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Racism and the unlevel playing field

The world is not a place of equal opportunity and justice for all. As many have said before me, “the playing field is not level”. To continue the metaphor, some people can’t even gain access to the field of play, much less touch the ball. As a small child, I quickly learned that the path to success was never paved or smooth for everyone. Rather, people who have the privilege of wealth and influence are usually able to wield these tools for the benefit of themselves and their children. We all witnessed this in vivid detail with the exposure of the details of  Operation Varsity Blues in 2019 south of the border by American federal prosecutors. In a nutshell, celebrities and millionaires like the actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were bribing and falsifying their adult children’s way into elite universities by having other people write their SAT tests and photo-shopping their children’s heads onto the bodies of elite athletes to pretend they were varsity sports material. In the end, prosecutors argued that some thirty-three parents had conspired with a host of other people including SAT/ACT administrators, an exam proctor, nine athletics coaches, and one college administrator. If you think that versions of the same thing are not going on in Canada, you’re kidding yourself. Centuries of racism has made class a matter of race. It should not be surprising that many of the parents and students involved in this case were white.

I have decades of firsthand experience that has taught me the painful lesson that a person’s race absolutely impacts his/her education and career as well as the opportunities and rewards bestowed or withheld such as promotions and salary increases. Many years ago, in the 1970’s I had an African-Jamaican friend who had obtained his master’s degree in economics from the famed London School of Economics in the UK. With a successful career in banking in London, when the family decided to emigrate to Toronto, Canada, he applied for a job with a major Canadian bank, sending a letter in advance with his resume. The bank responded promptly indicating that my friend’s impressive qualifications made him an ideal candidate for positions at the bank. The letter continued imploring him to set up an interview as soon as he arrived from Britain because bank management was intent on meeting him and offering him a job. My friend arrived on a Saturday, called the bank on the following Monday, and was promised an interview on the Wednesday.

When he presented himself for the interview, he was told that the vacancies were all filled. Due to his British training and work experience, the bank staff who received him had expected him to be white. Once the staff saw that he was black, they claimed that they had no vacancies. Unfortunately, although this happened in the 1970s my friend’s experience of institutional racism is not ancient history. Studies have shown that, still today, white human resources staffers and others with hiring authority routinely disregard and disqualify potential candidates who they believe have “ethnic sounding” names, whatever that means. Of course, sadly, I do know what it means. But the problem is not just that, in a nation like Canada, a person with a name like Thomas Smith will be assumed to be white, but that he will also be assumed to be more intelligent, more professional, and better educated (despite what his resume states), than a candidate named Deshawn Washington or Padma Sutar. The racist lens through which black Canadians are often viewed does not merely apply to our complexions, but to other bodily markers like our hair. Second only to skin colour in the colonial world, for centuries hair texture has been used by Europeans and Euro-Americans as a barometer of their supposed racial superiority. In the period of slavery, “high” art portraits of white enslavers and others whether painted in oils or chiseled in marble, valorized the long, typically straight and light-coloured hair of white women who were idealized as the epitome of beauty for all humans. As the scholars Shane White and Graham White have articulated,

“According to the prevailing racist ideology of eighteenth-century America, the physical attributes of African Americans – their skin color, facial structure, and, of course, their thick, curly hair – were freighted with negative connotations. Whites frequently referred to blacks’ hair as ‘wool’ (the association with animals was hardly accidental), in order to differentiate it from the supposedly superior white variety.”[1]

This aesthetic stigmatization of enslaved black people’s bodies went together with their legal marginalization as chattel. Unsurprisingly, white enslavers employed head shaving as a punishment for those they enslaved, especially for mixed-race women whose hair approximated that of white women. We are still battling against the devaluation of black people’s natural hair texture today. A recent 2014 case in Montreal saw the black hostess Lettia McNickle pulled aside, berated, and sent home by her white female boss at Madisons New York Grill and Bar for wearing cornrows. I should point out that Lettia’s mother is a hairdresser, so we can surmise that her hairstyle was beautiful and professionally done. Thanks to Lettia’s convictions, she filed a human rights complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission and was eventually – after four long years – awarded $14,500.00 in damages.

Systemic bias not only determines who gets the job, but who is considered supervisor material, who is sent on the development retreat, who is given the valued account or client, and who gets the raise, the bonus, the corner office, and the title. As Lettia’s case reveals, it also determines who is sent home or fired. The knock-on effects of these biased decisions are potent and long-lasting and can literally change or derail the trajectory of someone’s career and life. In the case of black people this has typically meant forcing us to settle for opportunities that have been beneath our skills, intelligence, and education and for salaries that have deprived us of acquiring the material benefits of our labours.

In my friend’s case, a local university heard about his humiliating encounter with the bank, offered him an interview, and gave him a good job. But they also insisted that he not speak about (and publicly embarrass) the bank that had discriminated against him, effectively buying his silence, and ensuring that more white Canadians could continue to believe in the lie of an equitable and racism-free Canada. Another lesson then, is about how white individuals (like Huffman and Loughlin) and institutions (like the bank) collude to hide the very racism they continue to perpetuate. For things to change we must first acknowledge that this entrenched institutional racism is a part of the Canadian educational and employment landscapes. Although being a change agent has a price, it is everyone’s responsibility to meet the challenges of levelling the playing field.



[1] Shane White and Graham White, “Slave Hair and African American Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 61, no. 1 (February 1995), p. 56.