Our world has a long history of racial disparity. The matter is old, but recent events brought it to the surface once again: social media campaigns, conversations about racism and initiatives to work toward solutions are intensifying. Books on racism, the black american experience and white privilege shot to the top of best seller lists and people are out in the streets saying out loud that enough is enough. In an effort to address the topic, we heard Suvaka Priyatharsan, programs and information manager from the Canadian Race Relations Foundation.
Milénio Stadium: We’ve reached a boiling point concerning racial inequality. What possibilities might this moment be leading us to?
Suvaka Priyatharsan: Given the long history of racism, if you study what happened in North America and the world, this is leading to a moment of getting people together – people from all different communities to act for some real change, not just the affected groups but the larger society waking up to the call for change. The possibilities that arise from this particular incident are endless, including the fact that people are open to some key learning opportunities. People are becoming more aware of the fact that they have allowed themselves to be uninformed about how deeply rooted systemic racism is. In particular, being silent is not enough. Emphasis has to be made on learning about unconscious bias, the idea of instinctively categorizing people and things without being aware of it. As humans, we all need to understand that unconscious bias exists which creates the system we live in. We have to learn about thinking critically about data and evidences and challenge them. We have to start the process of having an intercultural dialogue which can teach us to learn about empathy. This movement may lead us to elevate more awareness around anti-racism work and participate in the fostering of dialogues among institutions, lawmakers and people to create systemic change at a personal and institutional level. Sharing some quotes from the CRRF Board:
“’I can’t breathe’ is what black people have been crying out since the days of slavery in US history. Story after story has brought us to this point of ‘I can’t breathe’ and enough is enough. Let us be reminded of US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s words: People are people…strike them they will cry, cut them they will bleed, starve them they will wither away and die. But treat them with respect and decency, give them access to the levers of power, attend to their aspirations and grievances, they will flourish and grow… and form a more perfect Union” says Raymond Tynes, Board member of CRRF and Commissioner with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission.
“It has never been more urgent for Canadians to act now, to stand together, to speak up and work in support of anti-racism. It is up to all of us, regardless of our background, to do the honest, uncomfortable work of rooting racism out. We need to self-reflect and listen to our peers who experience life differently because of the colour of their skin” says Teresa Woo-Paw, Chair of CRRF.
MS: Most of the incidents we see on the news happened in the United States. What about Canada, how would you describe the scenario in our country?
SP: Racism is also a reality in Canada. Systemic and structural racism faced by the black and indigenous communities is well documented in studies. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the protest marches taking place across Canada and acknowledged and promised that his government will do more to address the situation. We welcome these messages and look forward to the changes soon. We echo the poignant points expressed by The Canadian Human Rights Commission’s statement “Anti-Black Racism in Canada: Time to Face the Truth” that anti-black racism is pervasive in Canada and we must work together to eradicate racism. We also encourage people to access the CRRF book on “Doing the Right Thing.” Doing the Right Thing is a federally funded curriculum resource designed to help students think deeply about things that we all experience as Canadians, and introduces complex issues around recognizing our past mistakes and trying, or not, to make up for them – as individuals, as communities, and as Canadians. The case studies presents numerous examples on both a macro and a personal level, supported by examples from literature and history, for students to consider, discuss, explore, debate and reflect upon, as they explore the range of possibilities to learn from the lessons of the past.
MS: How can this message reach, in a respectful way, other people that are more close minded and what can younger people do to create awareness towards this matter?
SP: To be successful in our message, we must appeal to all people! People with more knowledge on the topic of racism must be able to communicate with people that are closed minded and listen to each other respectfully. Ultimately, anti-racism work will be up to a new generation that work to shape policies that best fit the times. The waves of protests across the country represent a genuine frustration over a very long time failure to reform policies at a systemic level. We also need more research, more data to substantiate our decision for a stand against racism and appropriate action. Many people that are close minded may be persuaded by data and evidence, but not all. They may not understand the significance of this movement. This is where more education and awareness comes in to help. The reality is that these people may not fully grasp how society had privileged them. As part of the anti-racism work, it is our job to spread awareness and provide educational tools and resources to allow others to be educated on the subject. Younger youths are very engaged and active at all levels of government, including signing petitions and putting forth call to actions. These activities are what inspire others to join the movement and we will continue to do our best to ensure that the tools are out there for groups to use.
MS: We have seen some violent protests. What are your views on this? Can these behaviours be jeopardizing the true message of this cause?
SP: The vast majority of protestors have been peaceful, accountable and inspiring. However, there are some protestors that have resorted to violence which can jeopardize the true message of this cause. Resorting to violence means putting innocent people at risk and disrupting neighborhoods that are short on services. We cannot excuse violence, nor can we participate in it. In fact, those engaging in violence may jeopardize the work of many who carry the movement forward. We should be courageous in our protests and ensure that all individuals are treated with respect and support as we are trying to send a peaceful message. Engaging in acts of violence can jeopardize the meaning of our cause.