How can a White Person Feel the Effects of Racism?
Updated: Apr 27, 2022
Good question. As a member of the white Anglo-Saxon majority, how can I write about a fictional character of mixed heritage who struggles against racism? My earlier post describes some of how my character hides who she is, feeling like a racial imposter. I cannot feel what she feels. I must work to develop an understanding of my character by hearing their stories and relying on empathy and history. It is comparable to how a male author writes the feelings of a female character. Canada and the US have a rich history of people with mixed heritages who experience racism both as victims and oppressors.
History shows people ostracized for their heritage or beliefs
In my biblical fiction Forgotten Followers, the character of Joanna hides her mixed heritage to avoid persecution or ostracism. Today, many of us may hide our beliefs, orientation, or opinions for the same reasons.
Irish Catholics were treated as inferior by the British for centuries. In the 1800s, English vessels stopped at Irish ports before crossing the Atlantic to load provisions and recruit Irish labourers for the fishery. By 1840, roughly half of Newfoundland's population was of Irish origin. When my husband and I visited Newfoundland, we learned that fishing companies sometimes loaded Irishmen onto the boats while they were drunk. The companies hired desperately poor Irish fishermen as seasonal workers, telling them they would return to Ireland in the fall. But in the fall, fishing companies, wanting to load their boats with more fish, often abandoned Irish fishers to starve or freeze in Newfoundland over the winter. The British rulers were Protestant and persecuted Catholics but were granted religious liberty by 1779. By the 1780s, the Irish constituted close to half of the population of the island. Fishermen could be self-employed, but fishing companies controlled the prices for fishermen's supplies and the prices for fishermen's sales, keeping fisher families in poverty.
When my husband and I visited Ireland we stopped at the National Irish Famine Museum at Roscommon, outlining what happened during Ireland's Great Famine of 1845–1852. Britain had prevented Catholic Irish from land ownership and education, keeping them in a low-class situation, surviving as potato tenant farmers. When the potato blight caused starvation, Britain accused the Irish of being lazy and denied them food aid. Waves of Irish immigrated to Canada and the US.
My mother's ancestors were Anglo-Irish Protestants, without the education or wealth of Britons, they were still loyal to Britain and able to settle in Upper Canada (now Ontario), and make a living by building barns, and clearing rocks, and farming. Catholic Irish had a harder time. Catholic Irish often arrived with little money and the British bias against the Irish meant lower wages, living in slums, and finding work in difficult and dangerous jobs such as building canals or railways. Some municipalities in predominantly Protestant Upper Canada did not permit Catholic churches within their boundaries. After defending the borders against American invasions in 1812 – 1815, the dominant Anglo-Saxon population was suspicious that the Catholic Irish would not be loyal to the British Crown. In fact, there was continuing Irish resentment against Britain, and some Irish who immigrated to Canada, later moved to the US and in the 1860s conducted Fenian raids attacking Canada, still a British Colony, in an effort toward Irish independence from Britain.
While Catholics have been a large part of Canada since the beginning, due to the dominance of French Catholics in Lower Canada, later called Quebec, Catholics were a minority in Canada as a whole. For that reason, French Canadians required specific protections in the British North America Act that formed Canada in 1867. English Canada began to receive more Catholics after WW2, with immigrants from Italy, Poland, parts of the Netherlands, and the Philippines. About a third of Canadians are now affiliated with the Catholic church.
Americans also had a negative reaction to the wave of Irish immigrants in the 1850s. Signs went up in store windows saying: No Irish Need Apply”. Irish could only get low-paid menial and dangerous jobs: cutting canals, digging ditches, laying rail lines, cleaning houses, working in textile mills, farms and stables. This may have been related to both their nationality and their religion. An American movement called Nativism grew: a fear of outsiders and immigrants, combined with a love of the homeland. President Abraham Lincoln opposed the nativist movement in an 1855 letter: “As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’". He went on to warn against the Know-Nothing Party, saying if nativism grows, "it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’ Sound familiar? America did not have a Catholic president until John F Kennedy in 1961.
My father’s ancestors emigrated to British Canada in 1831 from Wurttemberg, one of the sovereign states of the German Confederation (1815-1866). They struggled to clear the land, and build a home and farm.
In Germany, the Industrial Revolution was beginning, rural people moved to cities, there was civil unrest and unemployment and the poor and low-class were encouraged to emigrate.
From 1820 to 1870, over seven and a half million immigrants came to the United States - about a third from Ireland and almost a third from Germany.
German Canadians were one of Canada’s largest ethnic categories for a time, second only to the British. Many United Empire Loyalists emigrated to Canada due to their loyalty to Britain during the American Revolution (1775-1783). German Mennonites, mostly Anabaptist farmers, began to settle in Canada due to their pacifist beliefs. Preferring to settle together, they acquired a huge area in Waterloo County and attracted a concentration of German settlers in the early 1800s. After Canada granted religious immunity from military service in 1899, all but one of America’s 18 German-speaking Hutterite colonies who had immigrated from Ukraine to South Dakota in the 1870s, relocated to Canada. At the same time, the Mennonites in Russia lost their military exemption and emigrated to Canada.
However, during WW1, Germanophones opposed Germans and pacifists and anyone who did not assimilate into Anglo-American culture. US President Woodrow Wilson said, “Any man who carries a hyphen about with him, carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic.”
In 1917, Canada disenfranchised all German Canadians who had immigrated since 1902 and classed German Canadians as 'enemy-aliens'. Canada classified Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, and Ukrainians as 'enemy aliens' and interned over 8,500 men during WW1. German cultural clubs and associations were dissolved, German schools closed, German-language newspapers stopped, German books were removed from libraries, and family and street names were changed. In 1916, Berlin, Ontario, changed its name to Kitchener, after a senior British Army officer. From 1919 to 1923, Canada prohibited German immigration, and in 1924 Germans were readmitted as ‘non-preferred’ immigrants, restricted to agricultural and domestic work. Germans often hid their heritage by using their mixed heritage. If you were part German, part Britain, you would benefit by saying you were of British heritage. Someone with a German and British heritage would say they were British; some with German heritage would identify by their Russian or Jewish heritage, and many of German heritage who had come via the US would claim their American heritage.
Following the horrors caused by the WW2 German dictator, German refugees were refused care by the United Nations. The Canadian Christian Council for the Resettlement of Refugees stepped up and sponsored many east Europeans who were ethnic Germans from 1947 to 1950, and German nationals once they became admissible in 1950.
Canadian immigration policies maintained a preference for British, Irish, French and American immigrants, but widened the admissible classes of European immigrants to "any healthy applicant of good character who had skills needed in Canada and who could easily integrate into Canadian society". Germans and Asians were removed from the list of enemy aliens. The categories that were opened were for immediate family, or those willing to be labourers on farms, mines, forestry, or fishing. Since 1950, immigration policies opened to more than white Europeans and we have learned to appreciate diversity.
That's where my ancestors come back into the story. They were Christians, farmers, and had German heritage, and all three factors were reasons to support the demand for sponsors for Germans wanting to immigrate to Canada. In the 1950s and 60s German families came to live on our farm, working on it for the required time, and then leaving to pursue their profession. In this post-Nazi era, it was not a popular move, especially with those returning from the battles of WW2. It was also still in the memories of those who had fought in WW1, like my Anglo-Irish grandmother's brothers. Most Germans assimilated as quickly as possible, anglicizing their names, hiding their ethnicity, abandoning the German language, passing as British, and identifying as non-hyphenated Canadians.
This long-ago history shows how Canada began as a British colony and carried some of its race and class prejudices, attitudes of British superiority, and attempts to assimilate others. I have separate posts regarding Canada's record on racism and Canadian Black History. Sometimes the dominant British culture meant Irish Catholics hid their faith. Sometimes it meant Germans hid their heritage and language. Assimilation meant losing a piece of our heritage. My ancestors all came before 1860 and were assimilated. I have no homeland but Canada.
But as a society, we started to learn how to value diversity. As early as the 1920s, Victoria Hayward described English Canada as a 'mosaic' because the dominant white European Christian culture allowed new ethnic, cultural, and religious groups to immigrate to Canada and retain their distinctive features. Neither myself, my parents, nor any grandparents experienced the challenges of leaving home and family to immigrate to a new country and culture. While we celebrate the colour, taste and vibrancy that new immigrants bring to our mosaic, maybe those of us who did not have the immigrant experience provide the white plaster that welcomes the new colours to the mosaic and holds them together. Yes, we can see the effects of racism whether we are the white plaster or the shiny new colour. But we need to ask minority cultures how it feels.
But being multicultural does not mean Canada has no core culture or identity. Recent immigrants have different views, showing that Canada does have existing views. Canada's culture is visible every time a national holiday falls on a Christian holiday. The dominant Anglo-Saxon Protestant work ethic was an early influence on the culture of English Canada. Our Christian founders called us 'the Dominion of Canada', drawing from the Bible's Psalm 72:8 "He shall have dominion also from sea to sea". Our stated purpose in forming our nation in 1867 was "peace, order, and good government. Our laws are based on British and Judeo-Christian traditions. Canadian official languages and Canadian legal and government systems are foundations of mainstream Canadian culture.
Minorities continue to feel pressure to fit in with 'mainstream Canadian society'. We will continue to ask immigrants to uphold the Canadian principles of equality of citizenship and gender and equality before the law and human rights. Canadians share the values of "justice, equality, compassion and diversity." But as we notice systemic or structural problems, the majority is starting to feel pressure to fit Canadian society to its vision, to walk the talk.
Past immigration policies favoured white Europeans who "could easily integrate into Canadian society". Canadians share a core culture around peace, safety, and respect for law and order. A 2013 Statistics Canada survey found that 92% of Canadians shared the values of human rights, 92% value respect for the law, and 91% value gender equality. Canadians are proud of our social safety net and putting the community ahead of the individual. While we continue to uphold these shared values, new policies will favour a society that more easily integrates new cultures and beliefs.
The survey showed less agreement among Canadians over the value of ethnic and cultural diversity, linguistic duality, and respect for aboriginal culture. However, we are learning to respect all peoples and religions, and our multiculturalism and inclusivity are among the reasons Canada is now a great place for new immigrants. In fact, in 2020, Canada was ranked #1 'most desirable' place to live in the world, based on the number of people looking to relocate to Canada. We can proudly wave our flag and be optimistic about our future.
My novel Forgotten Followers: from Broken to Bold, shows Jesus reaching out to foreigners and marginalized people, accepting them into the family of God regardless of the way the world sees them. God sees the heart. Jesus provides a model for us to follow, showing us how to accept and love other people.