John Crosbie’s joke was racist: National Post defends

For anyone that hasn’t heard, John Crosbie told a joke about a Pakistani suicide bomber last week. Strangely, it occurred at the inauguration of his new position as Lieutenant Governor General of Newfoundland and Labrador. The joke was racist.

The provincial government of Newfoundland has admonished Crosbie, saying the joke was inappropriate. But they came short of saying the joke was racist.

Similarly, most pundits and journalist have avoided using the ‘r-word’.1 On Friday, November 4th, the National Post published a half page article with handsome photo of Crosbie and a retelling of the joke in an oversized, coloured font. The article was written by Scott Stinson. It was essentially a defense of Crosbie’s racist joke.

When I first read about this incident, I was quite startled that that a public official would make such a joke at a public event. The joke perpetuates racism. But very quickly I was similarly startled that there were so few official institutions calling out his racist comments. This is not to say that Crosbie is a racist, but rather that his actions were racist and that he should be held accountable for the impacts of his behaviour.

The next three sections make arguments based on the assertion that the joke Crosbie told was racist. The following sections explain why the joke is racist, challenge common ideas about race and show some of the impacts of racism in Canada.

The laughter of Conservative Party members was racist

If someone tells a racist joke, and someone else laughs at it, the laughter constitutes a racist action.

It was widely reported that the mostly Conservative audience laughed loudly in response to Crosbie’s joke about the Pakistani suicide bomber. Since the joke was racist, their laughter and affirmation of the joke was also racist.23

The National Post’s retelling of the joke was racist

Natinoal post prints racist joke
Click for larger version

If a joke is racist, and an organization retells the joke without saying it’s racist, the retelling of the joke consitutes a racist action.

The article that Scott Stinson wrote was framed by an attractive large blue font, with occasional use of allcaps for emphasis, that retold the joke. In this presentation, the joke is not simply repeated for analysis, the joke is actually retold. Retelling a racist joke, without saying it is such, is a racist act.4

The National Post’s defense of the joke was racist

If someone tells a racist joke, and an institution defends their actions, the defense constitutes a racist action.

Page three of a newspaper is prime time. That’s an important page. You turn the first page, the cover, and there it is. That’s where the half page article defending Crosbie was located. The National Post opens the piece thusly:

John Crosbie, the Lieutenant-Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador, told an edgy joke at a ceremony last week. Hand wringing has ensued. The Post’s Scott Stinson plays the role of the humour police.

This is interesting framing. ‘Edgy’, much like ‘bold’, is a compliment in most contexts and I would say it is here as well. Accusing a group of ‘hand wringing’ is an easy way of diminishing the concern and outrage they feel. And the notion of a ‘humour police’, like ‘thought police’, is an effective way to marginalize those who think that humour can have negative impacts on people and those impacts should be taken seriously. One can read this introduction and know instantly that the article will be a defense of John Crosbie’s racist behaviour.

Scott Stinson then goes on to defend Crosbie’s telling of the joke. His first paragraph concludes that the joke is, in fact, funny. His second paragraph concludes that the joke is not racist. Stinson’s third paragraph concedes that the joke may be mildly inappropriate, but not because it’s racist. In the fourth paragraph, Stinson admits to being surprised by Crosbie’s humour. In the fifth paragraph, Stinson notes that Crosbie is kind of backing down or somewhat apologizing for his behaviour, but then Stinson laments this fact and frames this as boring. This is a trope that has been repeated substantially in other press. Crosbie himself has framed it this way. The idea is that the alternative to [racist] humour, is being boring.

In the fifth paragraph Stinson notes that this may be the first time that a representative of the Queen has ever “told a suicide-bombing joke.” Note Stinson’s careful non use of the words “Islamic” or “Pakistani.” This is the basis of his failed attempt at plausible deniability. In the seventh and final paragraph, Stinson accuses the Provincial Government of Newfoundland and Labrador of getting their “knickers in a knot” for claiming that Crosbie’s joke was inappropriate. He concludes by saying that the only alternative to telling [racist] jokes is being soporific. 56

My strong suggestion to Scott Stinson: immerse yourself in some of the good anti-racist media discourse at Racialicious or at the National Anti-Racism Council of Canada.

Why the joke is racist

“This fellow said, ‘I was so depressed last night thinking about the economy, wars, jobs, my savings, social security, retirement funds, etc., I called a suicide hotline and got a call centre in Pakistan. When I told them I was suicidal, they got all excited and asked if I could drive a truck.” – The National Post, November 4, 2011, and John Carnell Crosbie, 12th Lieutenant Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador

This joke relies on someone calling a help line in Pakistan and randomly getting a suicide bomber, or someone enlisting a suicide bomber. Someone that is a suicide bomber, or is inciting violence or is asking someone to become a suicide bombing, is a terrorist. Pakistan is an Islamic Republic and if you call a random person in Pakistan it is highly likely that they will be a Muslim. The actual chances of getting a terrorist on the line by randomly calling Pakistan are outrageously improbable.7

So just to recap: we have a joke about calling an Islamic country and randomly getting a terrorist on the phone, who is interested in using the distress of the caller to enact violence.

There are quite clearly a number of different racist stereotypes being played on and affirmed in this joke.8 The racist stereotypes include but are not limited to:9

  1. Islam is a violent religion,
  2. Muslims use bombs,
  3. Muslims incite violence,
  4. Muslims are terrorists,
  5. Pakistanis are violent,
  6. Pakistanis use bombs,
  7. Pakistanis incite violence,
  8. Pakistanis are terrorists, and,
  9. Pakistanis don’t care about Canadians in distress.

Just to be clear, and this can’t be said often enough, there is no biological or genetic or ancestral grounds for race in humans. What we’re talking about is the unfortunate habit that humans have developed of racializing groups. Muslims or Pakistanis constitute no more of a race than Jews or blacks. The point is that races are socially and politically constructed.10

However. And this is a big however. Pakistanis, similarly to Jews and blacks, are a racialized group. That is to say that many Canadians do think of these groups as races. And people still behave as though these groups are races. This is the only way for sociologists and psychologists to explain so much of our behaviour. Some Canadians still use the racial slur: “Pakis“. Some Canadians still think that Islam is a violent religion. Some Canadians still think that the people in or from Pakistan are predisposed to blowing stuff up. These are all unfortunate and dangerous beliefs that trade on racial stereotypes.

I don’t think Scott Stinson, or his editors at the National Post, understand this. I don’t think John Crosbie understands this. And that’s cause for outrage.11

A couple of thought experiments to better grasp this racism

Probably there are still a few folks that have read my reasoning and still deny that the joke is racist. So here’s a couple of thought experiments to try to help them.

#1 Crosbie told the joke to a predominantly white upper class, Conservative audience. But instead, imagine him telling the joke to a room full of people who have immigrated to Canada from Pakistan. Or better yet, imagine that Crosbie told the joke to the a wedding of two Pakistani-Canadians families. Does anyone laugh?

#2 Crosbie told a joke that turns on a Pakistani suicide bomber. But instead, imagine that Crosbie told a joke about calling Israel, and a banker with a big nose answers the phone. Or imagine that the caller phones Israel, and a cheapskate vying for world domination answers the phone. Or imagine that the caller phone Israel and a soldier that has killed Palestinians answers the phone. These are racist tropes. They are more visible than the racist tropes about Muslims and Arabs and Pakistanis tend to to be. But the visibility of a racist trope doesn’t necessarily correlate to the significant and violence of the racism.

John Crosbie’s ‘apology’ was not an apology

Crosbie’s attempt to save face in the media, was not an apology. His ‘apology’ was a subtle diminishment of anyone that is ‘too sensitive.’ He never admits to understanding that the joke is racist. And he never expresses any actual empathy to people who are impacted by the joke or concerned by his lack of judgement. Crosbie only admits that some people think it’s racist. Crosbie himself both denies and affirms the link between Pakistan, Muslims and terrorist:

“It’s got nothing to do with that they’re sympathetic with  terrorists, but we know, of course, that in Pakistan there are a large number of terrorists, so that’s the joke.”

“I am not a racist”

In a predictable move, Crosbie denies that he is a racist. But no one has actually said that he was. I certainly haven’t claimed that Crosbie is a racist. He might actually be one, but I’m not saying so. What I’m saying, is that he told a racist joke. His behaviour was racist. The fact that he has continued to defend his behaviour is suggestive, but I am not a psychologist, or an expert profiler. I’ll leave it to them to decide whether Crosbie’s collective behaviours pass the threshold of racism, in general.

The point here is that this is a common practice among folks that are called out for racist behaviour. They deny being racists. But that is not a defense of how a particular behaviour, joke or action impacted others. An individual utterance or joke can be racist, without the person being a whole hearted racist. It’s much like when an honest person is caught telling a lie. The statement can be a lie, whether they are an honest person on the whole, or not.

“My intention was not to offend anyone”

Actually, Crosbie’s intentions don’t matter that much. Malicious intent is not a necessary condition for racism. When Crosbie claims that his intention was not to offend anyone, he reveals his utter ignorance about the significance of racist humour. When a white person dresses in black face, for example, it doesn’t matter that their intention wasn’t malicious. Their behaviour is still racist.

Intentions aren’t really what matters; impacts matter. Intentions can be lied about. A comment, or a joke, can be racist regardless of the intention of the utterer. If Crosbie can’t understand that a joke can be racist, regardless of whether he intended it to be racist, then it seriously calls into question his judgement as a spokesperson for the Queen.

Additionally, when the conversation is focused on the intentions of the speaker, we can get distracted from paying attention to the impacts of what was said. What matters most in this situation is not whether Crosby thinks what he did was racist.

“Some people don’t find the joke offensive”

Alternative and related versions of this meme include, “it’s just a joke”, “some people need to lighten up”, “some people are too sensitive”, and “my friend is x, and they’re not offended by the joke.”

This is a common refrain. But finding some people who aren’t offended doesn’t actually matter. Racists, for example, generally don’t find racist jokes offensive. So this is obviously not a test for whether a joke is racist or not.

“What about free speech?”

This is a common defense of racist jokes. I won’t say much about this red herring here, except to point it out and to add that people are held to account for the shit they say every day. Many folks lose their jobs or are sued for libel. Journalists and editors, more than most, understand just how thin “free speech” is. Because of the sensitivity of the role of the Lieutenant Governor General, this job makes one more accountable, not less.

Why racist humour matters

If you doubt that racist humour matters, check out the Canadian Council for Refugees [PDF] brochure about discrimination in Canada. Or read about some surveys done on discrimination and racism. Or find out how a racialized minority person’s economic standing or job search is currently impacted by ignorance and racism. Or sort out how ignorance of other people and countries can enable violent foreign policies. In the Lawyer’s Weekly, J. Michael Cole, a former CSIS analyst, believes that racism and cultural insensitivity “represent what is probably the greatest threat to Canadian security in the long term.” 12

Beyond the immediate hurt of racist humour, it can also make space for other kinds of hate and more serious kinds of hate crime.13 The fact that there has been so little mainstream outcry against Crosbie’s racist joke suggests that mainstream Canadian culture is a racist milieu.14

The comments left on website articles is further evidence of a racist Canadian milieu

If you still doubt the seriousness of bigotry towards people from Pakistan, Muslims or Arabs, please consider some of the comments posted on the CBC article about Crosbie’s ‘apology’. I’ve listed some below.15 Pay close attention to the way these comments assert that the joke was just a joke (i.e. not meant to be taken seriously), and also that the joke is funny because of how true it is (i.e. has a basis in reality and so should be taken seriously). Some comments literally assert both ideas in the same breath.

Mr. Waqar, we have free speech here in Canada because of people like John Crosbie. If you want to show your worth as a human being then man up and speak out about honour killings and forced marriages in your own country. Make changes where they are really needed. This is your opportunity now that you have seen a truly free country. You could even speak out against your government allowing terrorists to train there to kill North American soldiers. But oh, excuse me, you are busy right now protesting a Canadian patriot with a sense of humour…Get your priorities straight and then Canadian citizens may take you seriously.. Kodiak Bear 2011/11/04 at 8:11 AM ET

Shame on you John; you should know by now that you should never tell it like it is. Just another Canuck 2011/11/04 at 7:57 AM ET

It was hilarious. Maybe it hit a little too close to home for the offended? Truth hits sometimes. Personally, I figure those who took complained should GO BACK HOME where the climate is more attuned to their senibilities. They don’t have a right to come to our country and tell us what we should and shouldn’t say, think or do. truth or consequences 2011/11/04 at 6:29 AM ET

But as he is reported to have said he “didn’t take the G D fish out of the ocean”. So what, a racist joke like this is innocent enough. At least he didn’t use the “n” word. Well done, Johnny Boy. You are a credit to NL. masterwatch 2011/11/04 at 5:10 AM ET

Nice to hear true sentiments from a leader figure in Canada’s politics. Time for those students at MUN to go home please, now.  NEWSBUM 2011/11/03 at 5:40 PM ET

The truth is sometimes funnier than fiction. xnewfie 2011/11/03 at 5:00 PM ET

John Crosbie has always been known for is colorful comments… Suck it up and get over it…. were all adults.. I think society is becomming to crazy about this stuff.. Not allowed to make a joke?? Way to go Mr. Crosbie.. Keep the humor comming. As for those who took offence to it.. GO HOME and leave our home and people alone. frymic2011/11/03 at 2:52 PM ET

Crosbie hit the nail on the head. Un-Common-Sense2011/11/03 at 2:11 PM ET

People are so ultra sensitive these days…if you don’t like what someone has to say just walk away. You’re not some kid being bullied and picked on in the schoolyard with no way out…you’re a grown man (or possibly a woman…Wasiq Waqar????).

There are a lot of things that I don’t like in this world but I choose to mind my own business…less headaches for me!!! betterthanyou2011/11/03 at 12:25 PM ET

Bahahahaha, that joke is hilarious. Good one. Mr. Crosbie is a funny guy. The Pakistani students have an association? How racist is that? People should be upset at that. Perhaps if the Pakistani students actually tried integrating into the student body instead of forming their own little cults then they wouldn’t be so upset. Mr FUnny – November 4, 2011 at 11:26:32

In conclusion

What Crosbie said was racist, regardless of whether he intended it to be. This kind of racism has far reaching impacts, in part because it is so common and difficult to challenge.

If I was Crosbie’s boss, I would dismiss him.

  1. I have found one article that affirms that the joke is racist.
  2. Jack Knox says something almost condemning those that laughed
  3. Please note, that I am not saying that the Conservative Party members who laughed are, themselves, racist. They might be racists. But I don’t know that. What I am saying, is that their behaviour was racist.
  4. Please note that I am not saying that the National Post is racist all of the time, everywhere. The institution might be racist, but that would require more argumentation and evidence. What I am saying is that the National Post’s retelling of the joke was racist.
  5. Soporific is really just a fancy way for reiterating the frame that the alternative to using (racist) humour is to be boring. Looks like Stinson knows how to use a thesaurus.
  6. Please note that I am not saying that the National Post is always racist. I am arguing that their defense of a racist joke, was a racist action.
  7. I don’t know the precise odds. All that matters here for my argument, is that the odds are very very slim.
  8. Some may have the misguided impression that one cannot be ‘racist’ to Muslims. There is a clear and solid academic literature linking racism and Islamophobia. See, for example, Media, Racism and Islamophobia: The Representation of Islam and Muslims in the Media, or No Exit: Racial Profiling and Canada’s War Against Terrorism
  9. It should also be noted that there are many Sikh immigrants in Canada from Pakistan. Sikhs make up a very small part of the population in Pakistan, but because of their visibility here in Canada, many Canadians associate Sikhism with Pakistan. Similarly, many Canadians associate the image of a bearded brown man in a turban, with Pakistan.
  10. There is no biological basis or genetic grounds for human races. See Barkan, Elazar (1992), The Retreat of Scientific Racism : Changing Concepts of Race in Britain and the United States between the World Wars, Cambridge University Press, New York, NY. Or check out Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2003. Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
  11. Please note that I am not saying that Crosbie is a racist. I am saying that his behaviour was racist. More particularly, Crosbie’s telling of the joke was racist.
  12. Naseer (Irfan) Syed, “Media gets a failing grade in cultural sensitivity”, Lawyer’s Weekly, August 2008.
  13. Hate Crime in Canada (PDF)
  14. For an interesting read on how the mainstream media portrays Muslims, check out this Racialious interview with Mimi Thi Nguyen and Junaid Rana
  15. Actually, many comments were deleted by the moderators for stepping over the bounds

WWII and race in the Post-Nazi era

Part VI of a series on the history of race in Canada and the US.

After the end of World War II, there was a significant shift in race-thinking. As the horrors of the holocaust came into popular awareness, it became less acceptable to talk about the differences between races in general, and white-supremacy in particular (Omi, 2001). This was exemplified in the 1950, 1951, 1964 and 1967 UNESCO Statements on Race (Hiernaux & Banton, 1969 – pdf), which take an increasingly strong stance against any scientific basis for race, and criticize the use of biological understandings of race to justify racial discrimination.

The end of the Second World War also initiated significant changes in American and Canadian culture with the rise of the consumer society. Many feared a massive post-war depression, as had followed WWI. This provoked a consensus across business and political party lines that endorsed mass consumption as a way to transition into a peacetime economy. In this context, consumption was not only about personal comfort, it was a civic duty (Cohen, 2003).

The American GI Bill of Rights (1944) is an illustrative example of the ways that racialization became more covert after the Second World War, but continued to shape social structures, institutions and the distribution of resources. The GI Bill of Rights was one of many American government measures to promote purchasing power and it is now understood as an important mechanism that enabled social mobility for soldiers returning from war. While this bill was a significant contributor to the prosperity of many in the decades after the war, many studies have overwhelmingly indicated that “the better off a GI was going into the war, the better off VA benefits made him after it” (Cohen, 2003, p. 156). Part of this difference is accounted for by the personal entitlement and social capital of middle and upper class men, but a large part of the difference came from the structures and distribution of benefits of the GI Bill itself. For example, while the GI Bill would cover the high tuition of private universities, it was very difficult to receive support for the costs of apprenticeships, skills education or on-the-job training, all forms of education associated with working class employment.

In Canada, talk about race, and particularly about whiteness, also declined during the post-WWII time period. It was replaced with euphemistic terms like culture and ethnicity, which continued to mark some as different from unmarked (implicitly white) Canadians, as Canada started to regulate culture and assimilation through the Nationalities, Citizenship and Multiculturalism branches of the government (Day, 2000). This strategy has meant that difference is managed through policies of inclusion. However, the cultural differences that are included are only the observable aspects. James (2008) argues that Canada’s multiculturalism policies are based on a ‘surface’ definition of culture, which negates the power differences that exist between perceived groups (especially between the dominant and ‘minority’ groups), and the ways that minority groups are expected to conform to the deeper aspects of white European Canadian culture (i.e. the organization of families, economics and politics). This is the double effect of multiculturalism in Canada: the explicit policy is one of multiculturalism and affirmation of diversity, while the implicit values reaffirm whiteness as the central or normal experience (Mackey, 2002).

The civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s, 70s and 80s in the USA and Canada led to many gains in equality, particularly in the legal domain. Formal and explicit racism largely ended, and race-equalizing policies such as affirmative action and hiring equity were adopted to try to address the historical inequities. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, affirmative action provoked a growing backlash among middle-class (particularly male) whites (Giroux, 1997). It is in the context of this backlash that there is an increasingly colourblind or race neutral approach has been expressed, in the media, in pop-culture, in the USA courts, and by government leaders and policy makers. Chapter 4 explores how these ideas are then taken up and expressed by commenters on a blog post about diversity.

Between the world wars: 1920s and 1930s

Part V of a series on the history of race in Canada and the US.

As the western world was rebuilding itself in the wake of World War I, races continued to be seen as a ‘natural’ way of categorizing humans. During this time, Caucasian became more widely used to describe an increasingly broad range of white-skinned people. This was the result of the legitimacy of science being used to consolidate white as a unifying category (Jacobson, 1998). In the U.S., the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act significantly decreased non-British European immigration. This, combined with increased internal migration of southern African-Americans, lead to the consolidation of the various white European ethnicities into the broader category of Caucasian, which was defined in opposition to blacks (Jacobson, 1998). Barrett echoes this analysis. He says that southern and eastern European “ethnic communities had by then come to identify themselves as white in relation to the burgeoning black urban population” (Barrett, 2001, p. 35).

Brodkin-Sacks (1992/2003) uses the US census to illustrate the growing inclusivity of the word white. The census of 1930 made a distinction between Eastern/Southern and Northern “Euroimmigrants” (Brodkin-Sacks, 1992/2003, p. 118). However, “the 1940 census no longer distinguished native whites of native parentage from those, like my parents, of immigrant parentage, so that Euroimmigrants and their children were more securely white by submersion in an expanded notion of whiteness (Brodkin-Sacks, 1992/2003, p. 122). Due to these converging dynamics, white was becoming a unifying category for previously diverse groups of immigrants.

In Canada, there was a significant decrease in the number of immigrants generally, and especially from non-British and non-American sources. With the increasing economic depression, a 1931 government order closed the door almost entirely to immigration, and it was not opened again until after the end of World War II (Green & Green, 1999). Canadian immigration policy was entirely focused on the assimilation of immigrants into English-Canadian or French-Canadian culture. In practice, this meant that “immigrants who were culturally or racially inferior (or at least different) and incapable of being assimilated should be excluded” (Palmer, 1976, p. 465). The Canadian government was committed to creating a primarily white population, and largely achieved this through exclusionary immigration policies and assimilation practices for recently arrived immigrants.

The 1930s also saw the beginning of the trend within the scientific community to discredit scientific theories about race. This was in part because of the lack of evidence for these theories, but also because of the growing awareness of Nazi race theories. In 1939 some geneticists formulated the “geneticist’s manifesto” which rejected Nazi-like race theories (Jacobson, 1998; Province, 1973). These were the germinating seeds in this time period that enabled the explosion of social constructionist theories of the last half of the twentieth century. Boas, for example, wrote in 1937 that the “mind, body, custom, and social behavior are all subject to the ‘plastic influence of environment’” (as cited in Jacobson, 1998, p. 101).

Despite the world wide economic depression of the 1930s, this time period was also a time of major accumulation of wealth by whites in the US, and corresponding disaccumulation of wealth by blacks. As an example of economic accumulation and disaccumulation, some authors note the large discrepancy between the net worth of whites and African Americans with equivalent annual incomes. This discrepancy has been explained to a large degree by differences in the value and equity of the homes owned by whites and blacks (Brown et al., 2003, p. 23-24). Some of this discrepancy can be traced back to the New Deal programs created during the Depression in the 1930s. These program were set up ostensibly to benefit all citizens during a time of national crisis. However, in part because of the tensions in the US Congress at that time and pressure from southern US representatives, government social programs were set up in ways that covertly and effectively benefited white people significantly more than black people. This is clear in the Social Security program that was implemented: it excluded those who were employed as maids or farmworkers from coverage. This decision and the effects of this policy were not racially neutral, as about 75% of the total black labour force in the US were employed as either maids or farmworkers, and therefore excluded from the Social Security program (Brown et al., 2003, p. 28).

1870s to 1924: Increasing immigration

Part IV of a series on the history of race in Canada and the US.

“To become White has often been constructed as synonymous with becoming truly American” (Maher, 1997, p. 4).

The end of the civil war in the US and the resulting massive internal migration of African-Americans through the 1870s, as well as increased non-British immigration, prompted changes during the late 19th century in previous delineations of the races (Allen, 1994). The ‘naturalness’ of race of the pre-1870 time period became one of the foundational beliefs in the explosion of scientific research into the ‘human races’ through the late 1800s and early 1900s. In particular, the early nineteenth century saw the rise of scientific studies of race alongside the eugenics movement. Eugenics became the practical strategy to achieve white racial superiority and advocated (among other things) for increased birthrates for whites and birth control for non-whites. These ‘scientific’ studies were highly ideologically driven and based on very little evidence (Provine, 1973).

Throughout the late 1800s, immigration continued to increase to both Canada and the US, with different results and responses. In the US, the Naturalization Law of 1790 effectively excluded all obviously non-white immigrants from becoming citizens, but the rise of non-British European immigrants started to provoke discomfort about the definition of white. Whiteness started to become more fragmented, and what was understood as a singular white race became more pluralized (Jacobson, 1998). Although the response to this was to restrict immigration, the whiteness of non-British European immigrants was actually very rarely questioned. In fact, their status as white formed the basis for the question of immigration, as all non-white immigrants were still effectively barred from citizenship. The year 1924 marked an important peak in the eugenics movement in the US, with the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act that severely restricted immigration.

In Canada, the 1901 Census used the four-colour racial classification of white, yellow, black and red to categorize the population. This categorization scheme fit the predominant operation of race in this time period, the Great Chain of Race. The Great Chain of Race theory stated that human races were evolving in similar ways that Darwin argued species evolved over time. This idea became popular because it legitimated white superiority at a time of increased immigration from non-British European countries. These immigrants were seen to be less easily assimilated (and therefore less desirable) than those from Britain (Day, 2000). The Great Chain of Race was used to legitimize a two pronged strategy of more restrictive immigration and more active assimilation of those already within Canada’s borders.

The assimilationist policies and practices of the colonial government are especially visible in relation to First Nations. For example, if indigenous people wanted the right to vote in federal, provincial or territorial elections prior to 1960, they were required to relinquish their status as Indians. This meant that they would no longer have access to land, housing or resources on their traditional territories. The choice was thus to stay excluded from Canadian citizenship, or become a Canadian citizen at the expense of the recognition of their First Nations status. James (2008) writes about the similarities between apartheid laws in South Africa and the Indian Act in Canada. South African government delegates came to Canada to visit Indian reserves around the same time that apartheid laws were being put into place. While it is more commonly recognized that apartheid laws created institutional and structural barriers, it is less common for Canadians to recognize the ways that the “Indian Act, a form of structural racism, served, and still serves, as a mechanism to maintain a culturally ‘white’ Canada” (p. 103).

Another example of restrictive immigration in Canada was the first Chinese Head Tax legislation in 1885. This “head tax” required immigrants from China to pay $50 (the tax was increased to $100 in 1900 and to $500 in 1903) to the Canadian government in order to enter to Canada. It’s intention was explicit: to profit from Chinese migrant workers and to exclude them from becoming Canadian citizens. In 1923, the Canadian Minister for Immigration and Colonization issued an Order in Council which restricted entry to all but a few classes of people (Day, 2000). The Canadian Order was based on a inclusive definition of immigrants, meaning it specified who was included, rather than who was excluded. Of the select few who were included, most classes were based on immigrants estimated capacity to contribute to the economy. British and American immigrants were specifically mentioned as having good potential to be “economic contributors”. This language ascribed characteristics not only to certain races, but even more specifically to national origin. The effect of this legislation was to exclude those seen as racially undesirable, without giving the appearance of having done so. These measures were extremely effective in excluding immigration, particularly for those of Asian origins; for example, only eight Chinese are recorded as having immigrated to Canada between 1923 and 1947 (Day, 2000).

This history of immigration laws account for the current racial make-up of Canada’s population. Despite all of the restrictions on who has been able to become Canadian over the past 200 years, it is rarely acknowledged that the Canadian population has been actively constructed.

The “White Canada” Policy

Part III of a series on the history of race in Canada and the US.

Canada is often described as a “nation of immigrants.” This telling of history often includes “Canada’s present-day Indian and Inuit [who] became this country’s first immigrants when they journeyed to America by way of the Bering Strait” (Knowles, 2007, p. 11).1 By situating Indigenous people as immigrants, the differences between Indigenous people and European colonizers are minimized, effectively hiding the violences of colonization and the illegal appropriation of indigenous land. This story also undermines the claims of Indigenous people to their land, that, for the most part, has never been legally ceded (Deloria, 1995; Iseke-Barnes, 2005).

Canada’s history of immigration policies makes evident the way that the current Canadian population has been an actively racialized construct. For example, in the 1920s, Canada’s immigration objective was to attract more British and American immigrants, as well as immigrants from the “preferred countries” of central and northern Europe (Hawkins, 2000 p. 26). According to Mackey, “up until the Second World War, when most immigration ceased, Canada had a strict hierarchy of preferred racial groups for immigration” (Mackey, 2002, p. 33). Hawkins (2000) describes these practices even more specifically. She says, “elements of restriction, directed first against the Chinese and later against all potential non-white immigrants, were present in [Canadian] immigration legislation from the 1880s onwards. The power to exclude would-be immigrants in certain categories and of certain origins, on which the White Canada policy was based, was laid down in the Immigration Act of 1910” (p. 16).

For the first 100 years of Canada’s official existence, immigration policies were explicitly racialized. It was only in the 1960s that immigration policy in Canada was changed to allow immigration from non-European countries. This has resulted in a largely white population in Canada. It is predominantly more recent immigrants who are racialized in other ways. This allows current discourses about the problems with “immigrants” in Canada (i.e. their supposed inability to assimilate, or their puported stealing of Canadian’s jobs) to functionally hide the ways that those ideas are racialized.

  1. Knowles is a prolific writer on immigration history of Canada, and her widely distributed book is in its second edition.

Early race history: Slavery and Colonization

Part II of a series on the history of race in Canada and the US.

In the US, whiteness was enshrined by Congress as early as 1790, when “all free white persons” had the opportunity to become citizens. Although Congress included white in the definition of who could become a citizen, it did not articulate who was considered white (Jacobson, 1998). This was in part because the delineation between white and not-white was so taken for granted that it did not require definition.

However this general taken-for-grantedness was not total, as the example of Alexina Morrison illustrates. Morrison was born into slavery, but after being sold as a slave in 1857, she claimed that her white skin (and blond hair and blue eyes) was proof that she couldn not be a slave and attempted to gain her freedom. Even in the colonial slave-owning society of the 1850s, whiteness was not always so easily defined – although this is not to imply that it is more easily defined today. In an examination of Morrison’s case, Johnson (2000) highlights some of the mechanisms through which whiteness and blackness operated, such as lineage (i.e. born to free or slave parents), biology (i.e. blood content, facial structure) and sexuality (i.e. was she a good, chaste woman – because this was how white women were defined). Each of these three factors shed light on how race was operating at this time, and how the boundaries of race were being constructed and policed.

The visibility and prominence of slavery in the US has often overshadowed the violent, but more historically distant and marginalized, events of colonization. Roediger (1991) contends that First Nations were not as available to be the foil against which whiteness was defined. This was because Native American populations were declining rapidly in the early days of confederation in the US (due largely to the violences of colonialism) and the remaining indigenous communities were being forcibly relocated to more remote areas. African slaves and free blacks, on the other hand, were more integrated into the daily lives of white people, and thus whiteness came to be defined in comparison to black rather than Native-American in the colonial period. The legacy of this definition of whiteness continues today. Even in Canada where significantly fewer African slaves and immigrants, race is often said to be about white and black. Those who are more ambiguously racialized (such as First Nations people or people of Asian decent) are not always recognized as being “people of colour,” but nor are they always recognized as being white.

The role of First Nations in the national imaginaries of the US and Canada was predominantly that of the “disappearing Indian.” This was an active construction in both Canada and the US during the early days of colonization and was enabled by the trope of terra nullius, or “empty lands” (Lutz, 2007, p. 41). European colonizers often spoke, wrote and made art about the vast empty lands of Canada and the US, despite the existence of a wide diversity of indigenous nations. As Day (2000) argues, terra nullius was actively created by European colonizers: “before the ‘waste’ lands could be populated, they had to be de-populated; that is, their emptiness had to be constructed in colonial practices so as to correspond to colonial theory” (p. 117-8).

In contrast with the US, whiteness in the Canadian context was articulated primarily through the language of civilization in contrast to the ‘savage indians’ (Jacobson, 1998). The ‘civility’ of Canadians is two fold. On the one hand, First Nations are available as those who need to be civilized, thus constructing European colonizers as those are more civilized. On the other hand, colonizers in Canada took pride in being so much less violent than colonizers in the US, thus allowing the Canadian national myth to be one of peaceful coexistence with First Nations (Mackey, 2002).

A Brief History of ‘Race’ in Canada and the US

This is the first of a series that I will post on the history of race in Canada and the US.

The word race, as it refers to biological or genetic differentiations among humans, first appeared in the english language in the last decade of the fifteenth century, the same time that Europeans arrived for the first time in what is now known as North America (Hirschman, 2004; see also Oxford English dictionary, 2000). Despite the recent and growing calls for the ‘end of race’ and the growing consensus among scholars that race is socially constructed, race continues to have a real presence in Canadian and US culture, and continues to shape how these societies are organized (Omi, 2001).

Within whiteness studies, historians have played a central role historicizing race and whiteness (s.f. Roediger, 1991; Saxton, 1990/2003; Jacobson, 1998). While there is some consensus on the fact that understandings of race and whiteness have changed over time, theories vary widely on exactly what those changes have been. Some of the most well known include Roediger (1991), Ignatiev (1995) and Guglielmo (2003). Roediger, for example, traces the emergence of the white worker in the 19th century. Before this time, Roediger contends, the “white worker” did not exist with the same kind of meanings that it has today (Roediger, 1991, p. 20). Jacobson takes a slightly broader look at the changes in whiteness in the U.S. He posits that the political history of whiteness in America is divisible into three great epochs: 1790-1840s, with the first naturalization law; 1840s-1924, the mass immigration of Europeans; 1924 onwards, after the immigration restrictions of the Johnson-Reed Act.

Situating race as a historically flexible concept is significant because it challenges the claims (implicit and explicit) that race is a natural way of categorizing humans. This gives more substance to the increasing challenges to biological or scientific understandings of race. When it is made visible that whiteness has not been the same throughout history, it is much harder to claim that a particular manifestation or occurrence of it is natural.

Anti-racist cartoons

I just came across this great cartoonist who has a whole page dedicated to anti-racist cartoons. Intelligent, insightful and funny… this is the kind of culture I want to be part of creating!

It turns out that he is also the artist that drew one of my all-time favourite cartoons about the history of race in North America: