Systemic racism: What it looks like in Canada and how do we fight it?

A brief overview of systemic racism, its manifestation in Canada, its impact on Chinese Canadians, and strategies to address it.

By Dannie Fan


What is Systemic Racism?

When one considers racism, one often thinks of interpersonal racism, also referred to as individual or personally mediated racism. This form of racism occurs in interactions between individuals and is typically what most people associate with the term ‘racism’. Interpersonal racism can manifest intentionally or unintentionally, and examples include telling racist jokes, believing in the inherent superiority of white people, or crossing the street to avoid passing a Black man (Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre, Fitchburg State University).

Less frequently discussed is another type of racism known as systemic racism. Systemic racism, also called structural or institutional racism, is racism that permeates an entire society, spanning across institutions and organizations (Fitchburg State University). It is characterized by the ways that whiteness and white superiority become embedded in the policies and processes of an institution, resulting in a system that advantages white people and disadvantages racial minorities, notably in employment, education, justice, and social participation (UBC 2021).


What are Some Examples of Systematic Racism?

A few examples of systematic racism include (Soken-Huberty 2023):

  • Hiring discrimination: People with ethnic-sounding names or non-white appearances may face discrimination during the hiring process, resulting in limited job opportunities.
  • Media Misrepresentation: Media often perpetuates racial stereotypes, reinforcing biased perceptions and attitudes towards people of color.
  • Racial profiling: Law enforcement disproportionately targets people of color, leading to higher rates of stops, arrests, and incarceration for racial minorities.


Does Canada Experience Systemic Racism?  

In a settler colonial state like Canada, systemic racism is deeply rooted in every system of this country. The historical injustices, such as the operation of residential schools and the imposition of the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act, have left lasting scars on the nation’s social fabric(Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre). Residential schools, which were operated for over a century, forcibly removed Indigenous children from their families and communities, perpetuating cultural genocide and intergenerational trauma (The Canadian Encyclopedia 2012). The Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act targeted Chinese immigrants with exorbitant fees, effectively limiting their ability to reunite with their families and participate fully in Canadian society (The Canadian Encyclopedia 2016).

In contemporary Canadian society, power imbalances and systemic racism persist, remaining both upheld and reinforced. Illustrative examples include the findings of a 2016 Statistics Canada report, which revealed that both Black women and men in Vancouver were less likely to achieve post-secondary education compared to their counterparts in the general population, resulting in an approximate 10% disparity (Statistics Canada 2020). Furthermore, the unemployment rate among the Black population was approximately one and a half times higher than that of the rest of the population (Statistics Canada 2020).

Another instance of racism affecting Asian Canadians can be observed in the Temporary Foreign Worker Programs. These programs permit employers to bring in foreign nationals, often employed in low-paying agricultural and caregiving roles (The Canadian Encyclopedia 2021). Many of these migrants, predominantly from the Philippines, possess fewer rights than their counterparts who are not part of the program (The Canadian Encyclopedia 2021).


Does Systemic Racism Persist Against Chinese Canadians in Canada?

Systemic racism against the Chinese community in Canada continues to persist in various forms in contemporary society. While overt discriminatory policies like the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act have been officially repealed, the legacy of these historical injustices lingers, and new challenges have emerged.

Employment discrimination persists in the workplace, with concerns ranging from hiring biases to limited career advancement opportunities. Housing disparities and language barriers also impact this community, affecting their access to housing and essential services. In the realm of education, while many Chinese Canadian students excel academically, they may still face stereotypes and biases, leading some to feel pressured to conform to specific academic or career paths. Cultural appropriation and underrepresentation in various sectors further compound the challenges faced by Chinese Canadians, while racial profiling and microaggressions can create additional hurdles in their daily lives (Mooten, 2021).


How Can We Address Systemic Racism?

Systemic racism represents the enduring consequences of generations of discriminatory practices, and it’s natural for individuals to feel disheartened and lacking in agency. However, it’s essential to recognize that by cultivating greater awareness of systemic dynamics and advocating for social responsibility, you have the potential to play a pivotal role in instigating change. The University of British Columbia outlines three actionable steps that can be taken to address systemic racism (UBC 2021):

  1. Reflect

Accepting that racism lives within our society is an important first step. Reflect on the ways systemic racism and your position have impacted you and your perspectives. The experiences of marginalized groups can also vary, so don’t forget to apply an intersectional lens when you consider the ways different groups face oppression. You may feel uncomfortable, but this sets a solid foundation for you to explore the complexities of racial discrimination, challenge your notions of race and culture, and see anti-racism in new ways.

  1. Educate

In order to move forward, it is essential to confront our past with racism and oppression as a country. Having knowledge and understanding of Canada’s history with racism provides us with the necessary foundation for the fight against injustice.  As you learn more about Canada’s history with racism, ask yourself the following questions: How have the laws changed? Is the targeted group still experiencing the effects of this event today? Were you familiar with this historical event? If not, what is the significance of you not knowing about this event?

  1. Speak up

Challenge yourself and your communities by bringing conversations into your spaces. Regardless of our intersectional identities, talking about racism is no easy task, but your ability to have more meaningful and productive conversations will grow as you practice more.  We also encourage you to read our article on the four steps to navigating difficult conversations about racism for more guidance on this topic.



Dannie Fan is an undergraduate student in political science at UBC.




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