This article is the second in a four-part series addressing the myths that conflate multiculturalism and anti-racism. Each article will address different aspects of this debate as follows: part one: Multicultural immigration is not racial benevolence; part two: Multicultural diversity is not racial equality; part three: Multiculturalism does not address xenophobia; part four: Multiculturalism is not decolonization. Links to these articles will be added as they are published.
Amid heightened awareness of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism this year, more Canadians have expressed pride in their country’s multicultural values.
“Multiculturalism,” it seems, is a comforting ideal when persistent racial inequities disturb our collective consciousness. From far-right politicians who rally against “extreme multiculturalism,” to anti-racist activists pleading for a “defense of multiculturalism,” there appears to be consensus that multiculturalism is the binary opposite of racism.
As Ghassan Hage has written, however, “multiculturalism [is] … merely a different way of reinforcing White power.”
This four-part series unpacks the myths — implicit and explicit — upholding the false equivalence between multiculturalism and anti-racism. Indeed, multicultural discourse is more effective at obscuring racism than it is at addressing it.
The first article demystified Canada’s multicultural immigration and refugee policy. This second installment addresses the common misconception that multiculturalism advances racial equality.
Myth: multicultural diversity equals equality
“It’s easy, in a country like Canada, to take diversity for granted. In so many ways, it’s the air we breathe.” — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, November 2015.
Multiculturalism encourages Canadians to take pride in diversity, as if the mere co-existence of differently coloured bodies implies the equality of those differently-coloured bodies. Yet, Toronto is both the most multicultural city in Canada and home to the country’s largest racial income gap, wherein the economic disparities between whites and non-whites are more pronounced than in any other region in the country.
The temptation to use “ethnic co-existence” as a metric for anti-racism emanates from the belief that racism is primarily an act of extermination and that, therefore, the presence of racial heterogeneity must represent its opposite. Hage attributes this widespread mis-characterization to the imaginative hold of the Holocaust in defining racial violence. As he argues, “tolerant racism” has a much more pervasive history.
Indeed, writes Hage, “we are yet to hear of the slave owner who wanted Blacks to ‘go home.'”
Today, non-white people are over-represented in retail jobs — those that are physically demanding and poorly paid. In this context, physical proximity is a precondition for racial exploitation — as, by definition, (non-white) retail workers need to live and work in the vicinity of the (white) customers they serve.
For temporary migrant farm workers and caregivers, physical proximity to their (white) employers is a mechanism of their racial exploitation. Migrant labourers are legally and practically restricted in their mobility, which limits their capacity to organize collectively for their rights.
Black men are well-represented in professional sports — literally occupying white homes via the television screen. They are also murdered in plain sight by police officers, and incarcerated en masse for “crimes” equally prevalent among white people. For Black men, physical proximity is a paradoxical feature of their racial exploitation — their talent consumed, while their humanity is discounted.
Physical proximity doesn’t preclude or even undermine economic, political and social distance. Multiculturalist discourse just obscures this — by attributing a significance to “diversity” that is not borne out by reality.
Myth: multiculturalism undermines white privilege
“Although Canada became the first country in the world to adopt multiculturalism as an official policy … Black, Indigenous, and people of colour have continued to face racism,” — Ratna Omidvar and Diya Khanna, iPolitics article, August 2020.
“Multiculturalism” facilitates the maintenance of white privilege by obscuring the reality of ongoing racial distinctions — maintained, for the most part, without the active invocation of race.
By design, the “free market” is not racially discriminatory; it is, however, materially discriminatory. Children from wealthy families are more likely to attend university than their peers from poorer families; and those with university degrees have lower unemployment and higher income. Under capitalism, the opportunity to materially prosper is, overwhelmingly, a gift of birth.
The global material distributions established through colonialism, slavery and apartheid persist into the present, ensuring that their white beneficiaries maintain their economic dominance over those who were oppressed by them. In Canada and the U.S., Black people are still subject to “enslavement” — disproportionately incarcerated under forced labour, and stuck in low-paying jobs that preclude advancement out of poverty.
Where law has left off, “free markets” have taken off — ensuring that racial systems previously enforced legally are now primarily maintained through a “neutral” economic system.
Market “freedom” is, also, the freedom to discriminate. A 2019 study concluded that, out of the nine white-majority countries studied, Canada has an above-average rate of racial employment discrimination. As Sheila Block of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has said: “racism is alive and well in the Canadian job market.”
Multicultural rhetoric and anti-discrimination legislation at the national level don’t disrupt the effective right to enforce racial biases at the individual level.
Of course, the “free market” doesn’t really operate freely. But its manipulation happens through forums distant from us — the courts, boardrooms, Parliament and international trade dealings.
“Minimum wage” levels not indexed to the cost of living; inadequate social assistance rates; dwindling corporate and upper-income tax rates; underfunded social services (particularly those serving Indigenous people); lack of universal pharmacare; tuition-based post-secondary education; exploitative migrant worker programs; the courts’ failure to prosecute Canadian labour violations in the Global South; the refusal to recognize Indigenous sovereignty; government-negotiated military arms deals — these activities perpetuate racial wealth differences, here and abroad, without ever referencing the racial disparities they reproduce.
Under capitalism, wealth is the number one predictor of our well-being and opportunity — determining whether we enjoy good health, long life, and can contribute to the political, cultural and social trajectory of our communities and the world. Our global political and economic system has all but ensured the prosperity of a small group of white people — those who never have to utter a racist slur in order to subjugate the non-white majority.
Multiculturalism fails to intervene into the racial apartheid — and it does so while also recuperating whiteness from its association with racism. Far from being racist, we are told, Multicultural whiteness is “good” — generously making space for cultural diversity.
Multicultural whiteness is also the ethnic “mixer” — the neutral arranger of various “tribal” cultural groups that would otherwise be incapable of functional co-existence. Multicultural whiteness upholds white supremacy — in part, by officially disavowing white supremacy.
Indeed, it has been half a century since the political debut of multiculturalism — and its figurative father, prime minister Pierre Trudeau, is also the literal father of the current prime minister. In the intervening years, Canada has only ever elected white men as their heads of state. Multiculturalism, it seems, has paid out greater dividends to its white promoters than it has to the non-white Others who supposedly benefit from it.
Racial Others are, in fact, implicitly denigrated within the discourse of multiculturalism. As anthropologist Renato Rosaldo has put it: “the more power one has, the less culture one enjoys, and the more culture one has, the less power one wields.”
As critics have noted, “culture” is invoked to signal deviation from an unstated but implicit norm of white Western-ness. Within this framework, “culture” is a barrier to full enlightened consciousness, something which incapacitates those who are bound by it. Canadian debates about the need to “test” immigrants on their “values,” for example, reflect the assumption that “cultured” Others are inherently different — and deficient.
As professor Himani Bannerji analyzes: “In the multicultural paradigm, where difference is admitted, structural and ideological reasons for difference give place to a talk of immutable differences of ethnic cultures … the focus shifts from processes of exclusion and marginalization to ethnic identities and their lack of adaptiveness.”
After all, if multiculturalism signals an official disavowal of racism, then what else could the problem be?
Part three in this series will attend to an apparent contradiction within multiculturalism — decades after its implementation, and as Canadians increasingly identify with its values, far-right white supremacy is not only present but growing.
Khadijah Kanji holds a masters in social work. She works in therapy, as well as in research, programming,and public education on issues of Islamophobia, racism, transphobia/homophobia and other areas of social justice.
Image: Anthony Crider/Flickr