Paradkar: Covidiots come in all colours. Using race-based data to demonize South Asians is a cruel twisting of the evidence

The politically correct response to the thoughtful discussion of the cultural aspects by South Asian doctors (South Asians play a part in COVID-19 transmission and we need to acknowledge it).

More interesting analysis and commentary would contrast the low COVID-19 rates in Richmond, largely Chinese Canadians, with the high rates in Surrey, largely Indo-Canadians to assess the relative importance of socioeconomic and cultural factors.

Average household size is largely comparable: 2.6 in Richmond Centre and 2.7 in Steveston-Richmond, 2.7 in Surrey Centre but 3.4 in Surrey-Newton.

Participation rates are slightly higher in Surrey while male unemployment rates are comparable. However, female unemployment rates are higher in Surrey. Median incomes for both men and women are largely comparable although Steveston-Richmond median incomes are slightly higher.

Both socioeconomic and cultural factors play a role, it is not one or the other:

From the barbaric East Asians and their bat-eating habits to the villainous South Asians and their dangerous socializing habits, the COVID-19 narrative has traced an interesting if richly racist trajectory in the eight months since it has afflicted us.

Across the U.K., Canada, the U.S. and other nations, the pandemic is unveiling what health experts have always known: structures birthed in bias and driven by principles of profit have gone on to exacerbate the suffering of people living in the margins.

In June, a study by Public Health England said Black and Asian people in England are up to 50 per cent more likely to die after being infected with COVID-19. 

In the U.S., analysis by the APM research lab shows Black, Indigenous and Latino Americans experience a death rate triple or more that of white Americans from COVID-19, adjusted for age.

And in Canada a StatsCan report last month found people in large visible minority neighbourhoods in B.C, Quebec and Ontario had a much higher likelihood of dying than mostly white neighbourhoods. 

There is a growing discussion, in particular, on the role of South Asians who account for nearly half the cases of COVID-19 in the GTA’s Peel region, although they populate about a third of it. Of the 1,417 new cases of COVID-19 Ontario reported Wednesday, about a third, or 463, came from Peel.

All this data. 

Data is important to pinpoint where weaknesses lie and where solutions are needed. But of what use data if the collection itself is seen as action against those inequities? Of what use data if the analysis is used to blame communities for cultural deficiencies and individuals for systemic failures?

As the Peel example shows, layer that data with anecdotes and personal experiences of irresponsible socializing and snap, a simplistic narrative is born.

In an essay published last week in the Royal Society of Canada, University of Toronto professor Rinaldo Walcott slammed the gap between calls for race-based data collection and claims it leads to better policy making.

“Race-based data can quite frankly slow down reform,” he wrote. “ ‘Doing the research’ when a problem is already identified and its solutions known, means the collection of race-based data does not actually add much to policymaking. In fact, in some cases, it can do more harm than good.” 

Toronto Public Health data has consistently shown disproportionate impacts of COVID in the city’s northwest. Sané Dube, a manager of Community and Policy with Social Medicine at the University Health Network, often takes the 29 Dufferin bus that goes through some of the worst-affected areas. “The 29 often looks like there’s no pandemic. The bus is so full. And people who are going to work are on that bus. Same with the 35 on Jane.” 

Public health could ask the TTC to provide more buses on those routes, she says, so that people — many of whom are essential workers, “you know, the people we need to work to be able to survive the pandemic” — don’t have to be on crowded buses. 

That is one example of evidence-based action. 

If Black people have long been treated as having a cultural abnormality with their broken families — think of the single-mom and absent-father tropes — without a thought to why those families have been ripped apart, now it’s the turn of South Asians to be demonized for the opposite, their multi-generation family homes and their socializing habits. 

That there is an affordable housing crisis is well-known. Earlier this month Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown announced Peel was getting an isolation hotel, a place for people with precarious employment or living in crowded housing to isolate safely. This is another example of evidence-based action. But why the delay?

“That Peel is getting this now — we are in Month 8 of the pandemic. Why are we just getting this now?” Dube asks. 

“There is complexity behind this data that goes far deeper than South Asian “culture” or “values,”” Seher Shafiq wrote in First Policy Response, a new project by Ryerson Leadership Lab and other institutions that publishes policy ideas, where she is a managing editor. 

“South Asians, like their other racialized peers on the frontlines of this pandemic, are disproportionately employed in precarious jobs in the service industry and gig economy – brewing Tim Hortons coffee, bagging groceries and delivering UberEats orders. This means they are exposed to the virus in their day-to-day lives.”

This “model minority” was hardest hit by the pandemic recession in October, according to StatsCan. 

It’s easier to pathologize communities than implement evidence-based action. Easier to berate people for parties and “multi-day weddings” than to examine if there are adequate testing sites, if they are easily accessible by public transit and if there are adequate supports for those who do test positive.

I have little doubt there are brown covidiots out there, in large homes and small, who think they are impervious to the virus and socialize irresponsibly. I have seen no evidence yet that they are disproportionately more so than any other racial or ethnic group. If there is a blip in numbers after Diwali this past weekend, will it be solidly more than the blip after Thanksgiving? More than after Christmas? 

Covidiocy may be unrelated to race but this much is clear: race and culture are very much related to who gets scrutiny and who escapes it. 

As East Asians — ironically among the least impacted by the virus — will testify, it doesn’t take long for the blame game to spill over to people and their cultures.


White privilege and an exploration of uncomfortable truths

Good explanations and discussion by Denise O’Neil Green, Ryerson’s vice-president for equity and community inclusion, and Rinaldo Walcott, director of the University of Toronto’s women and gender studies institute:

In Philadelphia, two Black men are arrested by police for simply sitting in a Starbucks. In Australia, the pop star Halsey goes online to vent about the lack of hotel shampoos for ethnic hair. On Twitter, an exchange between two Canadian politicians — one white, one Black — sparks a national debate over issues of race and privilege.

Such stories are increasingly making waves around the world and each new headline seems to generate a flurry of tweets, thinkpieces and conversations about the notion of white privilege. After percolating in academic circles for decades, the term “white privilege” has found mainstream currency in recent years; it has also attracted both repudiation and support.

For many people, they are now engaging with the idea for the first time and asking: “What is white privilege anyway?” This week, hundreds of people will gather at Ryerson University to explore this question and more at Canada’s first white privilege conference, an event that has been held annually in the United States since 1999.

To address some of the basic ideas around white privilege, the Star spoke with two scholars who will be attending the conference: Denise O’Neil Green, Ryerson’s vice-president for equity and community inclusion, and Rinaldo Walcott, director of the University of Toronto’s women and gender studies institute.

Both have spent much of their careers thinking about white privilege and the ways in which it shapes our world. Here’s what they had to say:

Let’s start with the basic question. How do you define white privilege?

Green: In very basic terms, it is an unearned benefit or “perk” that one receives simply because of their skin colour. A more multi-layered way of looking at it is that white privilege operates in terms of a system that benefits particular groups over others. It’s a system structure that all of us operate in — whether we’re aware of it or not.

Walcott: For me, what the term “white privilege” seeks to allow people to understand is the way in which societies, like the one that we live in, are default white societies. Everywhere we look in these societies, all of the ways in which people are accorded, important, respected and so on centre around the idea that anything that is white North American or white European is the absolute standard to reach.

But what that means is that many people who are not white can never, ever achieve that standard, and many people who are simply born white are assumed to have reached that standard, even if they themselves can’t reach it either. So that’s what we begin to call “white privilege”; the ways in which we live in a society where some people, because of the accident of their birth, can enter that society — its institutions, government, education, universities, even the holidays we celebrate — and participate at levels and in ways that other people are unable to.

Can you think of some examples of white privilege in action, both on the micro and macro level?

Walcott: Let’s say (a Black person) enters a department store and they want to buy a pair of pants in the men’s section and a T-shirt for their child in the children’s section. They will make sure to pay for those pants in the men’s section and then go to the children’s section. Meanwhile, you see many white people who have piles of clothes, they walk all through the store and all kinds of floors, and they don’t have to think about it. The reason we pay before going to another floor is because we know that the possibility of being accused of shoplifting exists for us.

That’s an example of white privilege. When you don’t have to think about how you move through your everyday life, worrying about whether or not you’re going to be stopped by security or police. Non-white, Black and Indigenous people in Canada have to think about that all the time.

Green: On a macro level, unfortunately, it’s the way particular groups are treated by the police versus others. The CBC just came out with their own statistics (showing) that in particular areas of the country where you have a high population of Indigenous or Black Canadian citizens, they find themselves disproportionately impacted by the police in a very different and sometimes fatal way.

Another macro aspect is the diversity on boards; they still continue to be predominantly white and predominantly male. Probably another example is one’s name; if you have a racialized-sounding name, or a less English sounding name, then you’re less likely to be called back for a job interview.

So those are examples of privilege that for some can be very invisible, but is very visible for many of us.

A lot of people deny that white privilege exists. How do you understand that denial and where it comes from?

Walcott: When white working-class people hear “privilege,” they often think you’re talking about the individual material benefits that some people have. And yes, of course, a part of that is individual material benefits but when we’re talking about white privilege, what we’re really talking about is (how) the possibility of a white person being able to make it out of the working class is many, many times higher than, say, a Black person or Indigenous person.

When we talk about white privilege, we’re also talking about a body of ideas where even white working-class people can understand themselves to be more important or contributing more to society. So white privilege is not just about individuals being able to accumulate things for themselves, it’s also about a way of understanding the world — and that cuts across class.

Green: What I think is very interesting about white privilege, and just privilege in general, is you never really get to know what’s happening unless you walk in another person’s shoes.

I’ll give a personal example. My son was unfortunately hit by a drunk driver and as a result, he ended up needing to use a wheelchair. That experience has absolutely opened my eyes to how the world privileges those who are fully able-bodied: restaurants, institutions, buildings not having elevators, buildings not having ramps. That’s something that people can get and understand more readily because it’s something they can see.

White privilege operates in the same way. What happened with my son had a very profound effect on me, but it also helped me to greater understand how systems and white privilege and other privileges impact our day-to-day lives … and how the world sees us and invites us in. Or not invite us in.

A common reaction when someone’s white privilege is pointed out to them is defensiveness, the feeling that they’ve been accused of racism. Is pointing out someone’s white privilege the same as pointing out their racism?

Walcott: No, it’s not. Of course sometimes pointing out white privilege is about pointing out a set of racist practices or behaviours, but pointing out someone’s white privilege is not always about calling them racist. What you’re trying to point to is the way in which that person can do something — or have an experience — because of their whiteness that is not available to other people.

If we understand white privilege as embedded in the structures and institutions of society, then we can’t assume that everybody who benefits from it is actually engaged in racist practices. People are simply going about the ways in which they have been taught to live a life in this society. That is part of the reason why the idea of white privilege rubs some people the wrong way, because they don’t fully understand that the way in which they’re doing things will accrue to them a set of privileges.

I’d like for you to address the perspective that white privilege is an inherently racist concept and talking about it is racist. How do you respond to that?

Walcott: It’s wrong, absolutely wrong, because white privilege is not about demarcating a particular racial group. It’s pointing to ways in which an already demarcated racial group — in fact, a group of people who have historically marked other people as “not white” — has, through violence and other means, built a society in which they accrued the most privilege.

But more importantly, when people make the claim that to talk about white privilege is racist against white people, what we’re seeing is an attempt to hijack the language of civil rights and human rights and to turn that language in on itself … to take the progressive language that is supposed to push back against forms of oppression and use it to actually continue those forms of oppression.

Green: There are actually a lot of white scholars who have not only developed the concept, but explored the concept and done a lot of work on the concept of a white privilege and whiteness. So I don’t necessarily agree that the term in and of itself is racist.

For me, I see it as a way to bring to light something that can be extremely uncomfortable to discuss. I do agree with that — it’s very uncomfortable to discuss — but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to shy away from it.

What do you hope will come out of the upcoming white privilege conference?

Green: What I envision is that it will start the conversation in a very constructive, intentional way and get individuals to begin to look at various aspects of privilege that we operate in and how they impact all of us — looking at that, taking in this information, and seeing how it can be applied to their own personal circumstances. This is a means of helping us move the needle in the conversation around inclusion, and being able to truly make Canada an inclusive society.

Source: White privilege and an exploration of uncomfortable truths

Shree Paradkar’s related column:

Some privileges exist in the realm of emotions: It’s a privilege to be alive. It’s a privilege to live in a free country. It’s a privilege to write for this paper.

Then there are privileges that are not visible to, or acknowledged by, those that enjoy them: racial privilege, ethnic privilege, caste privilege, skin colour privilege, class privilege.

White privilege is a term that riles people who don’t understand it, which leads us to another academic term: “white fragility” — but that’s for another day.

I’ve enjoyed class, caste and skin-colour privilege in Asian countries. In India, as with my uncle, I was a “first-class” citizen. When I was looking for a house in Singapore, my real estate agent told me it was a “good thing” I was a light-skinned Indian “or nobody would give you a place.” In Canada, I have sufficient education/class privilege to compensate for the loss of racial privilege.

As someone who has walked both sides of the identity-based privilege line, I can attest to the invisibility of privilege when you enjoy it. I see the genuine blindness to its existence, but also the wilful ignorance of it. I recognize the defensive denial of this racial privilege because acceptance would challenge an enduring and implicit belief in white superiority as being foundational to Canada.

White privilege is a neutral academic observation. It doesn’t mean all white people are rich. It doesn’t mean all white people didn’t have to work hard for their success. It doesn’t imply all white people are racist. It does not attribute to an individual the actions of their race, or damn them for it.

White privilege just means that a white person in the exact same circumstance as a non-white person is far likelier to find success and growth. That means being white accrues some unearned benefits to an individual. “White” here depends on the current definition of it; not so long ago, Irish people were called the n-word on this continent. In the early 20th century Canadians from Ukraine and Eastern Europe were imprisoned in internment camps just based on their origin. Many, but not all, would be considered white today.

If the “white” race was created from an economic incentive to keep “Black” Africans low in the pecking order, or, in other words, if “white” was a term created to distinguish a set of people from “Black,” it’s obvious that a society that privileges whites least favours Blacks.

White privilege comes from the social value automatically ascribed to people just because of the colour of their skin. Add markers such as gender and wealth and education, and the value of white goes up exponentially.

Skin colour is the unkindest measure of a person’s worth and desirability. It’s a stamp branded on one’s body, one that cannot be covered or erased, so that people may be scrutinized and judged at a glance: whether they deserve to be rented a house or a key to the café washrooms or whether the mere sight of them is threatening enough to deserve instant death.

From what I’ve seen, the indulgent response to loud drunken white boys on public transit is quite different from the recoiling, recriminating looks shot at a sober Black man speaking somewhat loudly into his phone in a train.

Within whiteness, how closely you conform to British culture or physical type determines your chance of success. Once you meet those racial and cultural criteria, the ladder is yours to climb.

Meanwhile, the rest of the people are left looking at the ladder, realizing the game is already rigged.

Source: Shree Paradkar: White privilege is an academic observation, not an accusation