namely that Canada is simply a culturally heterogeneous hotel in which no one has long-term expectations to commit to cultural solidarity or collective identity. According to Kay, Canada’s slogan appears to be: “We’re here to serve you, and ensure you have a pleasant, worry-free stay. Your family is our family. Our family is…not your problem.”

To effectively rewrite this motto, we need to start seeing colour and creating ties based on it.  Both Nelson and Inzlicht emphasize the importance of interaction with your “other” in promoting the dissolution of our unconscious classifications. Inzlicht asserts that policies prohibiting racism, for instance, are ineffective on their own in preventing the internalization of racism. “Literally being shoulder to shoulder with different people who have different social identities and categories and engaging with them [makes] them more human and more unique,” he explains, adding that this contact “personalizes them and humanizes them to exist outside these categorizations.”