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‘If I say I don’t see skin colour, am I racist?’ asks B.C. government agency

March 13, 2021

“Would you ask Doris Day that question?”

That’s how famed jazz singer Billie Holiday responds during a 1957 interview to a journalist who asks, “What it’s like to be a coloured woman?” The scene is in the new movie, The United States vs. Billie Holiday.

The acclaimed singer’s answer reflected the anti-racism approach of that era, which had civil rights leaders urging Americans to see beyond the skin colour of Blacks and other minorities — to treat them equally, like everyone else.

It was a “colour-blind” approach to race, similar to that of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in 1968. As King said: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

While both Holiday and King at times advocated affirmative action, their words have been seen as pointing to a kind of philosophical universalism, which asserts that all citizens have equal rights as individuals. U.S. president Barack Obama also reportedly mused about creating a “post-racial” society.

But now this so-called “difference-blind” approach to racial and ethnic diversity is criticized, including in a campaign launched by B.C. Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender.

The rising denunciation of colour-blindness is rooted in critical-race theory, a movement in the American social sciences that says white privilege exists and cultural narratives can be changed to counter it.

The mainstreaming of critical-race theory was the reason why B.C. Premier John Horgan apologized the day after the leadership debate of October 2020.

Asked to comment on “white privilege,” Horgan answered on TV he grew up in poverty with friends who were Indigenous and South Asian and knows what it’s like to be part of “the crowd that nobody paid attention to.”

He added: “I don’t see colour.”

After Horgan was thrashed by political opponents and on social media, he jumped on Twitter to describe his comment as inappropriate.

“Saying ‘I don’t see colour’ causes pain and makes people feel unseen. I’m sorry,’” Horgan wrote. “I’ll never fully understand, as a white person, the lived reality of systemic racism. I’m listening, learning, and I’ll keep working every day to do better.”

As feelings, beliefs and confusion about racial diversity grow stronger, the B.C. Human Rights Commission’s new provocative billboard campaign asks: “If I say I don’t see skin colour, am I racist?”

The commission’s website offers a partial answer.

“It may seem logical that if more Canadians became ‘colour-blind’ our society would become more accepting, and that this would allow people of colour, minority groups, immigrants and Indigenous peoples to feel respected in the place they call home. But this is not yet a reality,” says the website.

“To say ‘I don’t see colour’ is to say we don’t see the racism people face. What matters is people’s own experience of being racialized. Believing that ignoring skin colour will solve all of our problems fails to consider the very real experiences of racism that occur in daily life. As a result, this attitude helps to maintain inequities and systemic racism.”

When Postmedia asked if the commission would then reply Yes to the question, “If I say I don’t see skin colour, am I racist?” spokeswoman Elaine O’Connor responded, “We did not set an ultimate answer to the question or prescribe a ‘correct’ answer. The purpose of this campaign was to prompt internal assessments.”

The spokeswoman also emphasized the “am I racist?” campaign was not inspired by Horgan getting called out.

“It’s important to share that our campaign was conceived and created in the summer of 2020. The questions in our campaign were decided upon and finalized well before the premier’s statement,” O’Connor said.

Asked how the commission defines its use of the academic term “racialized,” O’Connor initially declined, saying the commission “isn’t in a position to dictate or define a fixed meaning at this time.”

Six days later, O’Connor emailed that “‘racialization’ is an evolving discursive process and term. The term ‘racialized’ has a number of different interpretations, since it is a fairly new addition to modern conversation and there is not full agreement.”

Continuing, she said, “Racialization of all groups is not equally applied in practice. The racialization of white people tends to be invisible because whiteness is the generally accepted ‘norm’ in our culture. The term ‘racialized’ is generally used in reference to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour) people.”

For its part, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “racialize” as a transitive verb meaning “to categorize or marginalize according to race.” It also defines “racism” as believing “racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

Many linguists and anti-racism activists are trying to hone the meaning of such emotive terms.

Yafet Tewelde, an activist and PhD candidate at York University specializing in Black studies, says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, after the scandal over appearing in blackface, uses the term “racialized” incorrectly.

“Who are ‘racialized’ Canadians?” asks Tewelde. “Are they Canadians who experience racial discrimination? Are there racialized Canadians who do not experience racial discrimination?”

Moreover, Tewelde disapproved of Trudeau and the many politicians, public officials and journalists who follow Trudeau’s example and use “racialized” to specifically refer to non-white people.

“The use of ‘racialized’ interchangeably with non-white is particularly confusing when understanding the difference between race and racism,” Tewelde said. “’Racialized” people are not — and cannot be — exclusively non-white people.”

Debate will no doubt continue to boil, in public and in private, over these critical-theory concepts, including the commission’s ultimately unanswered question, “If I say I don’t see skin colour, am I racist?”

For a start, Tewelde offers a possible alternative to at least one perplexing term. Instead of saying “racialized,” he recommends “it would be more accurate to use ‘racially marginalized’ when referring to non-white communities, or all people that experience racism.”

The discussion continues.