Confronting racism in everyday life

CTVNewsOttawa.ca spoke with Full Professor Boulou Ebanda de B'béri, PhD, from the University of Ottawa on ways to confront racism in one's life and in society. (Photo: University of Ottawa)

What do you do if you witness racism?

You may have heard this expression, "It's not enough to not be racist. You must be actively anti-racist."

That is the fundamental message from both experts and the people fighting for change.

Racism comes in many forms. It us often more than just overt acts. There is covert racism and systemic racism as well.

How do you turn the tide? CTVNewsOttawa.ca spoke with Boulou Ebanda de B'béri, PhD, a Full Professor of Media, Communication, and Cultural Studies at the University of Ottawa’s Department of Communication, whose areas of expertise include history, culture, and racism in Canada.

Overt, covert, and systemic racism

"Overt racism is intentional and obvious," Ebanda de B'béri says. "It's seeing someone of one race fighting someone of another race."

These actions are largely considered socially unacceptable in most circles.

This differs from covert racism, which is the passive acceptance or silence in the face of overt racism and often goes unnoticed or unremarked-upon.

"These are cultural norms. It's hidden racism," Ebanda de B'béri says. "It's behind you, stabbing you in the back instead of facing you. It's different ways of discriminating against someone."

Covert racism can manifest in small ways, known as microaggressions, which are one-off events that can build up for the person who experiences several in a day, every day.

There is also systemic racism, which is the systems and biases built into society that benefit one group (in the Canadian context: white people) over another.

"Systemic racism is also covert," Ebanda de B'béri explains. "It's in policies and laws made by our Parliament that may seem just, but can be discriminatory."

An example is immigration policies, Ebanda de B'béri says. The policies are created by governments, but can have a discriminatory impact.

"Think of how many people in the world don't have a credit card, or don't have access to the Internet, to be able to apply to immigrate to Canada. Many of the ways to access immigration services are now online. That is a form of discrimination, through tools put in place by our laws that favour one person over another."

Ebanda de B'béri says he believes education and intervention are the fundamental ways to confronting what he calls the pandemic of racism in our society that is killing people of colour both here in Canada and around the world.

Confronting overt racism

Overt racism can be confronted in the moment. Ebanda de B'béri says silence makes you complicit, so the best course of action is to speak up and let your voice be heard.

For example, you are at a party and a friend tells a joke about Chinese people and puts on an exaggerated accent. Some people laugh, others exchange awkward looks. Your friend appears oblivious to the reaction. What do you do?

"I would ask, 'How is that funny, or why is that funny? Can you explain it to me?'" Ebanda de B'béri says. "Allow the person making the joke and the people who laughed to answer. Give them time to think about it. Obviously, you want them to change their minds, but the point is to make them think and reflect on what has just been said."

In the event you witness something in public involving strangers—an individual yelling racial slurs at someone else, for instance—Ebanda de B'béri's advice remains to intervene.

"We can't put our heads in the sand," Ebanda de B'béri says. "I would rather intervene in the face of an unlawful situation and go to jail than live with that image for the rest of my life."

Addressing the killing of George Floyd, Ebanda de B'béri says the problem was not just in the actions of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin—who is now facing a third-degree murder charge after kneeling on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes while Floyd pleaded for air—but the in the lack of action by the other officers who did not stop him, as well as other members of the public who did not intervene.

Bystander intervention is a method of attempting to put a stop to an act of violence or discrimination against another. There are different strategies to do it safely and effectively.

The Hollaback group offers tips on ways to intervene if you witness harassment in public. You can view a simple guide and get more information here.

Another method of intervention, Ebanda de B'béri says, is to join in solidarity with others who are speaking out against racism and discrimination in society through demonstrations, like the one taking place in Ottawa Friday at the U.S. embassy.

Confronting covert and systemic racism

When it comes to changing systems of racism that are built into our society, Ebanda de B'béri says education on the issue is fundamental.

"I don't mean being a puppet," he says. "It's not just about getting a masters or a PhD. It's about gaining knowledge and becoming wise. It's about listening and learning and then knowing when and how to intervene."

Education, in this sense, requires empathy and understanding, and then doing the work to elevate different voices in the workplace, in government, and in media.

"Media is complicit. They'll talk about the issue for a few days and then forget about it," Ebanda de B'béri says, "but the changes in recent history, in civil rights, the Berlin Wall, things like that, are because the media focused and chose the right side to bring about change."

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, he says, but he maintains education and intervention are the most powerful tools for bringing about change.

"Representation matters. We need more educated people from all backgrounds," Ebanda de B'béri says. "To change, we need to understand, and to understand, we need to be educated."

You can learn more about Dr. Boulou Ebanda de B'béri's scholarly works here.