This past June, Jagmeet Singh, leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, was temporarily barred from the House of Commons after calling another Member of Parliament, the Bloc Québécois’ Alain Therrien, a “racist,” when the BQ MP refused to vote on an NDP motion to investigate systemic racism in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. “We had a motion to call out the systemic racism in the RCMP and provide some really clear steps to stop it in the future,” Singh protested subsequently. “Anyone who wants to vote against that is a racist, yes.” Then in October, John Horgan, head of the British Columbia NDP, was widely criticized for his assertion during a provincial leaders’ debate that, growing up in multicultural BC, “I did not see color.” “There is a Canadian brand of racism, it’s where people say common phrases like ‘I don’t see color,'” said Stephanie Allen of the Federation of Black Canadians. So apparently the worst racists of our time are those who would commit the unpardonable offence of disavowing racism itself.
It’s ironic that as the last few decades have witnessed a decline in overt prejudice – barriers to employment, housing, or schooling; demeaning caricatures (or just invisibility) in the media; open insults or harassment on the street – a younger generation has been raised to think that hatred and oppression are fundamental to contemporary Canadian life. That is, the less real discrimination exists, the more it’s invoked by people whose careers and whose selves are defined by it. Immersed in educational curricula and popular culture that have piously contrasted the horrors of colonialism, segregation, genocide and chauvinism with heroic narratives of resistance and liberation, this cohort knows politics only as an unending dynamic of villains and victims. Every topic, however neutral, must be understood as a contest between saintly suffering versus undeserving authority. Older men and women, who once endured and surmounted unfair personal treatment all the time, can appreciate the progress that’s been made, whereas their grandchildren, for whom far more opportunities are taken for granted, fixate on abstract conditions they nevertheless insist are still everywhere.
I’m not suggesting that Jagmeet Singh or Stephanie Allen are cynically alleging social concerns they don’t privately believe in. Human nature being what it is, though, we often claim a particular disadvantage if it’s advantageous in the long run; this is why we enter a variety of expenses (costs) on our tax returns in the assumption that a corresponding amount of money will be deducted from our final bill (savings). Similarly, politicians and activists who accuse rivals of racism or sexism (which are bad) are just trying to score whatever rhetorical points they can gain in an ongoing competition for public support (which is good). To them, intolerance and inequity aren’t so much tangible problems to solve as they are all-purpose argument-stoppers to introduce, a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose proposition that no opponent can dispute without surrendering to the logic of the cause.
This is what people mean when they gripe about “playing the race card.” Every decent person rejects racial bias; every decent person acknowledges a long history of racial injustice; no one wants to appear in their favor. But it’s become very convenient to exploit these attitudes by positing race-based discrimination as an unequivocal, permanent truth that clinches every otherwise debatable issue. It doesn’t matter that some outlooks or experiences may be shared by citizens of all backgrounds. It doesn’t matter how many advances have been achieved by non-white Canadians since 1970. It doesn’t matter that anyone who faced the day-to-day, entrenched bigotries of Canada’s first century would find the country unrecognizable today. It doesn’t matter if you honestly say you don’t see color, or hopefully suggest that racism might not be systemic. What matters to the Stephanie Allens and Jagmeet Singhs of the world is that the diminished power of racism as a reality is now offset by the irreplaceable value of racism as an idea.