It was at the Social Cognition Laboratory at York University in Toronto that I was confronted with an uncomfortable truth.

Racism can be deeply embedded in our brains, whether we’re aware of it or not.

I was visiting Kerry Kawakami, an expert in the psychology of prejudice, to ask a tough question: Are Canadians racist?

"Racism is still quite prevalent in Canada," said Kawakami.

"Explicit racism and prejudice is decreasing, but if you talk to a lot of minorities – particularly black youth – racism is almost a daily occurrence."

Kawakami backs up that assertion with some hard evidence, collected from a battery of studies in which she examines prejudice. She demonstrated one test for me.

Subjects are shown a series of black faces and white faces on a computer screen. Researchers track the subject’s eye movements, to measure what the subject looks at, and for how long.

Not seeing the person

More than a thousand subjects were tested. White subjects tended to look deeply into the eyes of white faces, and were less likely to look into the eyes of black faces. Instead, they were almost three times as likely to focus on the lips or noses of black faces.

"It suggests they’re processing them not as individuals, but as members of a group," said Kawakami.

This split-second eye bias can have some important consequences, according to Kawakami. When we don’t make eye contact with someone, we’re less likely to be able to decode their emotions, and less willing to trust or remember that person.

racism eye experiment

Kawakami's study, "Preferential attention to the eyes of in-group members," found white subjects less likely to look into the eyes of black faces, focusing on lips or noses instead. (Social Cognition Laboratory/York University)

"Even though it might happen within the first 100th of a second, we know that downstream that can tell us whether you might hire a person, whether you have positive or negative associations with that person and whether you’re willing to interact with that person," Kawakami explained.

Kawakami’s latest work is consistent with what some psychologists call "aversive racism."

Unlike overt racism — blatant expressions of hatred and discrimination against racial minorities — aversive racism is characterized by more complex and subtle expressions of ambivalence toward members of a minority group.

"People are very careful about what they say about people from other categories. They’re really egalitarian, they try to be fair, but when we measure them in more subtle ways, when they’re not conscious of their responses and they’re not able to control them, then we find that racism is still quite prevalent in North America," said Kawakami.

Public censure

There’s little doubt incidents of overt racism are becoming rarer in Canada, acknowledged Kawakami.

Indeed, when racist opinions are expressed publicly, as happened in recent mayoralty campaigns in Winnipeg and Toronto, offenders tend to be roundly criticized and censured.

That’s encouraging, and one could argue racial barriers are steadily eroding in Canada.

Look at the fast-growing numbers of mixed-race unions. Over the past few decades, the percentage of mixed-race couples in Canada has nearly doubled, from 2.6 per cent in 1991 to 4.6 per cent in 2011, data from Statistics Canada shows. When it comes to love, Vancouver is Canada’s most colour-blind city, with 9.6 per cent of couples being mixed race.

But then, consider this recent poll: 81 per cent of British Columbians of Chinese and South Asian descent report they’ve experienced some type of discrimination as a result of their ethnicity.

That includes everything from stereotyping and verbal harassment to poor customer service and workplace unfairness.

Racial divisions also appear to be stark in the city of Winnipeg, where a poll last month suggests a deep racial gulf between aboriginal and non-aboriginal citizens. Seventy-five per cent of those surveyed agreed that racial division is a "serious issue" facing the city.

No surprise

Bernadette Smith

Bernadette Smith, an activist with the Drag the Red campaign, talks to Duncan McCue about the almost 1,200 missing and murdered aboriginal women. Racism is at the root of the problem, she tells him. (CBC)

The results didn’t surprise educator and longtime Winnipeg resident Bernadette Smith.

"Just walk down Main Street. It’s probably 80 per cent aboriginal people that are homeless, that are in the hotels, that are unemployed … that is systemic racism."

Smith is the driving force behind the Drag the Red campaign, a volunteer effort to search for missing women on the Red River.

Drag the Red started after the body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was discovered in the river this summer.

Quoting statistics released by the RCMP of nearly 1,200 cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women since 1980, Smith believes racism is at the root of the problem.

"If they were being investigated, then we wouldn’t continue to have these women be missing. We do have a problem in this country … when our people are treated like we’re second-class citizens in our own home, then there’s a problem."

Racism isn’t something most Canadians like to talk about. But we’re taking on that conversation tonight on The National, asking the question bluntly: Are we racist?