'You become immune to it:' 1 in 5 Canadians say they experience racism, survey finds

A national survey revealed that 20 per cent of Canadians experience racism. Here's what that looks like for some.

National survey finds many instances of racism come in the form of subtle slights or insults

Second year student Prachi Hambir says when she was a teen she was told her face was too dark to win a competition. The hurt of that comment has stuck with her. (Sofia Rodriguez/CBC)

A few years ago, after months of preparation, 15-year-old Prachi Hambir was excited to show off her skills and participate in a speech competition, but the event she had anxiously waited for ended on a sour note.

The competition had four rounds and Hambir says she had placed first in the first three, so it came to a surprise when she didn't make it into the top five of the last round. 

Hambir says she went up to the judge to ask for feedback.

"He said 'I don't really remember your speech, but your skin is too dark for you to win this competition. Make sure you bring your own lighting for me to see what's going on.'"

That's one of the major incidents of racism Hambir recalls experiencing in Canada. 

A new survey find that 20 per cent of Canadians have experienced racism regularly or from time to time.

The Race Relations in Canada 2019 survey, conducted by Environics Institute for Survey Research, bills itself as the first of its kind in Canada. It looks at Canadians' experiences, attitudes and perceptions of race relations. It was conducted last spring with a sample of more than 3,000 Canadians.

The survey suggests racist treatment was mostly reported by Indigenous and black people, noting that these groups experience many day-to-day subtle insults, such as being treated as not smart or being mistaken for someone who serves people. 

[Microagressions] just don't seem like a big deal anymore because you become immune to it"​-Prachi Hambir

Hambir's parents raised concerns with the competition organizers and they promised nothing like that would happen again, but the discriminatory behaviour had already made an impact on to the then 15-year-old. 

"My coloured skin has always been a point of pride for me, but when someone meddles with that, you kind of rethink your whole identity," she said. 

After an experience like that, Hambir says microaggressions or subtle insensitive comments get swept under the rug.

"They just don't seem like a big deal anymore because you become immune to it," she said.

Salam Alsadi says subtle actions have made her feel belittled. 

Nursing student Salam Alsadi says, although she's lived in Canada her whole life, customer service workers often treat her as if she doesn't speak English. She says the prejudice behind the act is what hurts her. (Sofia Rodriguez/CBC)

"If I go to coffee shops or grocery store, I notice the [customer service employee] will talk to the customer before me in a normal, regular tone. But then when it's my turn, they sort of slow down and speak in slow motion and even add hand gestures ... as if I don't understand English," she explains. 

Alsadi has lived in Canada her whole life. 

"It's like because I wear a headscarf, I must be a newcomer."

Alsadi struggles to call this racism, because she says it can be justified and the person could be doing it for a good reason, but it's the prejudice that bothers her.

"I feel belittled and it's just not a good feeling." 

Third year student, Ishita Sharma says prejudice shouldn't guide Canadians' actions. (Sofia Rodriguez/CBC)

Ishita Sharma says many instances of racism, especially subtle ones, have become normal to her because they happen often. 

"My name isn't really that common, so I've been assumed to be an international student ... People have also assumed I lack certain capabilities and intelligence," she said. 

"It makes me feel as if we haven't laid down the social groundwork well enough, because we should know not to just judge people based on their name or their skin colour," she said.  

"Even if I was an international student or came from somewhere else, that doesn't put a benchmark on my intelligence or on what I can provide to wherever I go."

The national survey does spread a sense of hope, suggesting that 46 per cent of people feel somewhat optimistic that all racialized people in the country will be treated with the same respect as others.