Breaking the silence of racism

When we give sexist and racist comments and stereotypes a free pass on our farms and in our daily lives, we’re guilty of perpetuating them

Breaking the silence of racism

Too often we let racist, sexist or homophobic comments slide because it’s awkward or uncomfortable to call them out. But as human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Here’s how Bronwynne Wilton, a Fergus, Ont. consultant who focuses on sustainability and innovation in agri-food and rural systems, puts it: “As we tell our children in grade school, being a passive bystander is just as harmful as being the bully.”

Most importantly, promoting a diverse, inclusive and equitable society is simply “the right thing to do,” says Wilton, who has heard disrespectful comments targeting women and racialized folks at ag meetings.

Ag businesses and rural communities also suffer when we turn a blind eye to intolerance on our farms, in our businesses and in our communities. “We risk losing talent from the industry and having a less vibrant sector,” says Wilton. We risk turning away young people from the industry, she continues. “Young people see a different world. They are the future of the industry and they want to move issues forward.”

The ag industry also benefits from having more perspectives at the table. We might connect better with the consumer base which is becoming increasingly diverse, says Wilton. Census data shows that almost a quarter of Canadians are visible minorities.

According to the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council, many farms are exploring ways to attract newcomers to Canada or are hiring foreign workers to fill their labour shortage. “But to attract the right people, you need to create a welcoming and inclusive workplace — a place where people of different genders, religions, nationalities, sexual orientation, languages and abilities can feel comfortable, respected and valued.”

Anne-Marie Pham. photo: Supplied

Anne-Marie Pham, senior director of learning and knowledge solutions at the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion, agrees. CCDI is a national charity that provides tools, training and resources to support workplaces across Canada to address diversity, inclusion, accessibility and equity. “If your organization is not responsive then you are not maximizing the talent pool of skills from all potential candidates and are not reflective of the diverse needs of Canadians who are your customers. There is a financial and social imperative to address diversity and inclusion.”

One of the reasons we may stay silent when we hear someone being targeted with disrespectful, exclusionary and racist comments is that we don’t know how to handle it. However, it’s important to realize there is no one right answer, says Pham. “Every situation is unique. You have to navigate each situation on an individual basis and find your voice at the right time.”

Pham offers the following guidance for these situations. First of all, take a deep breath and centre yourself before responding. Consider the offending person’s intent. Was it made out of ignorance? As well, if we are too quick to call out the behaviour, the offender may go into defensive mode and instead of actively listening they will find ways to defend their position, she says.

“It is better to find ways to call them in to conversation, to have meaningful dialogue as opposed to wanting to be right,” says Pham. “Speak your truth, your perspective within a space that feels like it’s a dialogue, not a debate. Encourage everyone to be open-minded… we all have biases but we can grow and learn from the experience as opposed to defending positions.”

Pham offers some additional options: You can interrupt a conversation by saying “I think that’s a stereotype” or alternatively, you can speak to the person afterwards.

When the person who has been harmed is present, you need to be sensitive and respectful of them. If you have a relationship with that person and know that they are comfortable with your speaking out as an ally, that is a different scenario than if you do not know the person who has experienced the harm, Pham explains.

Selam Debs. photo: Supplied

Selam Debs, an anti-racist educator and business owner in Waterloo, Ont., says it gets easier to have these challenging conversations if you first self-educate on the issues. By “doing the reading, the researching and gaining the knowledge” to develop “a critical thinking lens,” you will be able to share from your own experience. “You can say, ‘I’ve been listening to the stories and reading about those impacted and the thing you’ve said is harmful to people of colour, women, those with disabilities, etc.’”

While fear of saying the wrong thing often keeps us from speaking up, Debs cautions that we have to accept that “it will never be done perfectly” but that “staying silent is to be complicit.”

“We can use this awakening, this awareness to create critical change in society,” says Debs. “When we have an understanding of how we got to be where we are, we can work at unlearning those things and learning how to take action.”

It is not enough to merely be “non-racist,” which is passive, agrees Pham. We need to go further and be anti-racist which is to “develop your capacity to apply an anti-racist lens to any situation so that you can critically analyze what is being said and when you need to challenge the status quo.”

“Especially if you are a white person, you can learn how to be an active ally which is a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency and accountability with marginalized people,” says Pham.

Everyone has a role to play in building an inclusive society, continues Pham. Leaders can create a culture where everyone belongs. They see diversity as assets and by sharing an inspired vision and ensuring accountability at all levels they enable an organization to be more innovative, she says.

Wilmot Township councillor Angie Hallman took the lead role in introducing an Indigenous land acknowledgement which was approved by council in this rural township near Kitchener, Ont., in May 2019. Indigenous land acknowledgments were one of the 94 calls to action in the 2015 federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission report which urged all levels of government to make efforts to repair the harm caused by residential schools and to move forward with reconciliation.

Hallman says she became aware of the need to take positive action as she learned about the truth behind Canada’s history. With the guidance of local Indigenous leaders, she crafted a meaningful statement that recognized the First Peoples who occupied the land in the past, our collective responsibility to each other and to Mother Earth, and our connection to this land where we live, learn and work together as a community.

Debs offers suggestions for how we can all take an active role, becoming allies and accomplices to those who are oppressed:

  • Make use of resources to become more educated and to start thinking differently and asking critical questions.
  • Advocate from where you are. Talk to your family: What books are we reading? What TV shows and podcasts are we consuming? Have conversations around the dinner table. Talk to your children.
  • Tell people you don’t condone harmful racist, sexist or homophobic comments.
  • Speak up at community and organizational meetings. Invite speakers and pass the microphone to amplify the voices of those doing this work.
  • Look at your farm’s HR policies around equity, diversity and inclusion.

“We become the change we want to see within ourselves, our work spaces, and in relationship to others and in the community,” Debs says.

This is not about politics, she emphasizes. “It’s about empathy, compassion and connection… the root is love and community care. It’s about caring for those who are hurting and suffering.”


About the author


Helen Lammers-Helps

Freelance Writer

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