Canada’s Racist Social Norms – and How We Can Change Them

In a Facebook group, a white woman responds to a post about new government funding for safe drinking water on an indigenous reservation, complaining that indigenous people already receive a lot of support and should take better care of themselves.

In a bar, a man of European descent joins a discussion about police treatment of people of color and insists that racism and racial discrimination happen in other countries, but not in Canada.

Why do some people make these kinds of perceptibly racist and offensive comments publicly, even when others who might share the views shut up? If someone makes such comments out of ignorance, prejudice or insensitivity, people tend to behave in accordance with what is socially acceptable.

“Thirty years ago, smoking in public was acceptable. It was cool. It was just part of the picture. And there was a real long-term public health campaign, if you want, in essence, to denormalize smoking in public. It’s a complex intervention that, over time, has been quite successful,” says Keith Neuman of the Environics Institute, author of the Canadian social norms and racism studying.

“That’s where we’d like to go with racism. Anti-racism initiatives can benefit by focusing more on social norms, which are more easily changed than ingrained attitudes and prejudices.”

The researchers took a national online survey and asked 6,601 participants to respond to a series of vignettes of racist or anti-racist actions directed at indigenous or black people. Data were weighted to ensure national representation by province, sex, age and education.

Each respondent was randomly selected from six of 12 scenarios – three involving each community – which include responding to a white person who:

  • Speak up when someone tells an insensitive joke;

  • Appropriating indigenous or black clothing;
  • Asking where an Indian or a black man came from;
  • Claiming racism does not exist in Canada;
  • Intervene when an Indian or black person is harassed in public;
  • Make a derogatory comment on Facebook; or
  • Making a racial gesture at a hockey game.

Then, the interviewees were asked if they had witnessed such events or if they knew someone who had; whether they believed that what the person was doing was right or wrong; how many people in your social circle would say what that person did was right or wrong; and how likely they thought others would intervene.

Many respondents said they have personally seen or know someone who has seen racist actions directed at Indigenous Peoples, with the most common being witnessing someone claiming that racism does not exist against Indigenous Peoples (49%); followed by derogatory comments on Facebook (38%); telling insensitive jokes (35%); others bothering an indigenous person (22%); and making a racial gesture such as “a vigorous tomahawk gesture with a loud shout” at a sporting event (21%).

In their response to vignettes aimed at black racism, 79% of respondents witnessed or knew someone who saw a black person being asked where they came from; claiming that racism does not exist against blacks (45 percent); telling an insensitive joke (38%); bothering a black person (31%); appropriating black clothing (30 percent); and making derogatory comments on Facebook (21%).

Based on the participants’ responses, the researchers created an index that represents how acceptable the specific behavior or behavior was in the general population.

The indices range on a scale from zero to 100 – from most to least socially acceptable. This means that low-scoring behavior has the highest consensus of social approval or disapproval.

The study found that social norms are somewhat stronger in situations where people witness someone approaching and intervening when a person acts in a racist manner toward an indigenous or black person, such as telling an insensitive joke or harassing someone in public.

Expressing racism through social media posts and claiming that racism does not exist in Canada was considered socially unacceptable, according to the index, while appropriating indigenous or black attire was believed to be uncommon and not a major social transgression.

Neuman, director of the research project, said the study showed that most respondents were aware that the conduct in these vignettes was wrong, but did not know what others would think or respond to the situation.

“There are unspoken rules about how people behave with others. People know whether or not certain things can be done. When people choose to say something racist, it matters whether or not they think it’s okay with the people they’re with,” Neuman explained.

“This is an important part of racism in society. This is the first time we have looked at racism in Canada from the perspective of what is acceptable or not acceptable in its social circles. So many people think these racist actions are wrong, but they are really not sure what the people around them think. So these norms are not very strong and that helps explain why this type of behavior is still so prevalent.”

Neuman hopes the study results will serve as a benchmark for measuring how social norms of racism evolve as what is tolerated and accepted in society changes over time, such as in the anti-smoking cases and the LGBTQ2+ community’s recognition after the Supreme Court. 2004 decision on gay marriage.

Government policies and social norms must go hand in hand to encourage or prevent the manifestation of unacceptable behavior, he added.

“The probability of finding people who are smoking in public spaces is very low today. It’s not because there are laws and enforcement, but it’s because people who smoke have realized that it’s not right to do so. That’s how social norms work and there are very strong norms against something like smoking,” he said.

“If you go back 20 years, attitudes, treatments and norms around LGBTQ people have changed tremendously. Canadian views on gay marriage and LGBTQ people have changed because there is something legitimate about it by the state. It made people subsume their personal prejudices and discomforts.”

Neuman said similar successes can be found in developing social norms about what is acceptable and what is not with racism through modeling and trend-setting.

Advertising and educational campaigns that reinforce positive norms and denounce negative norms can help develop a collective sense of what is acceptable, he added.

“What you are trying to do is communicate that some types of behavior are acceptable and others are not. But you have to understand what the norms are to begin with, you have to make a diagnosis to find out what they are and how strong they are,” he said.

“It could be a situation where everyone has the same personal belief that something is wrong. By making everyone aware of how everyone else thinks, it strengthens that norm.”

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung

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