Unmasking Colour Lines

  • Frances Henry, Enakshi Dua, Carl E. James, Audrey Kobayashi, Peter Li, Howard Ramos and Malinda S. Smith
    The Equity Myth: Racialization and Indigineity at Canadian Universities. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Kamal Al-Solaylee
    Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (To Everyone). HarperCollins (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sylvie Vranckx

In the First World and beyond, the term “white privilege” tends to trigger hostile reactions in its bearers. However, Frances Henry et al.’s The Equity Myth and Kamal Al-Solaylee’s Brown demonstrate that Western societies continue to function as if “races” existed, with the result that (social) race remains tragically relevant. Moreover, both books underline its intersections with nationality, class, and gender as they foreground the lived experience of people of colour—respectively, racialized and Indigenous scholars in English-speaking Canadian universities and brown-skinned people in a range of countries.

Written by seven leading anti-racist scholars, The Equity Myth addresses the scarcity of data on racialized and Indigenous faculty in Canada through the interdisciplinary lens of critical race theory. It argues that while Canadian universities see themselves as “bastion[s] of liberal democracy,” they are plagued by these scholars’ under-representation (especially the under-representation of women), particularly in the humanities and social and political sciences, where they would be able to challenge dominant research. The authors blame neoliberalism, which individualizes social issues, fosters the defunding of social justice programs, and emphasizes meritocracy. For the authors, this explains why the inclusion of racialized and Indigenous faculty has paradoxically decreased at the same time as mechanisms to address inequity in Canadian universities have been created. Underneath a veneer of diversity, the institutional culture of covert racism isolates, discredits, and silences scholars of colour. They face lower wages; obstacles in hiring, tenure, and promotion; erasure from curricula; discrimination in everyday interactions, reference letters, and student evaluations; and so on. The Equity Myth paints a bleak picture in which the hegemonic whiteness and patriarchy of the institution show remarkable resilience through lip service and tokenism. On the other hand, it recommends possible concrete solutions. Its publication is timely since gender and social justice studies are increasingly being challenged in Canadian universities. Moreover, the denunciation of systemic racism by these well-established researchers may lend credibility to the arguments of racialized faculty.

In Brown, journalism professor Kamal Al-Solaylee tackles the experiences of brown-skinned people from the perspective of colourism, “a close relative, but not a replica, of racism,” which operates not only between groups but also within them. In his journeys to nine countries ranging from Trinidad to Hong Kong to the US, he documents the ways in which differences in skin tone often mean differences in status and even class. Al-Solaylee makes “a case for what sociologists call ‘lumping’
—identifying groups by a wider set of signifiers”: he describes brownness as a “buffer” and “continuum” between whiteness and blackness, and as a metaphor for the millions of displaced people who may be framed as a problem in their host countries. (I was skeptical of his choice to leave out Indigenous peoples, but I agree that the reality of colonialism would make their lumping with immigrants problematic.) He chronicles “universal brown experience[s]” such as avoiding the sun, but also conveys the specificity of each context and situation through interviews supported by existing sociological research. He shows an almost uncanny talent for absorbing the atmosphere and dynamics of a place in relatively little time. Living in Brussels and following the activities of several French activist groups, I am struck by the accuracy of his observations on Islamophobia in Paris, which resonate with my country: on the day I finished reading Brown, two men in Belgium ripped off a Muslim woman’s clothes and mutilated her face and body.

Al-Solaylee grounds his research in his complex position as a Toronto professor from Yemen who has lived in Egypt and England and is openly gay. He discusses his own assumptions and reflects on his childhood realization that he was brown, on his class privilege, and on his struggles with the “Arab” and “Muslim” labels. Although his heart sinks many times, he ends on a hopeful note, describing himself as a “Pollyanna.” Accordingly, this is a profoundly generous book which pays respect to the everyday heroism and resilience of the exploited.

All in all, both works are must-reads for anyone interested in the social sciences, in discrimination, or simply in being decent and well-informed human beings. In this era of growing conservatism and denial of racism, the urgency of heeding their warnings and building on the body of research unmasking colour and gender lines cannot be overstated.

This review “Unmasking Colour Lines” originally appeared in House, Home, Hospitality Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 237 (2019): 126-127.

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