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What Is Systemic Racism?

In the wake of several deaths of Black and Indigenous people at the hands of the police and RCMP, protests against police brutality have sparked conversations about systemic racism, both in Canada and the U.S.

What these conversations have revealed, unfortunately, is an ignorance around systemic racism, with many public officials casting their doubts about its existence in Canada. For example, earlier this month, RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki refused to acknowledge its existence in the RCMP—a stance she soon retracted. Afterwards, when she was questioned in Parliament, she referred to a height challenge during a physical fitness test as an example of systemic racism—which, as MP Greg Fergus pointed out, is closer to systemic discrimination than systemic racism. Lucki couldn’t name another example and passed the question on to the RCMP’s HR specialist. (Ontario Premier Doug Ford also rejected the idea that Canada doesn’t have “systemic, deep roots” of racism, like the U.S., before walking that comment back and admitting that systemic racism exists in Ontario and Canada.)

Leaders should know better, but it’s true that the term isn’t widely taught in school. So, how does systemic racism differ from individual acts of racism, how does it work, and why is everyone talking about it?

What is systemic racism?

Systemic racism, also known as institutional racism, refers to the ways that white supremacy (that is, the belief that white people are superior to people of other races) is reflected and upheld in the systems in our society. It looks at larger, structural and institutional operations rather than individual biases and behaviours. “Our education systems, our healthcare systems, our judicial systems, our criminal justice system, our policing systems […] The very institutions that make up the way we live, how we’ve structured society, how we come to make decisions, how we decide what’s fair or just,” explains Brittany Andrew-Amofah, senior policy and research analyst at the Broadbent Institute, a Canadian progressive and social democratic think tank. “These systems are built with an already ingrained bias, a racist lens and embedded with a discriminatory lens that doesn’t provide or allow for equal or fair opportunities for racialized peoples to succeed within.”

In a settler colonial state like Canada, the systems that were put in place at the creation of the country benefited the white colonists—while disadvantaging the Indigenous populations who had lived here for thousands of years prior to colonialism. “Taking land away from Indigenous people across all of the Americas and then bringing in free labour from Africa and enslaving Black people created wealth and opportunities for white people,” says Tiffany Ford, a former TDSB trustee, entrepreneur and activist. Much of our society today continues to reinforce this power dynamic.

For example, Canada’s federal policing system, the RCMP, was created in order to control the Indigenous population in post-Confederation Canada. The RCMP have continued to be perpetrators of violence against Black and Indigenous people over 150 years later. It isn’t just about a few bad cops having “unconscious biases,” as RCMP Commissioner Lucki suggested before releasing a statement that acknowledged systemic racism within the police force. The very system through which the state criminalizes individuals has been racist from its inception.

Read this next: We Must Defund the Police. It Is the Only Option.

How does systemic racism work?

Because racism is entrenched in every system in this country, BIPOC are disadvantaged at every turn. Systematic racism is responsible for wealth inequality (according to StatCan, 23.9% of Black Canadians are considered low income, compared to 12.2% of white Canadians), gaps in higher education (StatCan found that though 94% of Black youth aged 15 to 25 would like to obtain a bachelor’s degree, only 60% thought they could) and higher rates of incarceration (according to StatCan, Indigenous people represent about 26% of those in a correctional facility, though they only account for about 3% of the national population).

“It’s actually a material reality,” says Beverly Bain, a professor of women and gender studies in the department of historical studies at the University of Toronto, Mississauga. “It’s not that you don’t like me because I am Black. You not liking me because I’m Black actually gets in my way of survival. Police not liking Black people means that Black people get killed by police.”

The current COVID-19 pandemic is another example of systemic racism at work. In the United States, Black people are dying from COVID-19 three times more often than white Americans. And while there isn’t a lot of race-based data in Canada, the rates of racialized infection and deaths are likely the same. Bain explains that the pandemic exacerbates existing racial inequalities because of the systems in place, despite the fact that the virus itself doesn’t discriminate by race. “It’s only able to discriminate because of the conditions that these individuals are subjected to on a day-to-day basis,” she says. “It’s only able to attack our lives and to affect us the most and impact us the most and target us the most, because those who are Black and racialized tend to be in jobs that are lowly paid and on the frontlines.”

Read this next: It’s Time to Confront Anti-Black Racism in the Asian Community

Why is systemic racism in the news lately?

After George Floyd was killed by the police in Minneapolis on May 26, local protests sprung up in response and quickly began to spread throughout the U.S. and Canada. Protestors marched in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and called attention to other instances of police brutality (such as the death of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was shot to death while she was sleeping at home). In Canada, protests began in solidarity with the American protestors and confronted instances of police brutality closer to home, such as the death of Chantel Moore in New Brunswick.

Andrew-Amofah sees the killing of George Floyd as the “straw that broke the camel’s back” and opened up the floodgates of conversation surrounding race. “I think [systemic racism] is a buzzword right now because we’re naming what this is,” she says. “It’s very easy for individuals to be like, ‘I’m not racist,’ or ‘I have not done a racist thing, how could I be a part of the problem?’ [Talking about systemic racism] removes the individual from the conversation, and it allows us to have a broader and more comprehensive conversation around the country in which we live. It’s not about you per se—it’s about the country, its laws, its practices and policies.”

Though protests began in response to police brutality, they’ve since opened up conversations about racism in all parts of society. And just as no system or institution in Canada is free of racism, no institution has been exempt from being called out and held accountable. That includes the media (see: influencer Sasha Exeter’s callout of Jessica Mulroney’s white privilege), and universities (see: the University of Toronto community’s outrage at Massey College’s appointment of problematic columnist Margaret Wente as a Senior Fellow), as well as our political processes (see: Jagmeet Singh calling Bloc Quebecois MP Alain Therrien racist, and being asked to leave the House for the day after he refused to apologize), and the fashion industry (see: Aritzia and other prominent brands being accused of treating Black employees and customers unfairly across their widespread companies). Conversations that have focused on one person, or brand, or institution, have provided an entry point into conversations about the ways racism has shaped and continue to shape the very fabric of our society.

Read this next: How to Be a Better Friend to Black Women

How can I be a good ally?

First things first: be a good listener. “Listen and not feel like everyone’s trying to blame you,” says Ford. “Just being comfortable with being uncomfortable, it’s really a first step for any learning experience.”

Educating yourself is also an important step in being a good ally. Diversifying the media you consume, reading Black and Indigenous authors and learning about Canada’s racist history (something that isn’t widely taught in school) is a great place to start. “There are increasingly more books available that provide the accurate context in which Canada was created,” says Andrew-Amofah. “Diversifying the information that you take in, podcasts, music—I think that’s always a really excellent place to start. I think before you can act, I think it’s important to educate.”

Check your white fragility at the door, and get over the feeling of discomfort that comes from talking about race and being called out by your BIPOC peers. And it’s not just on white people: Non-Black people of colour also need to unlearn anti-Blackness, and take stock of the ways that their position as non-Black people have privileged them. Calling out racism when you see it, challenging it within yourself and your communities, bringing conversations into your spaces and standing up for your BIPOC peers (even if it means putting yourself on the line or getting into a fight with your family) is also imperative to allyship. “In this moment, what are you doing? How are you posing those questions to yourself? How are you challenging the state as it is?” asks Pascale Diverlus, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter-Toronto. “Right now, you hear a lot of calls from Black activists to defund the police. How are you bringing that conversation into your workplace? Are you calling your councillors? Are you donating to the groups that are hoping to push these topics forward?”

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