Racialization refers to the process by which societies construct races as real, different and unequal in ways that matter to economic, political and social life. Racialized groups refer to peoples who have been categorized based on perceived racial differences and treated differently as a result. In Canada, the term “racialized person” or “racialized group” is used instead of terms such as “visible minority”, “person of color” or “non-White” which define groups only in relation to the racial majority.
Racialization has deep historical roots in colonialism and systems of domination that construct the superiority of some groups and the inferiority of others based on perceived differences in physical traits, culture, ethnicity or religion. Race is a social construct, not a biological one. The process of racialization aims to naturalize social difference and create a hierarchy among groups of people. While race has no scientific basis, racialization has very real consequences in terms of limiting opportunities, access and power for those groups defined as racially “other”.
In the Canadian context, racialization has been an ongoing process since the founding of the country. Indigenous peoples were the original inhabitants of the lands that became Canada. Their displacement and dispossession was justified through racial ideologies that positioned them as inferior and less civilized. Racial hierarchies continued to be constructed with the expansion of the British Empire and the use of colonized peoples from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean as sources of labor. Notions of White European superiority and non-White inferiority were embedded into legal, political, economic and social institutions.
Defining Racialized Groups
Over time, the language used to identify racialized groups has shifted alongside changes in politics, culture and activism. While definitions remain contested, here are some key groups considered to be racialized in contemporary Canada:
- Indigenous peoples: Includes First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. Their unique status as original inhabitants and rights holders is recognized in the Constitution.
- Black Canadians: Refers to people in Canada with African or Caribbean ancestry.
- Asians: Encompasses a diverse range of ethnicities and national origins from East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia and Western Asia.
- Latin Americans: Refers to people from Central America, South America and the Caribbean.
- Arabs/West Asians: People with ancestry from countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
- Other groups: Some organizations also include Jewish, Roma and Slavic peoples under the broad category of racialized minorities.
These groups represent over 5 million people or 16% of Canada’s population as of the 2016 Census. The largest groups are South Asians, Chinese and Black Canadians. Racialized minorities are projected to represent over 30% of the Canadian population by 2036.
Factors in Racialization
There are several key factors that contribute to racialization processes and experiences of racism in Canada:
Skin color, facial features and hair texture are often used as racial markers. Phenotype or physical appearance leads to assumptions about group belonging and identity. Features deemed as “White” confer privilege while non-European features lead to experiences of prejudice and exclusion.
Ethnicity and Culture
Racialization conflates cultural and biological traits. Accents, names, clothing, traditions and religion become markers of racial difference. Maintaining ethnic culture can become synonymous with being seen as “other”. Assimilation into dominant cultural norms is expected.
Immigrant status and national background play a key role in racialization. Race shapes who is considered a “real” Canadian. Non-European immigrants and their descendants face discrimination based on racial assumptions tied to national origin.
Race intersects with class and immigration. Many racialized groups face higher rates of poverty and barriers in education and employment leading to lower income levels. Then racial stereotypes emerge linking ethnicity to socioeconomic outcomes.
Systems and Institutions
Laws, policies, and practices in government, healthcare, criminal justice, education, media and other institutions reinforce differential outcomes and disadvantage for racialized groups.
Outcomes of Racialization
Racialization sets up a social hierarchy that positions groups relative to each other. The following table summarizes some of the ways racial inequality manifests in Canadian society:
|Dimension||Outcomes for Racialized Groups|
|Political representation||Underrepresented in elected office relative to share of population|
|Education||Higher dropout rates and lower university completion rates|
|Criminal justice||Overrepresented in arrests, convictions and incarcerations|
|Health||Poorer self-reported health. Lower life expectancy.|
|Income||Higher rates of poverty. Lower household incomes.|
|Employment||Higher unemployment. Underrepresented in management roles.|
|Housing||Less home ownership. Higher levels of inadequate housing.|
While patterns vary between groups, racialized minorities overall face greater social and economic marginalization in Canada.
Evolution of Terminology
The language used to identify racialized groups has gone through many shifts:
- Indian – Now considered offensive and outdated.
- Eskimo – Increasingly replaced by Inuit, considered more acceptable by this group.
- Aboriginal/Native – Broad terms for original inhabitants. Less used today.
- First Nations/Métis/Inuit – Most widely accepted today.
- Negro/Colored – Considered offensive today.
- Black – Widely used by 1960s civil rights and Black Power movements.
- African American – Used more commonly in the United States.
- African Canadian – Less widely adopted in Canada.
- Oriental – Now offensive. Linked to exoticization.
- Asian – Broad term for diverse groups. Can lump together very different ethnicities.
- Specific identities – Chinese, Indian, Korean preferred by many. Honor multiplicity.
- Non-White – Defined in opposition to White majority.
- Visible minority – Defined by physical appearance. Government of Canada legal term.
- Person of color – Used more commonly in the United States.
- Racialized – Emphasizes process that socially constructs race.
The evolution of terminology reflects shifting attitudes and politics around race and ethnicity in Canada. There remain disagreements about the most accurate and inclusive language to use.
Dismantling systemic racism requires moving beyond focusing just on individual prejudice or attitudes. Institutions and structures must be transformed to create substantive equality.
- Strengthening anti-racism and equity laws and policies.
- Collection of race-based data to identify disparities.
- Increased representation in politics, judiciary, policing, public service.
- Anti-racism and anti-oppression training at all levels.
- Diversity in school curriculum and teaching workforce.
- Culturally responsive pedagogy.
Business and Labor
- Workplace equity programs and diverse leadership.
- Pay transparency and wage gap reductions.
- Accountability measures and audits.
Media and Culture
- Spaces for racialized cultural expression and knowledge.
- Representation in mainstream media and cultural institutions.
- Challenging racist stereotypes and biases.
- Building anti-racist social movements.
- Dialogue and reconciliation processes.
- Public education and consciousness raising.
Holistic change is required to move beyond the historical legacy of racial hierarchies and create a more just and equitable society.
Racialization remains an enduring process in Canadian society that shapes life opportunities and experiences for marginalized groups. Dismantling systemic racism requires acknowledging historical wrongs, eliminating race-based disparities and fighting exclusion in all sectors. Greater efforts are needed to build an inclusive national identity that embraces diversity and respects the human rights and dignity of all peoples. The concepts of race must be deconstructed, and the barriers created by racialization eliminated, so that one’s race identity ceases to determine one’s life chances.