In a Facebook group, a white woman responds to a post about new government funding for clean water at an Indigenous reserve, complaining that Indigenous people already get too much support and should do a better job of looking after themselves.
At a bar, a man of European descent joins a discussion about police treatment of Black people and insists that racism and racial profiling happens in other countries, but not in Canada.
Why is it that some people make these kinds of perceivably racist and offensive remarks publicly even as others who might share the views hold their tongue? Whether someone makes such comments out of ignorance, prejudice or insensitivity, people tend to conduct themselves in accordance with what’s socially acceptable.
“Thirty years ago, smoking in public was acceptable. It was cool. It was just part of the framework. And there was an actual long-term public health campaign, if you will, in essence, to de-normalize smoking in public. It’s a complex intervention that, over time, was quite successful,” says Keith Neuman of the Environics Institute, author of the Canadian Social Norms and Racism study.
“That’s where we’d like to go with racism. Anti-racism initiatives may benefit by focusing more on social norms, which are more easily changed than ingrained attitudes and prejudices.”
Researchers did a national online survey and asked 6,601 participants to respond to a range of vignettes of racist or anti-racist actions directed at Indigenous or Black people. The data was weighted to ensure national representation by province, gender, age and education.
Each respondent was presented with a randomized selection of six of the 12 scenarios — three involving each community — that include responding to a white person who was:
- Speaking up when someone tells an insensitive joke;
- Appropriating Indigenous or Black attire;
- Asking where an Indigenous or Black person came from;
- Claiming racism doesn’t exist in Canada;
- Intervening when an Indigenous or Black person is hassled in public;
- Making a derogatory comment on Facebook; or
- Making a racial gesture at a hockey game.
The respondents were then asked if they had witnessed such events or knew someone else who had; if they believed what the person did was right or wrong; how many people in their social circle would say what that person did was right or wrong; and how likely they thought it that others would intervene.
Many of the respondents said they have either personally seen or know someone who has seen the racist actions directed at Indigenous Peoples, with the most common witnessing someone claiming racism doesn’t exist against Indigenous Peoples (49 per cent); followed by derogatory comments on Facebook (38 per cent); telling insensitive jokes (35 per cent); others hassling an Indigenous person (22 per cent); and making a racial gesture like “a vigorous tomahawk gesture with a loud whooping cry” at a sports event (21 per cent).
In their response to the vignettes directed at Black racism, 79 per cent of participants have witnessed or know someone who has seen a Black person being asked where they came from; claiming racism doesn’t exist against Blacks (45 per cent); telling an insensitive joke (38 per cent); hassling a Black person (31 per cent); appropriating Black attire (30 per cent); and making derogatory comments on Facebook (21 per cent).
Based on participants’ responses, researchers came up with an index that represents how acceptable the specific demeanour or behaviour was in the general population.
The indexes range on a scale from zero to 100 — from the most to least socially acceptable. That means the behaviour with the low score has the greater consensus of social approval or disapproval.
The study found that social norms are somewhat stronger in situations where people witness someone stepping up and intervening when a person acts in a racist manner toward an Indigenous or Black person, such as telling an insensitive joke or harassing someone in public.
Expressing racism through social media posts and claiming racism doesn’t exist in Canada were both deemed socially unacceptable, under the index, while appropriating Indigenous or Black attire was believed to be uncommon and not a big social transgression.
Neuman, director of the research project, said the study showed most respondents were aware that the conduct in these vignettes were wrong but uncertain what others would think or respond to the situation.
“There are unspoken rules how people behave with others. People know whether certain things are OK or not OK to do. When people choose to say a racist thing, it matters whether they think it’s OK or not OK with the people they are with,” Neuman explained.
“This is an important part of racism in society. This is the first time we look racism in Canada from the perspective of what is acceptable or not acceptable in your social circles. So lots of people think these racist actions are wrong, but they’re really not certain what the people around them think. So these norms are not very strong and that helps explain why this kind of behaviour is still so prevalent.”
Neuman hopes the findings of the study will serve as the benchmark to measure how the social norms of racism evolve as what’s tolerated and accepted in society does change with time, as in the cases of antismoking and the recognition of the LGBTQ2+ community after the Supreme Court 2004 ruling over gay marriage.
Government policies and social norms should go hand in hand in encouraging or hindering the manifestation of unacceptable behaviour, he added.
“The likelihood of encountering people who are smoking in public spaces is very low today. It’s not because there are laws and enforcement, but it’s because people who smoke picked up on the fact that it’s not OK to do that. It’s the way social norms work and there’s very strong norms against something like smoking,” he said.
“If you go back 20 years, the attitudes, treatments and norms around LGBTQ people have changed tremendously. Canadian opinions about gay marriage and LGBTQ people changed because there’s something legitimate about it by the state. It caused people to subsume their personal prejudice and discomfort.”
Neuman said similar successes could be found in developing social norms about what’s acceptable and what’s not with racism through modelling and trendsetting.
Advertising and educational campaigns that reinforce positive norms and denounce negative norms could help develop a collective sense of what’s acceptable, he added.
“What you’re trying to do is to communicate that some kinds of behaviours are OK and others aren’t. But you need to understand what the norms are to begin with, You have to do diagnosis to figure out what they are and how strong they are,” he said.
“It may be a situation where everybody has the same personal belief that something is wrong. By making everybody aware of how everybody thinks, it strengthens that norm.”
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Canada’s racist social norms — and how we can change them