In 1966 the United Nations (UN) passed a resolution to recognize March 21 as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. March 21 was chosen to commemorate the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960. On 21 March 1960, in Sharpeville, Azania (South Africa) 69 Africans were killed and more than 300 were wounded (shot in the back) as they fled the murderous gunfire of white police. The Africans had gathered in a peaceful demonstration to protest the steady loss of their human rights, as white interlopers/settlers stole their land. The pass laws of the white supremacist settler group who had seized the African country decades before had become an unbearable burden for the Africans. African men and women were forced to carry the passbook, an identifying document that restricted their movement in urban areas where white people had settled and occupied exclusively.
On the morning of March 21, 1960 approximately 300 extra police and five (Saracen) armoured vehicles arrived at the local police station in Sharpeville as the marchers approached the police station. By 1:15 p.m. the approximately 5,000 strong group of protesters had dwindled to less than 400 when police opened fire without warning. The unarmed men, women and children were gunned down as they fled. The shooting finally stopped when there were no moving protestors in sight. When the smoke cleared there were 69 dead including eight women and ten children and 300 wounded, including 31 women and 19 children. The Sharpeville Massacre prompted worldwide condemnation of the minority white supremacist, illegitimate government of Azania. This led to international protests and calls for disinvesting in the white supremacist apartheid structure of South Africa. In spite of the brutality of the white supremacist government in South Africa, disinvestment did not happen on a large scale until the 1980’s.
On March 21, 1986, Canada’s Prime Minister proclaimed in the House of Commons, the country's participation in the UN call to all states and organizations to participate in the “Program of Action for the Second Decade to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination.” In September, 1988, ministers attending a federal/provincial/territorial ministerial conference on human rights agreed to commemorate March 21 in all Canadian jurisdictions. In spite of the “official” Canadian stance on anti-racism, the practice leaves much to be desired.
Racism is misunderstood by many who organize events to recognize March 21 with calls and slogans to Stop Racism. Racism is not prejudice or discrimination. Prejudice is prejudgment of a person or a group of people. Discrimination is action based on prejudice. Confusing the definition of “racism” with prejudice and discrimination is widespread and many people mistakenly use these terms as synonyms. Racism, white privilege and white supremacy are synonyms. This is a definition of white supremacy from the Challenging White Supremacy Workshop group (established 1993): “White supremacy is an historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations and peoples of color by white peoples of European origin; for the purpose of establishing and maintaining wealth, power and privilege.” Another group: The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond defines racism as: “Race prejudice plus power” and they define power as: “having legitimate access to systems sanctioned by the authority of the state.”
One of the exercises the workshop uses to illustrate manifestations of racism is asking participants to choose a mainstream institution and “do a little power structure research.” They ask these questions: In a race constructed system, who owns or controls the institution? Who are the most privileged workers within it? Whom do the policies and practices of that institution primarily benefit? So my brothers and sisters, as we approach March 21, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination do your research on any mainstream organization (including labour unions, socialist organizations and so-called left leaning, liberal organizations) and ask yourself: Who owns or controls the institution/organization? Who are the most privileged workers within it? Whom do the policies and practices of the institution primarily benefit? Unlike the blatant, overt white supremacist culture of the USA, Canadian racism has been, for the most part, covert and subtle. One of the most famous cases of Canadian white supremacist culture at work is Viola Desmond’s trial in 1946.
I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with Wanda Robson, Viola Desmond’s sister on March 5 at the Ryerson University’s Viola Desmond Day event. I also interviewed Ms Robson on March 12 for International Women’s Day special programming on CKLN 88.1 FM. Ms Robson who has written Sister to Courage: Stories from the World of Viola Desmond, Canada’s Rosa Parks (published August, 2010) shared the story of her heroic sister who challenged Canada’s undercover Jim Crow law of segregation.
On November 8, 1946, Viola Desmond a successful African Canadian entrepreneur from Halifax, Nova Scotia was traveling on business when her car broke down in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. While the car was being repaired she decided to see a movie at the Roseland Theatre. She bought a ticket for the main floor of the theatre, went in and sat down. She was unaware of the theatre’s policy that the main floor was a “whites only” seating area because unlike the blatant white supremacist Jim Crow law of the USA, there were no “whites” and “coloured” signs posted and she did not know that African Canadians were relegated to the balcony. When Desmond was ordered to move she replied that she could not see from the balcony, that she had paid to sit on the main floor and that she would not move. The manager left the theatre and came back with a policeman. Together, the two burly white men dragged the 4’ 11” Desmond into the street, injuring her in the process.
She spent the night in jail in the same block as male prisoners. Next morning she was tried and found guilty of tax evasion. She was found guilty of not having paid the entertainment tax (one cent) that was the difference between the “white” section and the “coloured” section of the cinema. She was found guilty because the white woman who sold her the ticket did not sell her a ticket for the first floor which she had requested but instead had sold her a ticket for the balcony. The sentence was 30 days in jail or a fine of $20, plus $6 to the manager of the theatre, one of the two men who had injured her as he dragged her out of the cinema the night before. She paid the fine and then challenged the guilty verdict in the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia.
The court upheld the guilty verdict. Desmond remained guilty of defrauding the government of 1 cent until April 15, 2010 when she was granted a pardon. A press release from the Nova Scotia Premiere’s office read in part: “The province has granted an official apology and free pardon to the late Viola Desmond. Mrs. Desmond, of Halifax, was an African Canadian wrongfully jailed and fined in 1946 for sitting in the white peoples' section of a New Glasgow movie theatre. Mrs. Desmond passed away in 1965. On the advice of the Executive Council, the lieutenant governor has exercised the Royal Prerogative of Mercy to grant a Free Pardon. A free pardon is based on innocence and recognizes that a conviction was in error. A free pardon is an extraordinary remedy and is considered only in the rarest of circumstances. This is the first time a free pardon has been posthumously granted in Canada.”
After 64 years, the government of Nova Scotia acknowledged what had been hinted at by one of the judges who dismissed Desmond’s appeal to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia in April 1947. Justice William Hall is quoted in April 1947: " One wonders if the manager of the theatre … was so zealous because of a bona fide belief there had been an attempt to defraud the Province of Nova Scotia of the sum of one cent, or was it a surreptitious endeavour to enforce a Jim Crow rule by misuse of a public statute." That is typical Canadian racism at work, instead of signs indicating segregated seats in the theatre, using the tax laws to disguise bona fide segregation.
In this year designated by the UN as the International Year for People of African Descent surely it is time to get past usual rhetoric and do some serious anti-racism work. While many people may think that racism of the overt act of individual white people telling racist jokes or parading through town dressed in white bedsheets, the most virulent forms of racism is the systemic entrenched white supremacist culture which circumscribes every area of our lives. The white supremacist culture that is hidden within Canada’s multicultural policy is an example. Dr. Sunera Thobani, professor at the University of British Columbia has criticized the discourse of multiculturalism in Canada: I think multiculturalism has been a very effective way of silencing anti-racist politics in this country. Multiculturalism has allowed for certain communities—people of colour—to be constructed as cultural communities. Their culture is defined in very Orientalist and colonial ways—as static, they will always be that, they have always been that. And culture has now become the only space from which people of colour can actually have participation in national political life; it’s through this discourse of multiculturalism. And what it has done very successfully is it has displaced an anti-racist discourse.
You know, I teach and I have young students of colour, they come, and they completely bought into this multiculturalism ideology. They have no language to talk about racism. They know that if they talk about racism, they will get attacked.
And multiculturalism is the dominant discourse now through which all of us have to, are forced to, articulate our politics. And I think multiculturalism has, in that way, it’s done a big disservice. Because it has just silenced anti-racist discourse and anti-racist politics in this country, which now has been defined as an extreme kind of politics. And meanwhile, the deeply-embedded racial inequalities in Canadian society continue to be reproduced. And multiculturalism masks them, it glosses them over, and it has become a policy of governing and managing communities of colour, so that those politics only get articulated in the name of culture, and culture is defined in highly patriarchal terms.
My position on multiculturalism is that multiculturalism exists in a very uneasy tension with bilingualism and biculturalism. So Canada defines itself as either officially multicultural, or officially bilingual and bicultural. And by bilingual and bicultural, what is meant is French and English. And so we have a kind of policy of white supremacy—which is what bilingualism and biculturalism really is—and multiculturalism. And multiculturalism, you know, how do we define what these multi-cultures are? They are different, diversity. Who are they different from? The multi-cultures that get defined are different from the English and French.
And so the centre of the nation still continues to be defined as English and French. So multiculturalism actually, from my perspective, upholds white supremacy. You know, I think that I would support a multicultural politics, if at the same time we were dismantling white supremacy, which we’re not, right? In fact, multiculturalism fits very nicely into, as I say, the “managing of ethnics and the coloureds” in a way that still allows the nation to define itself as really bilingual and bicultural.
It is unfortunate that in the 21st century racialized people are still colonized to the extent where some do not realize that fighting for the crumbs from the table of white supremacy is not an effective way to dismantle that system.