Can We Talk About Racism?

Doug Cuthand, a columnist who writes on Indigenous issues for the Saskatoon Star-Pheonix, once wrote a piece that apparently bothered many non-Indigenous readers, excoriate as it did the treatment of […]
Published on December 28, 2019

Doug Cuthand, a columnist who writes on Indigenous issues for the Saskatoon Star-Pheonix, once wrote a piece that apparently bothered many non-Indigenous readers, excoriate as it did the treatment of First Nations people by “white” society. Among other things, he wrote that “Indigenous people have to endure a lifetime of repeatedly listening to white people’s opinions as to how we should fit in and better ourselves. The opinions of people of colour are discounted, and white is seen as normal. Everything revolves around the white point of view.”

But reading Doug Cuthand’s column — and I should mention here that Doug and I were good buddies back in high school — I find many statements that are quite true, and his overall message that an attitude of white privilege still exists in this country is hard to refute. While politicians and the media may make a point of elevating Indigenous people to at least the same level of importance and dignity as “white” Canadians enjoy, I strongly suspect that the majority of the “white” population still regards “Indians” as inferior, troublesome and untrustworthy. And that, many would say, is racism.

But to use the terms “racism” and “racist” when describing such people is unwise and unfair, given the fact that “racism” used to mean one thing but is now being used to label something else entirely. And that highly pejorative label has been exploited by Indigenous leaders and their supporters to vilify those who make negative a priori judgements about Indigenous people — among them, police constables, security guards, employers, judges and teachers.  The term “racist” is very useful for making people look like Nazis and Alabama slave owners, who were true racists in that they firmly believed that the white race was inherently superior to all of the coloured races. 

But those who truly care about the way Indigenous Canadians are treated must understand the difference between racism — the now-discredited assumption that a person lacks certain qualities or abilities simply because of his or her race — and what might more accurately be called “learned behaviour,” which is actually a sensible response to whatever your life has presented you with — myriad personal experiences, what you have been taught about various matters, what you see or hear or read in the media, and what hard evidence reveals. It is this “learned behaviour” that might cause prospective car buyers to cross a particular make of automobile off their list of possibles because there seems to be a lot of evidence (some first-hand, some appearing in the automotive section of the newspaper, some of it provided by the Internet) that many cars made by the parent company require a lot of servicing, have poor resale value, and have more recalls than other makes.

Our hypothetical car buyers might very well have thought highly of that car company in the past, but its current products appear to be unreliable and troublesome, and a prejudice develops. Would it be so strange if these car shoppers regarded the enthusiastic pitch of the salesman with an automatic skepticism?

This is the situation we have in Canada today. Those who live near Indigenous communities know about and are affected by the behaviour of some Indigenous neighbours, and when that behaviour is anti-social or troublesome, a prejudice develops. Ask the good citizens of Cardston, Alberta, how they feel about the Kainai panhandlers on Main Street. Canadians who have store employee friends might hear about incidents of shoplifting involving Indigenous people. Those who live in cities near Indigenous communities might see native women soliciting on street corners. Those who read the paper know that there is a great deal of alcohol and drug abuse in First Nations communities. They also have been informed that the incarceration rate of Indigenous men is much higher than for non-Indigenous men. The attitudes that develop from learning such things are a little different from those that cause insurance companies to raise their premiums for drivers who have a record of traffic accidents, or the attitudes that many Canadians had toward Newfoundlanders and Cape Bretoners back in the day when “Newfie” or “Caper” were common terms of disparagement or humour.

Non-Indigenous Canadians don’t have much personal contact with the descendants of Crowfoot, Poundmaker or Tecumseh, and what they do not see is a lot of evidence that shows people making good lives for themselves, starting companies, building community, and generally doing what “good citizens” do, even though a good many Indigenous Canadians are doing just that. So when a security guard gives an Indigenous shopper a hard time, it’s likely that his attitude is the product of what, in his limited experience, he thinks he knows about Indigenous people. In many (I would argue “most”) cases, it has nothing to do with skin colour, although that’s a helpful identifier, just as an automobile company’s logo on the front of a car helps you identify it. Or the shape of the grill on that white Ford Taurus directly behind you in the traffic line has you driving much more carefully.

Are there still true racists around? I’m guessing that a very small percentage of the Canadian population might hold the same views as Simon Legree, the vicious plantation owner in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But most of my fellow citizens have shaken off the ingrained beliefs about racial inferiority that the “white” colonizers had in the 18th and 19th centuries, and should not be accused of racism when they are simply reacting out of a learned prejudice and, to a degree, an evolutionarily-implanted distrust of anyone who is in some way different.

And that’s another factor that, while it does not excuse prejudiced behaviour, should at least be considered. The prejudice that has a security guard paying special attention to Indigenous shoppers and the colonial racism that shaped the treatment of Amerindians in past centuries both stem from a much earlier fear and distrust of “the other” that is an evolutionary trait. Our distant ancestors survived and reproduced while others did not because an automatic distrust and fear of anyone who wasn’t part of the band or tribe was very helpful in survival and evolutionary terms. That certainly doesn’t justify the racism that “whites” in earlier centuries exhibited, or the automatic suspicion of that hovering security guard, but it helps to explain how difficult that suspicion is to ignore.

Science has taught us that, apart from a few genetic variations between Indigenous Canadians and “whites” that have little or no bearing on intelligence, aptitude or behaviour, there is no inherent difference between the two racial groups. But once a racial group gets a reputation for certain practices, habits, behaviours and attitudes — a reputation that springs from a cultural practice like female genital mutilation or the group’s response to the economic and social conditions in which they have been forced to live — it’s the reputation, not some archaic belief in racial inferiority, that influences the way others regard them and treat them. Not surprisingly, this creates a vicious circle. Treated as inferiors, undesirables and threats to “white” society, Indigenous youth will (as Doug Cuthand correctly pointed out) lack self-confidence and self-esteem, and all too often will turn to a life that keeps them poor, uneducated, addicted, unskilled and unemployable; and in some cases, criminal.

The racism of the past certainly created the situation we now see, but it will take all of us — Indigenous and non-Indigenous — to do away with the current “learned behaviour”. Sadly, it seems that most of the focus in public discourse is on the need for “white” society to shape up and stop treating “Indians” so badly, but little is said about the responsibility that rests upon Indigenous communities, First Nations leaders and activists to bring about change in the behaviours and conditions that sustain the prejudice. Continually painting Indigenous people as helpless victims of racism, colonialism and intergenerational effects of residential schooling won’t make things any better.

This explains my abiding interest in Indigenous education. Looking at many downtrodden groups throughout history, one sees that it has been education and subsequent economic progress that brought a halt to the prejudiced views that others once had of them. Who today looks down on the people of China, India or Japan? Have you heard the terms “Chink” or “Jap” recently? 

Yes, “white” Canadians have to fight against any instinctive impulse to regard “Indians” in a certain way, just as we have to fight against so many other instinctive impulses. But Indigenous Canadians have to do their part as well, recognizing that much of the prejudice they face (and which is inaccurately called “racism”) springs from what non-Indigenous people have experienced or heard about in some way or another. A young man from an impoverished and marginalized community who, after committing a series of thefts and assaults, manages to turn his life around cannot expect to be treated just like any other young man — at least, not right away. He will have to make special efforts to earn trust and respect. A woman who has been convicted of drunk driving will have to maintain a spotless driving record for a while if she wants her insurance company to bill her as they would any other woman car owner of her age. 

The non-Indigenous majority of Canadians must do more than shake off lingering prejudice. They can support Indigenous organizations that foster education or provide support to struggling individuals and communities. They can support governments that direct funding to the more effective initiatives that build Indigenous commerce and economic success. Just as we would lend a hand to that young man who has turned his back on a life of crime, we must provide whatever obvious help our Indigenous partners need as they follow the path of Chinese Canadians, African Canadians, and, yes, Newfoundlanders.

I know I’m writing from the “white man’s” point of view, but don’t you think it’s time Indigenous Canadians took a hard look at the issue and spoke out about this too?

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