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 clean water on an Indigenous reservation, complaining that Indigenous people already receive too much support and should take better care of themselves.

At a bar, a man of European descent joins in a discussion about the police treatment of black people and insists that racism and racial profiling happens in other countries, but not in Canada.

Why do some people publicly make these kinds of blatantly racist and offensive remarks, even while others who might share their views keep quiet? Whether someone makes such comments out of ignorance, prejudice, or insensitivity, people tend to conduct themselves in accordance with what is socially acceptable.

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

“That’s where we’d like to come with racism. Anti-racism initiatives could benefit from focusing more on social norms, which are more easily changeable than entrenched attitudes and biases.

Researchers conducted a nationwide 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 has been weighted to ensure national representation by province, gender, age and education.

Each respondent was presented with a random selection of six of 12 scenarios – three involving each community – which include responding to a white person who was:

  • Speaking up when someone tells an insensitive joke;
  • Appropriate native or black dress;

  • Asking where an Indigenous or Black person is from;
  • Pretending that racism does not exist in Canada;
  • Intervene when an Indigenous or Black person is harassed in public;
  • Make an offensive comment on Facebook; Where
  • Make a racist gesture during a hockey game.

Respondents were then asked if they had witnessed such events or if they knew anyone else who had witnessed them; whether they believed what the person had done was right or wrong; how many people in their social circle would say that what this person did was right or wrong; and how likely they thought others would intervene.

Many respondents said they had personally seen or knew someone who had witnessed racist actions directed against Indigenous peoples, most often being someone saying that racism does not exist against Indigenous peoples (49%). tracking derogatory comments on Facebook (38%); telling insensitive jokes (35%); others were harassing an Aboriginal person (22 percent); 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 directed against black racism, 79% of participants witnessed or knew someone who saw a black person being asked where they were from; claiming that racism does not exist against black people (45%); telling an insensitive joke (38%); harassing a black person (31%); appropriating black clothes (30%); and making derogatory comments on Facebook (21%).

Based on participants’ responses, the researchers came up with an index that represents the degree of acceptability of a specific behavior or behavior in the general population.

The indices range from zero to 100, from the most to the least socially acceptable. This means that the behavior with the lowest score has the greatest consensus of social approval or disapproval.

The study found that social norms are somewhat stronger in situations where people see someone intervening and intervening when someone acts racist toward an Indigenous or Black person, such as telling an insensitive joke or harassing someone. one in public.

Expressing racism through social media posts and asserting that racism does not exist in Canada were both deemed socially unacceptable, according to the index, while appropriating Indigenous or black clothing was considered rare and not as a great social transgression.

Neuman, director of the research project, said the study showed most respondents were aware that driving in these vignettes was bad, but were unsure what others would think or react to the situation.

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

“It’s a big part of racism in society. This is the first time we’ve looked at racism in Canada from the perspective of what’s acceptable or not acceptable in your social circles. So a lot of people think that these Racist actions are wrong, but they’re really not sure what the people around them are thinking, so those norms aren’t very strong, and that helps explain why this type of behavior is still so prevalent.”

Neuman hopes the study’s findings will serve as a benchmark for measuring changing social norms of racism, as what is tolerated and accepted in society changes over time, such as in cases of tobacco control and recognition. of the LGBTQ2+ community after the Supreme Court. 2004 ruling on same-sex marriage.

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

“The likelihood of encountering people who smoke in public spaces today is very low. It’s not because there are laws and enforcement measures, but it’s because smokers have understood that it’s not good to do that. That’s how social norms work and there are very strict norms against something like smoking,” he said.

“If you go back 20 years, attitudes, treatment and norms around LGBTQ people have changed dramatically. Canadians’ views on gay marriage and LGBTQ people have changed because there is something legit about it by the state. This caused people to subsume their personal biases and discomfort.

Neuman said similar successes could be found in developing social norms about what is acceptable and what is not with racism through modeling and creating trends.

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

“What you’re trying to do is communicate that certain types of behaviors are acceptable and others are not. But you have to start by understanding what the standards are, you have to do a diagnosis to find out what they are and how strong they are,” he said.

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

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based journalist who covers immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung

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