Guest Bloggers

Anthony Stewart
English, Bucknell University

A Call for a Canadian Racial Reckoning–For Better and for Worse

The so-called “racial reckoning” that went on in the United States last year, inspired by the most recent shootings of unarmed Black people by police officers, but crystallizing around the murder of George Floyd, has caused me to think a lot about comparisons that might be made between the country in which I was born and the country in which I now live. Whenever one of my American friends or colleagues good-naturedly or just benignly mentions that I am Canadian, I correct them, and tell them that I was born in Canada, it is true, but that never—not a single day in my life—did I ever feel Canadian. My move to the United States almost nine years ago has helped me put into words what I have instinctively felt since I was a child, usually as the only Black kid in my class, sometimes in my grade. The difficulty in coming up with the accurate words to describe this feeling of dislocation from what others might call their home results from a fundamental distinction that I have recognized between being made to feel like a visitor in a country when you are, in fact, a visitor, and being made to feel like a visitor in the country of your birth. Put another way—I don’t mind feeling like a visitor in the US, since I did not grow up here and there are more aspects about everyday American life than I can count that remind me that I didn’t grow up here. This seems as it should be. But being made to feel that I don’t belong should never have been an acceptable part of my life in the country of my birth.

Canada has a long and well-tended image as a beacon of tolerance and open-mindedness, an image tended primarily by white Canadians who look with great satisfaction across their southern border at the United States for a convenient and satisfying counter-example to everything that Canada claims to be getting right. This is an image that is passively agreed upon by people who don’t live in Canada, and who otherwise rarely if ever find themselves turning their minds toward Canada at all. It’s easy to accept an unproblematic story about a place that you otherwise never think about, after all. Statements about Canadians being “nice” and “polite” are cliches within North American popular culture as well as within casual conversation. But this well-tended image looks very different through the eyes of a Black person born and raised in Canada and who decided it was worth trying to live somewhere else, especially if that somewhere else was the colossus to the south.

In 2020, the Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Brenda Lucki, did a very Canadian thing when she reflexively asserted that there was no systemic racism in Canada’s national police force. She then subsequently amended her statement, acknowledging that she didn’t really understand the term systemic racism. This is clearly the case, since if she did understand the term she would have realized just how outrageous a claim she was actually making. In a white supremacist nation, an institution left unaffected by systemic racism would be, to say the very least, unusual. Having ascended to the position of Commissioner of the RCMP without ever having had to wrestle with the notion of systemic racism—or having thought about how her being white might have helped in her ascent (even as being female would have been an obvious hindrance)—is about as Canadian an experience as I can imagine. So is denying out of hand the existence of such systemic racism without ever coming to terms with what the expression might actually mean in the first place. Her thinking is familiar to anyone having dealt with the realities of racism in Canada. This thinking goes: these things don’t exist in Canada, so we don’t have to think or talk about them. We don’t have to think or talk about them because they don’t exist in Canada . It’s a perfect logical circle. If she hasn’t had to think about the meaning of systemic racism while pursuing an obviously successful career in law enforcement, of all possible professions, I’d say that she’s had a pretty good run. Living in Canada really helps sustain this kind of thinking.

Canada’s self-image persists as it does because the tenets on which it has been established have never really been put under much actual pressure. By contrast, white supremacy and systemic racism are under intense scrutiny in the US. Some (white) Americans are only now—for the first time, somehow—coming to realize that Black people are treated worse than are white people in their encounters with the police, as just one marker of how differently groups of people experience life in the US. That such racial inequities also flourish in the aptly nicknamed “Great White North” would come as a surprise to these same Americans. But these evils have been able to persist inadequately examined. On the rare occasions when these evils do rise to the level of Canadians’ attention, there is always a built-in consolation trailing never far behind: at least we’re not as bad as the Americans.

From outside of Canada, the nation actually looks more like Scandinavia than North America, taking into account the climate in addition to the composition of the decision-making population, made up almost exclusively people who would trace their ancestry to Northern Europe. And public discussions about what this decision-making class looks like, and how decisions-making is affected by the composition of this class continue to be kept to a minimum. Such discussions—to the extent that they take place at all—are the almost-exclusive preserve of academic conferences, journals, and books written for the consumption of other academics. For the most part, it is possible that the main purpose of any discussion of Canada’s racial makeup and racial history is for academics to get tenure. And when we remember what the faculty populations in Canadian universities looks like, there is a further irony built into this state of affairs.

In addition to the simple fact that most people who do not live in Canada rarely turn their minds to Canada (one of the realities by which one is struck when living outside of Canada), I’m willing to argue that the main reason Canada looks ‘tolerant’ and open from the outside is the same reason that people living in Canada can continue believing in this national myth. Whiteness in Canada has never come under any real threat. The “multiculturalism” of Canada’s major cities still represents itself primarily as highly qualified immigrants serving as taxi drivers or cleaning hotel rooms. No one ever really has to think about the prospect that the top levels of Canadian life might look different than it does right now and benefit from this difference if these non-white immigrants (let alone non-white people born in Canada) were actually thought of and included as Canadian. No one really even has to consider, seriously, what it might be like to live in Canada as a non-white person, let alone as a “non-white Canadian”—another term largely absent from public conversation. And by “no one,” of course, I mean no one from whom we might actually hear in sustained and actionable public discussion.

In the United States, these discussions take place every day, and you don’t need a PhD in history or philosophy or literature to engage with these discussions. Publications like The Atlantic and The New York Times routinely contribute to a rich and contentious debate about what, in its concrete, day-to-day social realities, America has done, what it is like to live and work here, who gets to be “American,” and how the US might change to become “the more perfect union” it has long aspired to be. Maybe more tellingly, even Fox News and its increasingly more right-wing competition like NewsMax and the One America News Network contribute to these ongoing debates. But voices from these networks cannot merely assume the power of their whiteness. They have to assert this power explicitly (and often appallingly), because they feel that it is being threatened.

A distinction between the two countries may be understood by revising a familiar idiom. Canada is a “for better or for worse” country. But “for better or for worse”—which is the way we almost always hear this expression—creates the misleading impression that there is a choice between these two options, when in fact there isn’t. The “or” does all the work here. But we can only know better because we know worse, and vice versa. The two are necessarily interrelated. By contrast, the United States is a “for better and for worse” country. To take perhaps the most obvious possible example, that means we must be endure the farce of a Donald Trump as the direct cost of having enjoyed the history-making of a Barack Obama. Having moved to the US in 2013, I got to live in a country led by someone to whom I might have been related one generation back. I had to leave the country of my birth to experience this probably once-in-a-lifetime moment. And there is, obviously, a whole separate and ongoing debate about what Obama did and did not accomplish as president, which is not the purpose of my discussion here. But I will say that a lot of politics is symbolic, as the last president made all too clear, and as the backlash against Obama’s election continues to express in American life. At least part of why I have never felt Canadian is that Canadian culture does not reflect my reality back to me.

All of this also means that I had to live through the regime of the 45th president, much of whose agenda was to erase the symbolic presence of his predecessor. But at least he had an Obama to attempt to erase. That is what “for better and for worse” necessarily looks like. The “for better or for worse” model seems to prefer that the nation never descend so low, but the trade-off is perhaps never reaching so high. What’s more, this trade-off is made at the expense of ignoring the real experiences of those who live in a Canada that, for them, feels a lot like the way many Canadians imagine life in the United States to be every day, with implicit and explicit forms of racism as a daily matter of course.

I continue to marvel at and envy the feeling of citizenship conveyed by the African Americans that I know, as well as those I read, even as they criticize their country. I never felt that way about the country in which I was born, either when I lived there nor now as I regard it from beyond its borders. At least from here I am insulated from those “polite” Canadians who used to tell me—when I would express these criticisms to them—“Canada can’t be that bad, since you still live here.” Well, now I don’t.

And as inadequate as any acknowledgment from me is going to be about the recent horror of the mass graves of indigenous children as yet another revelation of the residential school system, I am aware that the Canadian federal government has made statements recently about the injustices of that expression of systemic racism. I have in fact been cautioned by a journal editor to moderate the tone of my criticisms of Canada in light of such governmental acknowledgments. To anyone who might feel that way upon reading my words here, I say to you what I said to that editor: The United States had a Black president for eight years. Does the US look less racist to you now? And I should add something I didn’t ask: Did the US look racist then? When will we feel that we have completed the task and responsibility of voicing criticism of American racism? And what about the racism in your immediate surroundings?

In the United States, Black people are most often insulted by the dominant white culture and occasionally ignored by it, even as their contributions are exported to much of the rest of the world as “American culture.” In Canada, Black people are mostly ignored by the culture and occasionally insulted by it, if thought of at all. Neither option is ideal, obviously. Do I wish the bar were much higher in both cases? Absolutely. But at the very least a culture that insults you acknowledges your existence, even as it tries to erase it. Under the right conditions, that country may even have to listen to your concerns from time to time. In a one-in-a-million set of circumstances, it might even elect a Black president, for better and for worse. Hence, the idea of the racial reckoning. After all, in her denial of systemic racism in her organization, the Commissioner of the RCMP was also blithely denying the lived experience of every Black person and person of color who ever worked for her or encountered one of her officers. She executed this denial of experience without ever having to give it a second thought until she had to admit that she’d never thought about the assumptions upon which her denial of these people’s experiences was based in the first place. And I can assure you that having to think about this alternative perspective just once is not enough to have her rethink her position on systemic racism permanently. I spent too much of my time living and working in Canada trying to convince people who should have known better of the racism all around them, from which they benefited, and of which they themselves were guilty.

A culture that ignores you pretty much never has to listen to you, and can get very good at telling itself a story of its own openness and benevolence because there is never another version of that story to contend with. If the only version of events is that Canada doesn’t have problems with race and no one is heard from who says, “Actually, there is racism in Canada. Just ask me,” then the self-fulfilling result is that Canada doesn’t have any problems with race. Simple. The unfortunate and painful effect of this experience is that it can lead the people being ignored to question their own experience and their confidence in their ability to perceive and give voice to that experience. This cognitive dissonance—this gaslighting, about which we hear so much when it happens in the US—can lead to at least two harmful, self-sustaining effects, both of which are characteristic of life in Canada. One is confirmation bias: everyone knows Canada does not have problems with race; therefore whenever something racist happens, one believes that it’s the result of something else. Maybe “You are too sensitive”, for instance. Or “You can’t take a joke.” Or “You are making everything about race.” In a culture whose dominant narrative is always saying such things do not happen within its borders, these seem like completely reasonable conclusions to draw. The second is the “it could be worse” effect. If racism comes up in Canada in conversation, a habitual response is that racism in Canada—if it exists at all, of course—is more subtle than racism in the US. But this statement is the refuge of people who have never had to come to terms with the experience of racism. The truth is that in North America, at least, the vast majority of racism is subtle. One needn’t be shot or strangled to death by a police officer or lynched by angry townspeople, for that matter, in order to have had your every waking day affected by the kind of racist incident that you tell your friends and loved ones about, warn your children about, or write about. It is in fact the accumulation of daily indignities that really gets to you. The same thing can be said about anyone who says that someone “makes everything about race.” Being told that is like being told that you make everything about oxygen. Just because we don’t talk about breathing doesn’t mean we don’t breathe.

In the US, there is always another story to hear about the country. This truth has been evidenced most recently by arguments over the status of school curricula, monuments, statues, and the national anthem. Even as we hear hurtful arguments that deliberately ignore how a statue of a Confederate general might affect someone descended from enslaved people, or as we hear from someone whose family didn’t own slaves and so (as they say) should feel no responsibility for the country’s history of oppression and inequality, we nevertheless also learn about that history in all of its conflicts and triumphs, its oppressions and successes. For better and for worse.

To those who might be reading this and have never experienced racism, I offer a simple illustration. You only have to think of the cumulative effects of racism in terms of an iceberg. The comparatively small tip of the iceberg is visible above the surface of the water. That is the part of racism visible to you who have never experienced it as a daily condition of existence. That’s the police shooting, the noose found in the school locker, the rejections of “critical race theory” shouted at school board meetings by people who don’t know anything about critical race theory. But the overwhelming majority of the iceberg is below the surface, invisible from land, but nonetheless massive, cumulative, and historical. And all of that accumulated mass harms, whether you can see it or not. All that is below the surface carries its own effects, its own pain. This is also the mass that is added to the everyday, irrespective of whether or not it becomes a national news story, as it almost never does. Most of racism—in all of its big but mostly small and cumulative ways—is not stuff you remember. It just becomes a part of who you are. That’s what’s below the surface of the water. And this is very difficult to understand if it isn’t happening to you. For some of us, in fact, having to convince someone else of the existence or realities of racism as we have experienced it in Canada is another of those cumulative effects of racism. The racism that most Black people who live in North America experience, whether or not white people see it, believe it, understand it, or attempt to explain it away, is almost entirely that huge mass below the surface—invisible to others, but still felt, experienced, remembered, and internalized.

And this needs to be said, because of how frequently I encounter the sentiment that something done now makes up for—maybe even erases—everything that has come before. Just because the Canadian government, or the place where you work, or the town you grew up in has finally acknowledged that racism might exist and may even have affected decisions or actions in the past, does not erase the effects of those decisions or actions. These gestures do nothing to diminish the mass of the iceberg below the surface of the water. Without reconciliation, there can be no real truth. That mass still exists. Maybe it always will. But one thing is certain. It cannot simply be wished away by those who would rather not acknowledge its existence at all, or their contributions to its accumulation over time.

Criticizing the United States is like shooting fish in a barrel at the best of times–a nation whose innumerable flaws are on full display, all the time, for all to see, and a nation that appears committed to developing new flaws every day. To get a sense of what is more profoundly at stake in the ills of systemic racism and white supremacy, we would be well-advised to look in places we’ve been trained not to look. If Canada is as great as so many keep saying that it is, it can probably sustain a little more criticism on this subject than it usually gets.

The responses to my writing and talks on the subject of race and racism in Canada have always both struck and saddened me, and for the same reasons. When people of color contact me about my work, they will most often thank me for giving voice to their experiences. They are relieved to see in print or to hear out loud corroboration of how they have found life in Canada to be. I wish these people found in Canada what I have not found, which is a sense of home. By home, I mean a culture that reflects one’s experiences back to oneself. I want anyone living in Canada and who has experienced life in Canada the way I did and as I discuss it here to take some solace in one simple thought: You’re not crazy. You’re not wrong. These things are happening to you, irrespective of how frequently you are told by others that you are misunderstanding your own experiences.

Anthony Stewart is a Professor in English Department at Bucknell University. He is the author of George Orwell, Doubleness, and the Value of Decency (Routledge, 2003), You Must Be a Basketball Player: Rethinking Integration in the University (Fernwood, 2009), and Visitor: My Life in Canada (Fernwood, 2014). His latest book is Approximate Gestures: The Meaning of the Between in the Fiction of Percival Everett (LSUP 2020). In 2016, he co-edited Post-Racial America? An Interdisciplinary Study, with Vincent Stephens, and in 2018, he co-edited (with Joe Weixlmann) a special issue of African American Review, on the work of Percival Everett. He is in the early stages of his next project, tentatively titled Creating Our Own Internal Weather,which will be a critical reflection on notions of home, as represented in the work of several African-descended writers, some of whom are American and some of whom are not, who write about ideas of home, whether that be United States or elsewhere.