Opinion

Racist campaign incidents aren't a digression from the real issues. They are the real issues

Acts of racism are more than just single, isolated and obvious incidents. They are systemic, often subconscious and touch everything.

We tend to see racist acts as campaign blips, rather than symptoms of much larger issues

Last week, while campaigning in Montreal, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh was told by a man on the street that he should "cut off" his turban in order to look more Canadian. (CBC News)

Acts of racism are more than just single, isolated and obvious incidents. They are systemic, often subconscious and touch everything.

Many Canadians do not get this. Not in the way we should.

We celebrate ourselves for being a country of diversity and "multiculturalism." We see racism as an anomaly, if we see it at all.

We tend to see racist acts as unrelated, with no common thread between them. That's the perspective from which we seem to absorb news about racist incidents during this election, hopping from one incident to the next, with very little introspection in between. 

This approach leaves us with conversations around racism that are disingenuous and fleeting. 

Blackface and Bill 21

Blackface, for example — which became an issue once we learned that Liberal leader Justin Trudeau painted his face black or brown multiple times in the past — is more than a costume, and more than a transient talking point. It has a long history in Canada, a history of exclusion.

In fact, blackface minstrel shows appeared in Canada as early as 1841, making it hardly just an American racist pastime. Blackface is white supremacy, it is demeaning — wearing another person's identity is not something you do to a people that you consider your equals. But deeper conversation around race in this country were absent after Trudeau's apology.

Bill 21, which prohibits Canadians who wear religious symbols from holding certain jobs in Quebec, is more than a piece of legislation. Whereas blackface is about wearing another person's identity, Bill 21 is about stripping religious Canadians of theirs.

It is systemic discrimination, tolerated by our federal leaders, which directly impacts the lives of minorities in Quebec. While it is tempting to declare this as a solely Quebec issue, a startling number of Canadians nationwide would support a similarly discriminatory piece of legislation in their own province. 

Candidates apologizing for past racist statements are more than exercises in asking for forgiveness. The Conservatives say they will stand by candidates as long as they apologize for past racist comments; the Liberals are demonstrating that by sticking with Jaime Battiste as their candidate for Sydney-Victoria, despite his racist and sexist comments. Yet neither is demanding that these candidates explain how have they transformed and what, exactly, made them finally realize their racist statements were problematic. Apologies without introspection are hollow.

Last week, while campaigning in Montreal, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh was told by a man on the street that he should "cut off" his turban in order to look more Canadian and thus, have a better chance at success in this election. Singh responded that he already does look like a Canadian — that Canadians look like all sorts of different things — a response that garnered Singh widespread praise. He showed grace, patience. 

But here's the thing: how else could he have reacted if he wanted to stay onside with public opinion? Would we have celebrated him in the same way if Singh responded with the anger he had every right to express? 

That was certainly not the first time this has happened to a turban-wearing Sikh, or other minorities in Canada. Yet our focus was on Singh's reaction, not on what would compel someone to say something like that to Singh in the first place.

Owning up to systemic problems

Racism is a regular occurrence in this country. It is something racialized Canadians have to face in daily interactions. At times it is in our face, other times it is quiet, and many times we can not put our fingers quite on it, but we know it is there. 

It is time for Canadians to take responsibility and own up to the fact that racism is a part of our country. This election has emphasized that Canada is grappling with it on a systematic level. The incidents we have seen throughout the campaign are not isolated anomalies, but symptoms of a country where the lived experiences of minorities are often ignored by the majority; where they are seen as a digression from the real issues, instead of being the real issues.  

These are the troubling narratives around racism we fight every day as racialized Canadians, and many of us are just tired of feeling like we are fighting it alone. Canadians, here is my humble request: emphasize and feel with us. Appreciate our lived experiences, Canada is not a racism-free utopia that some of us like to think it is.


This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

About the Author

Jaskaran Sandhu is a Senior Consultant with Crestview. He previously worked as the Executive Director for the World Sikh Organization of Canada, and as a Senior Advisor to Brampton’s Office of the Mayor. Follow him on Twitter at @JaskaranSandhu_

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