Chapter 8 Chapter Overview & Learning Objectives

“Race” and Ethnicity

Chapter Overview

“Race” is a term that reflects beliefs about biological superiority and inferiority and was first applied to humans in the context of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European colonial expansion across the globe. As biological entities, race does not exist among humans: it is unclear how many racial categories there are, how to define racial categories and how to explain differences within racial categories as well as similarities among them. But while “race” in and of itself does not exist, racialization does. Racialization is a social process through which individuals are viewed and judged as essentially different in terms of their intellect, morality, values, and innate worth due to perceived differences in physical appearance or cultural heritage.

The racialization of Indigenous people began during the sixteenth century in the context of European colonization. Although Indigenous people have been living in what is now Canada for at least 14,000 years, their history is largely ignored in Canadian history textbooks, which tend to focus on the history of settlers and their descendants. Indigenous people’s voices have rarely been heard in sociological discussion, and they have been studied by the outsiders primarily as social problems, largely ignoring success. Thus, Canada’s Inuit, First Nations, and Métis continue to be viewed as “the other” today. Indigenous people today continue to be defined by a complex system of legal statuses that emerged from the 1876 Indian Act. These designations include registered Indian, Bill C-31 Indian, band member, reserve resident, treaty Indian, Métis, and Eskimo (or Inuit).

Black Canadians also have a history of racialization. Black communities have long existed in Canada, specifically since the British Proclamation of 1779, with a significant population increase in Nova Scotia following the American Revolution. Despite their long history in the country, black Canadians are still treated as newcomers to the country, assumed to be recent arrivals from Africa and the Caribbean. Like Indigenous people, black Canadians are viewed as “the other.” Research suggests that black Canadians still face significant racism in education and the criminal justice system, for example. Yet, the focus of academic research and public discourses is often on problems in black communities, rather than their accomplishments against all odds or the effects of systemic racism.

Racism is a product of four linked elements: racialization (the construction of certain groups as biologically superior or inferior), prejudice (the pre-judgment of others on the basis of their group membership), discrimination (the act of treating individuals differently based on their group membership), and power (manifested when institutionalized advantages are regularly handed to some groups over others). Clinical psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum emphasizes the importance of power in racism, arguing that in a white-dominated society like Canada, “racist” is a label that can only be accurately applied to the racialized bigotry of white people against non-white people. Non-white people can be prejudiced but not racist, as they do not have institutional, structural, ideological, or historical support to institutionalize discrimination.

Racism exists in different forms. Racial bigotry is the open and conscious expression of racist views by an individual. Systemic (or institutional) racism occurs when racist practices, rules, and laws become institutionalized. Racism can also be subtle and hidden. Expressed with a smile or with seemingly friendly words, this is called friendly (or polite or smiling) racism. A common form of friendly racism is microaggression, which is not necessarily intended as an insult, yet reflects racial prejudice and may cause shame and self-consciousness.

Historical racism is often downplayed or omitted in master narratives, which are stories that countries construct about themselves, because these stories would make the dominant culture look bad. The master narrative of early Canadian history highlights the co-operation between Indigenous people and European fur traders, but ignores the historical mistreatment, exploitation and social destruction that occurred. Social theorist Michel Foucault called these sorts of strategic, deliberate omissions “buried knowledge.” Canada’s buried knowledge includes systemic racism targeted at various racialized groups that started in the Eighteenth century. These groups include the Chinese as in the Chinese head tax. In British Columbia, Japanese fishermen had made up the majority of salmon fishers in the province until the government began restricting their fishing licences to prevent this “takeover.” Sikhs were initially welcome in BC. But when jobs in lumber and other industries dwindled, attitudes changed and Sikhs were portrayed as a menace. As the example of the Komagata Maru illustrates, the government took active steps to prevent further emigration from India, dramatically reducing the size of the community. Ironically this push against Indians happened while India was a member of the British commonwealth.

Understanding ethnicity is not just a matter of collecting ethnic traits, such as language, food, and clothing, and applying the appropriate label. There are a variety of theoretical approaches to the study of ethnicity and ethnic conflict, including primordialism, postcolonialism, ethnicity as epiphenomenal, instrumentalism, and social constructivism. Primordialism (also known as essentialism) presents culture as static and unchanging and suggests that every ethnic group is made up of a number of traits that have been carried down from past generations with little or no change. Anti-colonialism (also known as post-colonialism) analyzes the destructive impact colonialism (the economic and political exploitation of a weaker country or people by a stronger one) has on both the colonizer and the colonized. This approach focuses on the role of colonialism in the development and escalation of conflict among groups. Relevant here is also the notion of internal colonialism, or colonialism of one people by another within a single country. Dual colonialism is the theory that, under a colonial regime, some groups may be oppressed by both the colonizers and a local group given privilege by the colonizers.

The epiphenomenal approach to ethnicity suggests that ethnic conflict is simply a byproduct of the struggle between economic classes. It takes ethnic identity to be a false consciousness that prevents people with shared class interests from overcoming oppression. Instrumentalism focuses on emerging ethnicity, rather than on long-established ethnic characteristics. It suggests that elites can mobilize others who identify with them ethnically. Elite members who mobilize ethnicity in order to gain personal wealth and power are known as ethnic entrepreneurs. Instrumentalism is seen to be in direct opposition to primordialism. Finally, social constructivism is the view that ethnicity is constructed by individuals for varying social purposes. This theory focuses on the motivations of a broad group of people rather than just the elites.

There have been several important sociological studies of ethnicity in Canada. Everett C. Hughes first studied the ethnic division of labour between the English and French in Québec in the 1930s. He found that the English held positions of power while French occupied lowest rung of employment ladder. Dofny and Rioux (1962) called this division into high- and low-ranked jobs along ethnic lines ethnic class, and the phenomenon continued in Quebec through much of the twentieth century. Applying intersectionality Canadian sociologist John Porter studied ethnicity, social class, and opportunity. He found that Canada’s society resembles a cultural mosaic where ethnic, cultural, and religious groups maintain their separate identities rather than being forced to assimilate in a melting pot. However, he found that the cultural mosaic was hierarchical, with some ethnic, cultural, and religious groups (particularly White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestants) benefiting more from their group identity than others. Porter termed this hierarchy a vertical mosaic.

W.E.B. Du Bois and Daniel G. Hill were two important black sociologists who brought insider knowledge to their pioneering sociological study of “race.” In the late nineteenth century, Du Bois became the first African-American sociologist. He researched and wrote on the major problems and concerns of Africans—both in the United States and around the world. Du Bois was also an activist and one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Daniel Hill was the first black Canadian sociologist, beginning his career in the 1950s. He authored books on the social conditions of black people in Canada, but he is known mostly for his applied sociological work beyond academia. He held several important positions, including Ontario Human Rights Commissioner and ombudsman of Ontario.

Intersectionality theory is an important approach in current sociological research, developed within the context of black feminist thought by critical theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw and sociologist Patricia Hill Collins. Intersectionality theory refers to the way minority experiences are shaped by their race in tandem with gender, class, sexual orientation that cause inequality. The combination of multiple negatively valued social locations creates what is called an interlocking matrix of domination that is more powerful and oppressive than gender, class, or race/ethnicity alone.

Lecture Outline

After reading chapter eight, you will be able to:

  • Explain the process of racialization.
  • Summarize the 4 elements of racism.
  • Differentiate between the three main types of racism using examples.
  • Explain the difference between race and ethnicity.
  • Briefly summarize the five theoretical approaches to ethnicity.
  • Critically discuss the historical racialization of Indigenous people and visible minorities in Canada.
  • Analyze the impact of racialization when it is internalized in minoritized groups as noted in Colourism.