Brown face, Blind spots, and Doing Better on Racism in Canada

Brown face and other forms of cultural appropriation are racist, wrong, and completely inappropriate.  They were racist 20 years ago, 150 years ago, and they are racist today.  Full stop.

There continues to be a lot of ignorance about cultural appropriations, which have a long and painful history of perpetuating stereotypes that are inaccurate and deeply harmful to the people they misrepresent.  The fact that we are having this conversation in the public sphere is a sign that we have made some progress, but we still have a very long way to go.  Too many Canadians live with racism and discrimination every day.  This is completely unacceptable and something we have to take serious collective action on as Canadians.

The past images that recently came to light with Prime Minister Trudeau in either brown face or black face demonstrate a behavior that is completely inappropriate and deeply hurtful to racialized communities. It is critical that this incident gives rise to a broader conversation about the structural and systemic racism that continues to exist in Canada today, and how we will take meaningful action on this moving forward.  Systemic racism shows up in the form of disparities in income levels, education, health, and living conditions of different groups.  There are overt forms of racism like cultural appropriation, but the more insidious and damaging forms are sometimes less obvious but nonetheless oppressive.

In a press conference on Sept 19th, the Prime Minister said: “I have always acknowledged that I come from a place of privilege, but I now need to acknowledge that comes with a massive blind spot”.  Hopefully, this incident is sparking serious reflection and acknowledgement amongst Canadians that we all have blind spots, and that our blind spots can be dangerous and harmful to others, no matter our backgrounds or best intentions.

Let us stop for a moment and appreciate that the systems and institutions across Canada were built by people who, in most cases, came from privilege.  If we can acknowledge that privilege brings blind spots than we also need to recognize that our systems have blind spots too.

The U.S. Senator and Democratic leadership candidate, Elizabeth Warren, has been quoted saying: “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.”  Indigenous, black and racialized Canadians need to be at the table and given more opportunities to help us understand the structural and systemic blind spots that are holding so many Canadians back.  We cannot make real progress on these issues if the people living these realities are not involved in the conversations.

The Government of New Brunswick recently launched an ambitious population growth plan to welcome up to 7,500 newcomers per year, by 2024.  The new plan comes with broad support from the private sector, industry groups, academics and municipal governments.  We need to start having serious conversations in New Brunswick about how our institutions, elected offices, and other decision-making tables can do a better job including the perspectives of racialized communities.  If our goal is to welcome more people from diverse backgrounds to help us grow our province, we need to work harder to ensure all racialized communities living here now, and those to come, see themselves better represented in all aspects of New Brunswick society.

Debbie Douglas, the Executive Director of the Ontario Council of Associations Serving Immigrants (OCASI), tweeted the following on September 19th:

“It is time for the implementation of a robust national Anti-racism Action Plan. ‘Gotcha’ sensationalism by media and political parties is not advancing or addressing issues of anti-Black racism, Indigenous sovereignty, racism and xenophobia.”

In our opinion, Douglas hits the nail on the head.  This election is an opportunity to hear from all parties about what actions they will undertake to improve the quality of life for all Canadians.  A key part of this is how we promote and include the voices of racialized Canadians in order to stamp out racism in all its forms.