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Collecting race-based data is a good first step toward equity, but should not be the only one
Apr 12, 2021, By: Dzifa Dordunoo

Takeaway messages

  • People of African descent come from very different places and hold different views, but are forever bonded by the experience of being stereotyped and disenfranchised because of skin pigmentation.
  • The social construct of “race” is not a good measure for stratifying people for socio-biological purposes.
  • Racism is a learned behaviour that can be unlearned.

The United Nations (UN) has declared 2015 to 2024 as the International Decade for People of African Descent. The UN is calling on countries across the globe to find ways to address systemic issues that negatively affect people of African descent.

This declaration made me reflect on my experiences as a person of African descent travelling the globe. A few instances came to my mind:

  • Being called the N-word and ridiculed, especially while travelling in India
  • Being followed in stores in Vancouver and made to feel like a thief even though I had touched nothing
  • A patient telling me, “I may be homeless, but at least I’m not Black.”
  • Being told by a nurse manager that because I was the only qualified person to apply for a nurse educator position, they decided to lower the requirement from a master’s to a bachelor’s degree to increase the pool of applicants. I was then invited to reapply.

As I’ve learned through discussions with others who share my complexion, these experiences are not unique. We come from very different places and hold different views, but we are forever bonded by our experiences of being stereotyped and disenfranchised because of our skin pigmentation.

Collection of “race-based” data appears to be a good starting point to respond to the UN declaration; however, the call for this data in Canada has received a mixed response. Those who oppose the measure claim that collecting race-based data is dangerous because of the atrocities that have occurred in the name of race. Supporters of the initiative to collect race-based data make forceful counterarguments about its importance to combating racism.

I fully support the collection of such data, with the stipulation we communicate why it’s being collected and how it’ll be used.

The social construct of race

“Race” is a social construct that has long been conflated with biology. It shows up in virtually every aspect of life.

For example, race makes its way into scientific literature, where it is often identified as a predictor of health-related outcomes. In fact, race is built into algorithms that estimate physiological processes, such as kidney function, in medicine. The algorithm assumes that people of African descent have a higher muscle mass, which must be adjusted for when calculating their glomerular filtration rate. I can think of many white people with a higher muscle mass whose glomerular filtration rate the algorithm should adjust.

Another example can be seen in financial systems, where race has been used to help determine such things as interest rates and credit scores. The Bank of America was fined USD $335 million for their discriminatory lending practices against Black people. Although this type of discrimination has not been identified in Canada, this may be because the government does not require the tracking of race-based data in the financial sector.

These are just a couple of the many examples of how the inappropriate use of race impacts the daily lives of people of African descent.

The construct of race defined by skin colour or ancestral origin is not a good measure for stratifying people for socio-biological purposes. Because of the biodiversity of the genome and the fact that race is socially constructed, what such definitions have been measuring for centuries is not race, but racism. Laws, including in Canada, segregated people by skin colour and discriminated against those with a dark complexion. During the slave era, the system was effective in maintaining a social hierarchy; the Blacks worked the fields and the whites reaped the financial gains. Blacks whose skin complexion was a lighter shade, meanwhile, gained greater social approval, acceptance, responsibility and ability than darker Blacks.

If you disagree with the Black Lives Matter movement, ask yourself this: Would you want to be treated like the Black people in your society?

The abolition of slavery in the 1800s did not change people’s hearts or minds; thus, limitations placed on Blacks with regard to owning property, collecting equal wages or sending their children to school further exacerbated the inequities, which solidified the notion of the inferiority of Black people in the minds of some. Even today, the governments of Canada and British Columbia are being asked to collect data to determine the extent to which the slavery-based hierarchies still persist. This data is necessary if our society is to reject such hierarchies and provide equitable opportunities to all.

Black Lives Matter

The call for the collection of race-based data was reignited by the Black Lives Matter social movement. Many find the phrase offensive, and their response is “All Lives Matter.” No one, including those of African descent, would disagree that all human lives matter. However, what those who are perturbed by the Black Lives Matter slogan fail or refuse to recognize is that people of African descent have been systematically and historically disenfranchised and mistreated in many societies across the globe. For people of African descent, the catalyst behind this social movement can be largely linked to the slave trade, when over 12.5 million Africans were sold or captured into slavery. Belgium, Portugal and Britain, among others, used these slaves to build their colonies and then systematically erased their contributions from the history of these countries. If you disagree with the Black Lives Matter movement, ask yourself this: Would you want to be treated like the Black people in your society?

Racism in Canada

The racial tension in the United States is the most discussed; countries such as Canada, meanwhile, politely deny or minimize that such tension exists. In fact, I’ve found that all “racial” groups systematically discriminate against Black people. I grew up in Canada, and although I have experienced covert racism from white people, I have far more experience of overt racism from people of other “minority” groups, particularly people from Asia.

The few times I was called the N-word to my face was not by a white person but by people of South Asian descent. When I was growing up in Vancouver, my social circle included people of south Asian descent — and they were constantly calling me the N-word despite my pleas and efforts to educate them on why it was such a vulgar term. This behaviour drove a wedge between me and them and became a constant source of argument. Things only began to change when I was travelling in India with some members of this circle, where they witnessed a group of men calling me the racial slur. So it is somewhat ironic that the NDP leader called out the prime minister for racism and “blackface” when some members of his own community engage in behaviours that are discriminatory to people of African descent. As offensive as “blackface” is, the uttering of the N-word is a soul-piercing, vulgar act that can incite many emotions, including anger and rage. I do applaud the NDP leader, but I would like to hear more from him about how racism is entrenched in Canadian society. I want to hear how he would build a bridge between members of his community and those of people of African descent.

Everything I have said thus far is speaking from my experience as a Black Canadian. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the “elephant in the room” in Canada: that we are all complacent in the face of the modern-day colonization of Indigenous people. Only by ending the genocide and colonization of Indigenous people can we begin to achieve equality for everyone.

Racism is pervasive, and if we all pause to reflect honestly, we might begin to acknowledge our racist thoughts and actions. Stereotypical thoughts do not make a person a racist, but the failure to evaluate the effect they have, particularly their potentially deadly consequences, makes one racist.

The healing process

We cannot begin to heal this wound until we have honest and uncomfortable conversations with ourselves, our families and our communities. Pain is the body’s early sign of injury, and most injuries can heal with consistent and conscientious attention. Racism is a learned behaviour that can be unlearned to allow us to begin the process of healing. The collection of racism-based data will provide us with a benchmark of where we are as a society so that we can devise a road map to guide our efforts to change our societies for the better. It is not that Canada is currently not great; it is that greatness is momentary and we must therefore never be satisfied. We must strive for higher summits. True equality, power in togetherness as a society, is within reach. We can be the greatest, most unified society in the history of this planet. Who wouldn’t want that?

Dzifa Dordunoo, PhD, RN, is an assistant professor in the University of Victoria’s School of Nursing.