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October 18, 2020


Reuel S. Amdur

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Queen's University professor of political philosophy Will Kymlicka identified two elements in racism, racist stereotypes and the view that "the others" are not really part of "us." The latter was supported by the results of a survey of opinion that he promoted. He spoke at an event sponsored by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

His argument around the question of “who are included in us?” is illustrated by the talk of “Canadians of convenience.”  Thus, are Lebanese refugees and Hong Kong Chinese just Canadians as an insurance policy?  If they are not seen as sharing a commitment to our common purpose, it may undermine a willingness to sympathize with their plight and to favor social supports for them.

Who are the groups facing prejudice in this line of thinking?  Immigrants, Indigenous people, and Quebeckers.  While it may be accepted that they are in need and that their plight is not their fault, people may feel alienation, even if they are deemed deserving.  In the survey about which we spoke, respondents saw the minorities as less committed to Canada on a variety of matters.

The more minorities are seen as committed to Canada, the more there is a willingness to redistribute aid to them, in general social programs and in programs aimed at aiding specific minorities.  If they are seen as less committed, they are more open to discrimination.

He saw a similar problem in Quebec, where Anglos and Aboriginals may be seen as less committed to the common purpose.  So, minorities are not immune to racism.

Kymlicka holds that we need to aim beyond community solidarity toward human solidarity.  He finds that national solidarity, as opposed to solidarity on a more limited basis, is felt to be consistent with international solidarity.  In Canada, he argues, multiculturalism means that there are many different ways to be Canadian.

Also speaking on the occasion was Yasmeen Abu-Laban, who holds the Canada Research Chair in the Politics of Citizenship and Human Rights at the University of Alberta.  She spoke of labels which are given to minorities.  In addition to the matter of commitment, Kymlicka also said that racist stereotypes have a negative role to play.  Abu-Laban cited examples.  Currently, Orientals are blamed for COVID-19.  Indians are called savages.  Refugees are “coming in swarms,” “mushrooming,” bogus, carriers of disease, terrorists.  They are accused of having a high birth rate.

Abu-Laban called for adequate funding of anti-racism efforts.  Because of Black Lives Matter, she sees a hunger for such efforts now and she commented favorably on the fact that the business community is becoming activated by the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Their discourse might have benefited by reference to the standard distinction between prejudice and discrimination.  Prejudice is attitudes and discrimination is behavior. There are four ways in which these two concepts are combined. 

A prejudiced person may, consistently, discriminate.  Next, he may not.  Perhaps he is afraid of the law.  Then, an unprejudiced person may adhere to his principles and not discriminate.  Finally, the unprejudiced person may discriminate.  One thinks of the Montreal English School Board which opposed the Bill 21 hiring ban on hijab-wearing teachers but finally capitulated.

Looking at the issue through this lens gives strength to Abu-Laban’s aim at swaying institutions.  Institutions and laws can change attitudes.  Unfortunately, Bill 21 also demonstrates that law can also promote and reinforce discrimination.

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