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Racism: Whose Problem? 

The reverse side of racism against black and aboriginal people is white privilege.

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For white people reading this article, let me get a few things out of the way.

1. No, I'm not saying you're a racist.
2. This is not about you feeling guilty.
3. Yes, there are things you can do to change things.

BREAKING NEWS: There is racism in Nova Scotia. By racism, I mean more than racial slurs, or even cross-burnings on people's lawns. I'm thinking of deep-seated, hard-to-extricate institutional racism, the kind that's led to disproportionately high rates of poverty, unemployment, incarceration and educational underachievement in black and Aboriginal communities in this province.

There are basically two ways to explain these types of inequities. Either you believe they exist because black/Aboriginal people are naturally inferior—and if that's the case, I take back number one above—or else you accept that in some way, racism plays a role.

The current state of race relations in Nova Scotia is rooted in history. From the beginnings of European colonization, black and Aboriginal people were seen as little more than a source of cheap, unskilled labour. Promises of means to achieve better lives—like land grants—were routinely broken, and exclusionary laws barred people of colour from white churches, schools and other institutions.

For example, African Nova Scotian students attended separate, chronically underfunded schools until just a few decades ago. School integration in the 1960s and '70s saw its own problems as black and aboriginal students were bussed long distances into often-hostile learning environments. (For more information see the enlightening Black Learners Advisory Committee Report of 1994.) As for Mi'kmaq students, the horrors of the residential school system that aimed to "kill the Indian in the child" are well-known.

There's a flip side to all this, however. If one group of people in society has been chronically disadvantaged, that means another group has been chronically advantaged.

That is, if black and Aboriginal Nova Scotians have suffered, and continue to suffer, from systemic racism and exploitation, then white Nova Scotians have benefited, and continue to benefit, from that same racism and exploitation. This is something many people seem to have a hard time accepting (especially if they have faced discrimination of another kind, for example).

At a recent public talk, Rocky Jones, one of the province's most prominent African Nova Scotian activists, challenged the audience to get beyond simple ideas about racism: "You might say, 'Wait a minute man, my best friend is black...I've never done anything in my lifetime that is discriminatory or prejudicial. How can you say to me that I'm benefiting'" from racism?

The fact is, white Nova Scotians have always held disproportionate wealth and power in this province, whether in business or politics (Nova Scotia didn't get its first black MLA until 1993, and no Aboriginal person has ever been elected to the legislature). That wealth and power has been passed down, and continues to be passed down, through the generations.

Today, even if your ancestors were Polish/Acadian/Jewish, if your skin is pink you benefit from living in a society where it is the norm for those who look and talk like you to hold power, be successful and have your opinions valued. No racial profiling in stores, no assumptions about your capabilities, no doubts about whether you're being treated fairly because of your skin colour, no automatic associations of your community with crime or drugs or alcohol.

(Immigrants of colour face their own stereotypes and history in Nova Scotia, which unfortunately there isn't space to explore here.)

As mentioned above, this isn't about guilt. It's about making things right. When a story comes up in the news about racial profiling, or aboriginal rights or the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, white people need to look seriously at our own place in this province's history, and how that fits into the situation at hand.

The problems and solutions are often institutional, not individual, and therefore can be complicated. But we need to have conversations about them, recognize that those conversations are about all of us, and take the lead in dealing with our racism problem. a


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Ben Sichel is a teacher in Dartmouth and a member of Solidarity Halifax. He benefited from racism in writing this column. Find him on Twitter at @bsichel.

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