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So You Did Something Racist In Your Past. What Comes Next?

Regardless of Trudeau's political fate, we can all learn from our mistakes.
Justin Trudeau isn't the only Canadian who has a racist past, whether or not it's deliberate. But there are ways everyone can grow and learn from their mistakes.
Justin Trudeau isn't the only Canadian who has a racist past, whether or not it's deliberate. But there are ways everyone can grow and learn from their mistakes.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau admitted that he’s worn makeup that mocked and dehumanized brown and black people on at least three separate occasions.

Most of us haven’t worn blackface, hopefully. But because we live in the world we live in, most Canadians have probably (consciously or unconsciously) engaged in some sort of racism.

Voters will decide if Trudeau’s racist acts impact their election choices, but for the rest of us who don’t occupy such positions of power, there are ways to reckon with our own mistakes.

“This is a problem that’s bigger than Trudeau,” Sabreena Ghaffar-Siddiqui, a PhD candidate in sociology at McMaster University who studies race and representation, told HuffPost Canada. “I do think that this is an opportunity for other white people to talk about ways that they’ve engaged in racism without realizing.”

Here are some of the ways to do that.

Acknowledge how you may have been hurtful or racist without meaning to

It can be easy to assume that if you weren’t trying to hurt someone, they shouldn’t have been hurt. But that’s not how these things work. There are lots of ways that every one of us — even the smartest and most progressive person — has offended someone without meaning to.

“We spend so much time focusing on whether or not we think people are racist or not racist,” physician and activist Dr. Ritika Goel told HuffPost Canada. “The reality is that we live in a society where we’re constantly exposed to racist images and racist stereotypes that dehumanize people. And so, we all internalize these messages.”

Watch: Don’t let Trudeau’s racist makeup distract you from the real issue, says Dr. Ritika Goel. Story continues after video.

Everyone has unconscious biases — ways you’ve been conditioned to think about certain groups of people, even if you don’t realize it and aren’t doing it deliberately. It doesn’t make you a bad person, but it does mean you can — and should — try actively to work against those instincts.

And don’t think it’s only white people — whose whiteness shields them from racial discrimination — engaging in unconscious bias.

Sometimes, “brown people will engage with anti-Black racism,” Ghaffar-Siddiqui said. “White Arabs who are Muslim will engage in anti-brown racism. There are lots of people from various communities who actually engage in racism before they fully realize it.”

Temper your defensiveness

It’s painful to lean into the discomfort that comes from realizing you’ve perpetuated racism, even unconsciously. Writer and educator Robin DiAngelo, who is white, coined the term “white fragility” to describe the defensiveness many white people feel when they’re challenged on race.

Any “racial stress,” she writes, causes them to react with “emotions such as anger, fear and guilt,” as well as behaviours “such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation.”

Yes, it never feels good to criticized. But putting aside that hostility is how you can grow.

“You don’t want it to be an apology just because an apology’s expected of you.”

- Sabreena Ghaffar-Siddiqui, McMaster University

Psych professor and author Carol Dweck has written extensively about the power of mindset. If you believe that things are the way they are, and you’re as intelligent now as you’ll ever be, you’re likely to give up amid obstacles and see effort as fruitless and unnecessary. In that mindset, if someone tells you you’ve done something racist, you might get angry and decide not to engage.

But if you cultivate what she calls a “growth mindset,” then “the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development,” she wrote. “This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.”

In other words, if you’re able to see yourself as still in the process of learning, it will be easier to take in a well-meaning criticism. If you really listen, you can improve.

Apologize in a way that’s clear and specific

Ghaffar-Siddiqui says she’s seen people dismissing Trudeau’s political future, but in her opinion, apologies do matter.

“I’m sorry you were offended,” obviously, is a bad apology, because it doesn’t take responsibility. Beyond that, apologies that fail to clearly express what you’re sorry for come across as similarly phoney, Ghaffar-Siddiqui said.

“You don’t want it to be an apology just because an apology’s expected of you,” she said. “You have to explain why you think it was wrong, and you have to explain how you’ve grown from that. What have you proven in your behaviour since then that shows evidence that that’s not how you think or believe?”

Watch: Justin Trudeau says he “deeply, deeply regrets” wearing racist makeup. Story continues after slideshow

Recognize that yes, racism happens in Canada and yes, it happens in progressive circles too

Feeling that you’re part of a community that’s somehow exempt from being racist is a big red flag. Systemic racism is still a problem in Canada, even if Donald Trump is not our country’s leader.

Just because you were the victim of linguistic or cultural discrimination — if you’re a francophone Quebecer, for instance, or your family is Irish — doesn’t mean you understand what racial inequality feels like. And yes, those on the political left are just as capable of racism.

These are all qualities that “shields people from having to check themselves, and check their racism, or check their discrimination,” said Ghaffar-Siddiqui.

Racism happens in all shapes and forms

The comparison Canadian often draw to the U.S. perpetuates that notion, she added. “We’ve got this Canadian exceptionalism, where we’re seen as this beacon of hope and light for other Western countries as the non-racist, progressive, multicultural country that’s accepting of immigrants,” she said.

“But we can’t forget the fact that racism is persistent in Canada, and it’s systemic, and it happens in all shapes and forms.”

Once again, the problem is bigger than Trudeau, said Sarita Srivastava, a sociology professor at Queen’s University.

“What I would like to see is having less focus on apologies and individual guilt, and more focus on asking questions about: How do these things happen in the first place?” she said. “How is it that people can continue to do these things and think that they are not impacting anyone? How does that come to be? That’s the kind of question we need to be asking.”

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