Are you a racist? A simple test you can do at home. Part 1/2

Are you a racist? A simple test you can do at home. Part 1/2

I’ve been following the ongoing occupation of Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver with some interest. For those who don’t know, indigenous activists have taken over part of that park and evicted Canadian authorities, arguing that, as per the recent Supreme Court decision, that land is unceded and needed to house the homeless, who suffer under the economic system of ‘Canada’ and the legacy of invasion and colonization.

What’s been disheartening in all of this are the remarks people so predictably make in the comments sections of various news outlets: ‘give them 100.00 and a bus ticket to calgary! were done with these loosers....’ (sic), ‘move themout to musquem reserve...see how they like it..want to be a part od Candada? Pay taxes and get working’, (sic) ‘Its another issue of the bums not leaving the area quietly as development goes on around them. This is not a land ownership issue...this land is long gone to them. I passed by this area today on the bus and saw many of the "protesters" weaving about on lawn around the tents. Must be a nice life when you do not have to pay the rent’. (sic)


Such comments are made by people who would take great pains to say they weren’t racists--and in their minds they aren’t.


When one racial group in a society consistently comes out at the bottom in terms of health, lifespan, economic success, etc, there are only two possible explanations. Choose one:

A) External. There are forces outside the group’s control that stop them from doing better. This is also called ‘oppression’.

B) Internal. The group in question is simply incapable of doing as well as other groups due to inherent weaknesses. They are simply inferior.

If you answered A, congratulations! You are not a racist. However, answering A also entails accepting the fact that oppressed people need assistance overcoming their oppression. What non-indigenous Canadians can’t seem to get through their skulls is that telling First Nations people to ‘get working’ isn’t an analysis or a solution--it’s a venting of hostility and frustration--and the source of that frustration is a lack of clarity regarding the nature of the situation.

If someone tied a twenty pound weight to your neck and told you to go out and compete in a 100 meter sprint, you might find the request slightly unfair, especially if, failing to reach the podium meant you went to bed hungry that night. The only alternative to this view is the racist one that says ‘Native people are just slower’.

So which is it for you, Jack and Jill Canuck? Here in Canada we like to think of ourselves as good guys and gals--a nice bunch of folks who believe in Universal Health Care and...whatever, but the reality isn’t quite so pretty when issues with real heft come up on our radar.

Did you ever stop to think that you might be a racist and not even know it?

Next week we'll consider the economic nature of racism.

Adrian Barnes is the editor of the Rossland Telegraph and president of Lone Sheep Publishing.


Hi Phil F. Thanks for the

Hi Phil F. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. You did indeed catch me using a term loosely. 'Oppression' is slightly vague and I appreciate your categorizations. What I meant by the term in this piece was a reflection of the fact that when a specific racial group consistently suffers more than all the others, external, systemic forces are, I think, necessarily in play.

I don't quite buy the 'most indiginous people aren't necessarily being actively oppressed today' argument. If a million or so white people in this country were suffering equally, perhaps because they belonged to a specific cultural or linguistic group, I don't think our response would be quite so...phlegmatic in terms of support and outrage. This passivity may not be 'active' racism in the sense of avowed beliefs in the superiority of one race over another, but it's certainly 'passive' racism in terms of being content with inaction. This is more than the remainder of past oppression or past racism. Simply read the comments on the Oppenheimer Park occupation in any online newspaper to get a sense of what lies not too far beneath the surface of Canadian egalitarianism.

So there you go--you questioned 'oppression' and I replied with a definition of 'racism'! Aristotle would be proud of both of us.

In part 2--which I really need to sit down and write--I'm going to argue that 'racism' itself is just a function of capitalism. So when I say the average Canadian is 'racist', I simply mean that they are embodying 'capitalist' values over human ones.--ed.

I don't quite buy...

I don't quite buy that Natives' current problems are due to racism or active oppression. If you've ever wandered into some of Canada's or the U.S.'s more remote communities that suffer chronic high unemployment due to lack of major industry, I'm sure you'll see that those citizens also have to cope with all sorts of disadvantages, regardless of race. High alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual abuse, poor health (physical and mental)...

My point is that those disadvantages don't stem from race, just poor location, and for most of its citizens, the bad luck of growing up in such a disadvantaged community makes them in turn disadvantaged. Of course remote rural areas are overrepresented by Native people compared to other racial groups. Hence the fact statistics might make this look as a racial problem.


And that's a big problem I see, but rarely see addressed:  that Native communities are spread pretty much all over Canada and as such are not always close to areas that offer much economic activity to support a community as we want and expect in a modern industrial age. And that's where I see a difference between racial groups: white people are more likely to uproot themselves and seek a better place to live. This is due in part to the fact they haven't lived there for as long (although there are certainly many small "white towns" that have existed for many generations), but also because non-indigenous populations see themselves as belonging to a greater cultural community than their local population. Whereas for a Native to leave their community, they risk loosing touch with their local tribe/nation and that culture, even if there are lots of Natives accross the continent because they are not all one cultural group despite their shared racial heritage. This is a problem, but it is NOT one of oppression or racism. It's also not an easily tackled problem. 

As an aside, calling people passively racist is not a solution to anything and only serves to raise shackles, potentially even engendering racism. Let's look at actual disadvantages, let's try to remedy them, and if it is warranted let's look if race plays into it, but also HOW race plays into it, rather than merely doing some finger pointing calls of vague racism and oppression. 

This is a question that could

This is a question that could be answered by Statscan, I imagine. If one looked at remote, rural Canada, would native and non-natives be doing roughly equally well? I'm pretty sure not. And native people in urban centres chock full of opportunities are doing terribly as well.

To claim that I'm making 'vague' accusations of racism isn't really fair since the sort of attitudes I'm talking about are necessarily 'vague' in that those who hold them will tend to deny them, given the cultural mandate for egalitarianism that the great majority of us pay lip service to in this society. Some of my best friends are...we all know the story.

Another imagination excercise. Think of the last charity appeal you saw from sub-Saharan Africa with all those black kids and their bulging bellies and pleading eyes. Then try to imagine the same appeal populated by blonde-haired, blue-eyed tykes. It's an impossibility. This ties into the idea that the absurd concept of 'race' (of no more instrinsic signifcance than hair colour) is actually a function of capitalism in that the 'races' that get oppressed are the economic underperformers, historically. Racism is the outgrowth of the capitalistic world view--that there are 'winners' and 'losers' in life and that this is somehow natural and acceptable. But it's not.

So there I go...starting on part 2 here in the comments section! Next week....--ed.


No that simple.

It isn't as easy as looking up stats for rural white people and rural natives. Many rural white towns exist only because they provided economic opportunities and people migrated there. So it's a no brainer those communities will be better off than communities where people historically lived off the land with limited trade,  but which now don't provide jobs that can afford a modern lifestyle. I was talking about non-native towns that lost their main economic drivers several generations ago and are situated remotely. I doubt people growing up in those towns fare too well. But at least they are not dealing with the psychic aftermath of residential school or colonization.

As for urban natives, there are still several factors working against them. The ones who migrated there probably did so to escape poor conditions where they grew up. Those conditions they grew up with often give them lasting disadvantages that they have to overcome which other urbanites don't. They also have to deal with cultural displacement, and yes they still have to deal with racial prejudices.

Natives that grew up in urban Native communities might still have to deal with historical repercussions of residential schools and disenfranchisement. But on the whole, members of urban situated bands are better off than the average Native.

As I've said before I do think Natives face racism, but I don't think that can explain their current situation. After all, many other immigrant groups face racism yet manage to do better than the indigenous population.


I don't get your last paragraph at all. I hope your next article is a bit clearer on the many points you bring up in it.

There's racism and there's

There's racism and there's the devastating effects of past racism, abuse, and disenfranchisement all at work here. All this needs addressing but it's not being addressed in anything even slightl approaching a satisfactory manner in this country. Money gets thrown at the problem, but the money is flung while the thrower's eyes are turned away. Why?

I hope you're not seriously suggesting that the 'racism' an immigrant from Japan might occasionally encounter from some inbred idiot on the street is even in the same ballpark as what native people face daily when applying for jobs, looking to rent an apartment, or hoping to be served in a restaurant. I have friends from various racial backgrounds and have asked them about their experience of racism and they've always replied that 'occasionally' someone might say something insensitive. Some can't come up with anything. Compare this with the daily experience of native people.

You agree with me that native people 'do worse' than immigrants from different racial backgrounds and yet the best you can come up with is to try to argue that the reasons are somehow merely demographic in nature. I suppose my question to you is, 'why struggle so hard to come up with an explanation of this sorry state of affairs that doesn't incorporate the elephant in the room?'

This goes back to my original piece and the idea that, for us not to think of ourselves as racists, we, as non-natives, are forced to come up with whatever 'non-raced-based' reasons we can to explain the Third World condtions this part of our population live in. Why not just accept that native people continue to suffer in this country beause...we're willing to let them suffer?

As to my last paragraph, I'm sorry I wasn't clear enough for you. I'll try to do better when I write the second part!--ed.

Looking forward

Looking forward to the next bit.

Varying forms of oppression.

I might be jumping the gun a bit, considering this is only part one, but I'll jump right into this and say that there are varying forms of oppression, so using that word can span quite a lot, especially these days.

I think the term originally referred to something that was being done actively to hold back a person or a group from progressing fruitfully in their lives.  But these days it is bandied about to refer to any disadvantage that prevents a person or a group of people from progressing fruitfully in their lives.  An example of the former might be legal discrimination, such as being prevented from voting, or prevented from owning land, or inheriting the family fortune, or it might be even worse such as slavery.  Mostly this comes down to legally sanctioned oppression, but it can exist in a purely social form such as racism or sexism where a person might be treated less well than another based on race or sex.

But oppression now means much more than that and can include what I would call situational oppression.  That would be where a person or group grows up disadvantaged merely because of the disadvantaged start they had in life.  If you grow up in a poor remote location, or in a disfunctional family, or both, it is extremely hard to bring yourself up.  Someone who grows up poor and in a poor and/or remote town won't get the same educational opportunities.  Someone who grows up in a disfunctional family will have a tough time socially because they are more likely to have learned poor social behaviour from their environment.   So a person growing up in that environment isn't being actively "oppressed" in the true sense of the word, but they are certainly disadvantaged and likely to remain so, as well as their children no matter if they are never the target of racism or sexism or any other groupism, and if they are legally the equal of everyone else.

So while it's important to be aware that Native Canadians are disproportionally disadvataged, and while the source of that disadvantage might be past oppression, they aren't necessarily being oppressed now by other Canadians.

I'd also like to touch on the wide variability of disadvantage within various Native groups.  Some tribes are very well off, and suffer little if any disadvantage compared to the general population.  So it's not a problem of "Native oppression".  That's a racist stance on its own.  If you're disadvantaged, you're disadvantaged regardless of race.  If Natives are disproportionally disavantaged today it's because of past oppression. Of course, I'm not saying there also isn't some true oppression still ongoing, and racism too.  Because I think there is.  But for most, their current poor situation is due more to a disadvantaged environment than to current oppression.

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