Dialogue and education as tools to end racial discrimination

Photo by Caelie Frampton

The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is observed every year on March 21. On that day in 1960, police officers shot and killed 69 protesters in Sharpeville, South Africa.

The group was protesting past laws that would further fuel the discrimination and segregation already present during Apartheid. These laws would limit the movement of black South Africans by requiring an internal passport while travelling outside areas designated by the all-white apartheid

Six years later, in 1966, the United Nations General Assembly created the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to bring attention to the issue. The Government of British Columbia first proclaimed the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 1989.

Along with commemorating the Sharpeville Massacre, this day serves as a reminder of how far we have come and how much work individuals and institutions still have ahead of them in tackling racism.

“It is important to recognize that power and privilege are inherently tied to racism and racial discrimination,” says Wendy Roth, an associate professor of sociology at UBC. “Often this
ideology is based on beliefs that the other race is inferior and uses those beliefs to justify unequal treatment,” she says.

Diversity grows larger than discrimination

Canada has long been promoted as a multicultural mosaic of ethnicities and backgrounds, but has also been home to discrimination against various groups over the years.

“While racial discrimination unfortunately still does occur in Canada today, I think many of those who have lived through the earlier years of immigration in Canada would agree that things are much better,” says Jasroop Grewal, president of the South Asian Family Association (SAFA).

SAFA was founded in 2002 and over its 15-year history has had a number of positive multicultural interactions in Metro Vancouver, Grewal says.

Many cultures in Vancouver have thrived.

“I think the government has played a role in improving racial discrimination by promoting diversity and understanding of different cultures and ethnic backgrounds,” he says.

According to Grewal, one of the simplest ways to dispel discrimination or fear is by engaging in a dialogue.

“Educating those who do not quite understand a culture or are scared of a [race] because of stereotypes goes a long way to promoting acceptance in our country,” he says.

Government tools to dissipate discrimination

Canadian governments are working at all levels to break down barriers built by racial discrimination. One example of the federal Canadian government embracing culture happened in 1990 when inspector Baltej Dhillon became the first RCMP officer to wear a turban. At the time, the idea of Sikh Mounties being allowed to wear turbans caused a rift among Canadians. Dhillon won the fight for religious expression and got the RCMP uniform code altered.

On a provincial level, B.C.’s Organizing Against Racism and Hate program is one example of the government seeking to educate citizens on the detrimental impact racial discrimination places on society. The group funds projects and sponsors events that promote multiculturalism in 33 communities across the province.

For younger Canadians, UnlearnRacism.ca is a website aimed at educating them on discriminatory stereotypes and rhetoric. The interactive tool teaches kids to ask more questions and withhold judgements.

For example, the website poses the question, “Racism is a thing of the past. Everyone gets along fine nowadays, right?” The website then proceeds to provide a summary of Residential Schools in Canada. It reminds children and parents that the trauma and long-term effects of how Residential Schools treated Aboriginal children and families continues to be felt today.

Discrimination in the workplace

Racial discrimination operates not just between people, but also in institutions, ranging from workplaces and schools to government agencies,” Roth says.

Her example is workplaces that rely on employees for recruiting new applicants, which could lead to advantages for people of the same background or social settings.

“One of the most accurate ways to measure racial discrimination in areas like the job market or housing, [is with an audit],” says Roth.

Wendy Roth, an associate professor of sociology at UBC. | Photo courtesy of UBC

By creating two comparable profiles, like résumés or housing applications, researchers alter the aspects of the profile that could suggest the applicant’s race.

A 2009 study published by Philip Oreopoulos through SFU tested a form of racial discrimination by sending over 6,000 résumés in response to job postings in major Canadian cities. Oreopoulos used names that suggested Chinese, Pakistani, Indian or Greek origin like Samir Sharma or Lei Li, as well as names that sounded Western European, for example Greg Johnson.

The study found that foreign names or credentials on résumés don’t receive as many callbacks as English-origin names. Canadian experience and English names earned a callback rate of about 16 per cent whereas foreign names earned an average of 11 per cent. If the foreign résumé also listed foreign education and experience, the callback rate dropped to near five per cent.

This means English-sounding names with Canadian experience earned more than three times the response than foreign names and credentials garnered.

By putting a quantifiable figure on the discrimination facing immigrants or Canadians with ancestry from certain countries, racism can be proven and measured. This also means that through follow-ups, changes in discrimination can be measured over time.

How can Canadians as individuals work towards becoming discrimination-free? Through action, says Roth. Speaking up is crucial when it comes to witnessing or being subject to discrimination.

“Simply saying, ‘What you’re doing is not acceptable’… even if they’re not able to say more on the spot,” Roth says. “And talking with others, especially children about why those actions are unacceptable is equally important.”