Shelly Chan: Let's Talk About Race, Canada

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Shelly Chan is an assistant professor at the Department of Pacific and Asian Studies and a member of the Asian Canadian working group at the University of Victoria. Born and raised in Hong Kong, she moved to Canada with her family as a young adult. She received her B.A. and M.A. from the University of British Columbia and her Ph.D. in modern Chinese history from the University of California, Santa Cruz.]

Talking about race in Canada is a lot like talking about sex in the old days. There is so much imposed silence on the subject. We skip around it, pretend that it is not there, and pray that it will go away.

Those who break the silence are often chastised, labelled as “racist” (“pervert”!), or hastily dismissed. Others who tout half-truths indulge in self-congratulatory glory. Because heaven forbid, we insist, only Americans do “it.”

None of this has ever prevented people from being cognizant of the centrality of race and ethnicity to Canadian life, given the history of immigration and indigenous peoples in this country. From time to time, we rehash age-old biases and re-ignite familiar debates about the dilemmas of diversity and integration. Nevertheless, the cycle of silence, missteps, and occasional foreshortened discussion has done little justice to a complex and longstanding issue in multicultural Canada.

It is undeniable that some opinions about race are outright racist. But many others are just misconceptions and deserve serious attention. Yet, by failing to confront them in a sustained manner, we may be left without tools to understand difference and thus find ourselves in the same situation every few years. We are in danger of becoming so ignorant that we risk damaging the very foundations of tolerance, an ideal in which Canadians take enormous pride....

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