Kusi-Appiah: What is systemic racism?

Andy Kusi-Appiah

“Systemic racism is not about individual attitudes, it is about the system.”
A. Kusi-Appiah, QE scholar, 2019/2020

“I don’t care about whether you have hate in your heart or how much you sympathize with my plight…What I do care about is if you turn a blind eye to the systems that hurt me.” (Elsa kaka, June 2020). 

Imagining racism?:

On the eve of Canada day (Confederation, circa July 1, 1867) my good friend Kwame Serebour (laughing stone) called me via phone from Fankyeneko in faraway Ghana (Matthew Dacosta’s motherland) to ask why anyone would deny that racism actually exist in Canada when there is a mountain of evidence from the 14th century up until today. This shows without a doubt that racism is alive in Canada. Well, I had no response for him until I dug deep into Frederick Nietzsche’s philosophy. Nietzsche said: “…The person who cannot set himself down on the crest of the moment, forgetting everything from the past…will never know what happiness is.” (Nietzsche, 1874). According to Nietzsche, in order for any man to live a happy life, he (it is usually a ‘he’) must forget about the past – he must forget history. And behold, the settler colonialist and his surrogates (they may be non-white) have taken this admonishing seriously, hence their persistent denial that racism is even a ‘thing’ in Canada.

Last month’s protest of police brutality against Blacks and Indigenous people (Black Lives Matter) will go down in history as a land mark event. It is also heartwarming to know that the Prime Minister of Canada stands in solidarity with the Black community. In addition, the NDP leader’s resolve to call out racism is another welcome gesture. As you may be aware, the leader of the third party in Canada, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, was thrown out of the Canadian parliament after calling a Bloc Quebecois MP a racist. Unfortunately, we tend to deny that racism has ever existed in Canada, but a big chunk of our history and current existence is anything but anti-racist.

In Canada, it is an open secret that the ‘mainstream’ has always paid lip service to the use of the word ‘racist’ because it causes them stress – – it interferes with their happy lives. In 1995, Premier Gary Filmon, then premier of Manitoba, characterized the use of the word ‘racist’ as “discriminatory, inflammatory & irresponsible.” He said this in response to MLA Oscar Lathlin’s assertion that the system that had dehumanized him and had erased his Cree mother tongue was racist. Then in 1982, a similar event in parliament followed the same script when NDP MP Margaret Mitchell got heckled and laughed at over her domestic abuse speech by male MPs.

History also show that Canada upheld slavery for 200 years. Slaves were sold at St. Lawrence market in Toronto, and we can still see some signs of slavery in our cities today. For example, Jarvis Street in Toronto is named after Samuel Jarvis, one of the “founding fathers” of Toronto. Samuel Jarvis was a slave holder who fought for the right of all white men to be able to legally own slaves in Upper Canada. One of Jarvis’ escaped slaves who was caught and imprisoned chose to stay in prison and be beaten on a daily basis because she said it was better than the treatment she received in Jarvis’  household (Robertson, J. R., 1894; Errett, J., 2016). When slavery was abolished in Canada, Loyalists were paid by the British for their loss of property, but slaves received nothing but small, infertile land, far from any city centre (Errett, J., 2016). Canada continue to honour Egerton Ryerson, who inspired the Residential School systems that victimized and traumatized Indigenous people even to this day.

Twenty-five years later (in the second decade of the 21st century), little has changed, and Jagmeet Singh’s expulsion from parliament is another one of those stories which fits the mainstream’s modus operandi – to them, racism and systemic racism does not exist because an acknowledgement of it only causes stress and gets in the way of a happy life. The mantra is very simple — deny, deny, deny – double down and ridicule the existence of systemic discriminatory practices!!

Dreaming of solutions:

I have to pause and put on record that it is not necessarily that every single person is racist, for systemic racism is not about individuals, it is about the way in which society has been structured. Systemic racism refers to exclusionary policies and practices that are entrenched in our institutions. The first thing that need to be made clear is that systemic racism is here in Canada, and it has existed here for eons. It is heartwarming to know that the Prime Minister of Canada solidarizes with demonstrators of Black Lives Matter, and even took a ‘knee’ to demonstrate his support. But the challenge is that most people have decided to be oblivious to it or feel uncomfortable hearing about it. We must not allow people who put their personal comfort ahead of everyone else’s comfort to control the discourse. The Black community must own the narrative; we must control the narrative because as George Orwell puts it: “…who controls the past controls the future…who controls the present controls the past.” (George Orwell, 1947).

So where must we start?

First, we must demand an infusion of our educational system with mandatory courses on anti-racism/diversity education:

i) The province of Ontario must legislate to have mandatory antiracism/diversity/Indigenous issues courses in all schools (primary to tertiary levels).

ii) The province of Ontario must legislate to have mandatory courses on antiracism for all potential teachers of all schools (primary to tertiary levels).

As eloquently stated by Dr. Gillian Wallace:

“There is (currently) a huge problem with the Bachelor of Education program at the University of Ottawa. There is no course focused on anti-racism education – the only course that comes close is an elective course (that may or may not be offered in a particular year), and as educators, we have a duty as individuals in positions of power to be properly educated on our own biases, privilege and how not only be not racist, but actively anti-racist. It is irresponsible to assume that each person will do the reading/learning about racism in Canada (and how to be anti-racist) on their own time. We need checks and balances.” (Gillian Wallace, June 18, 2020)

The second thing is that we must demand the reform of all public institutions (especially our police forces) to rid them of all racist tendencies.

Third, we must demand that all public institutions (including the police service) be mandated to run quarterly antiracism education courses for all its employees. This should be part of employees’ performance management schedules.

Fourth, and most importantly, we must demand the reform of our police services as a matter of urgency. There are too many issues of unnecessary police brutality against innocent Black and Indigenous people in Ontario. Almost every Black adult male (regardless of educational background or social standing) can narrate an unpleasant interaction with the police in Ontario. Unfortunately police brutality/police excessive use of force/police abuse almost always go unpunished, and this emboldens them to repeat such actions regularly.

The Black community’s responsibility:

We must begin to understand and believe that antiracism education/awareness is an effective means of keeping these issues alive. Yes, it will make some people uncomfortable but that is what is needed at the moment, because Black lives do matter and we are here to stay (we have been here since my ancestor Mathieu da Costa, a free man who travelled with Samuel de Champlain [1603-1608] as a translator for the explorer Sieur de Monts) so we need to bring the issues to those who are wont to deny that they exist so that they may join us in eradicating such.

When it comes to the implementation of policies put in place to deal with systemic racism, the Black community must lead the charge and put pressure on the powers that be to do the right thing. It is not enough to have policies and legislation in place, it is up to us to demand answers because if we relax and expect things to change, it will never happen. 

I call on the Black community to constantly demand accountability from the government and all its institutions.  It is only through our vigilance that this ‘cancer’ will be eliminated. All hands must be on deck at all times.


Andy Kusi-Appiah is an adjunct professor at Carleton University. His interests are on the impact of social and environmental changes on the health and well-being of vulnerable groups (e.g., 2nd generation Canadians of African descent).

Pin It


  1. Désiré Ndongo Il July 1, 2020 at 11:05 am - Reply

    Brother and friend Andy. What a wonderful article! What i really love here is the fact that you want victims to hold the narrative and the debate. You want us to position in our allies mind that it is not enough to claim that they are not racists but they must be anti-racist. Victims must use those words which are inconfortable. Yes…..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *