Can good people participate in systemic racism? In a word — yes.
That question was the title of Cecil Sveinson’s presentation on Monday — the first of five the city is sharing with its staff and Winnipeggers as part of an anti-racism education week.
“Anyone can participate in it and everybody does participate in systemic racism,” said Sveinson, the city’s manager of indigenous relations.
“Either you’re anti-racist in that you’re calling out racism … or you don’t and you’re complicit in the systemic racism. And if you’re white, you’re benefiting from it.”
The presentations are a collaboration between the citizen-involved human rights committee and the city’s equity and diversity department. They started Monday, since it’s the United Nations’ declarative International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, according to city staff.
The presentations were initially meant just for city staff, Sveinson said, but the human rights committee suggested they be streamed live and then posted on the city’s website.
Sveinson, who was hired last summer in the new Indigenous Relations position, focused his presentation on explaining how anyone can be guilty of furthering systemic racism.
“Once you start talking about racism, whether it’s systemic or personal, people shut down. It’s like when you call people out on racist behavior, but they take it immediately as an attack on who they are as a person,” he said.
“That was the purpose of the presentation, was to give real-world, concrete, historical and current examples of that. There are lots of good people who are participating and continue to participate in systemic racism.”
Sveinson said organizations — including the City of Winnipeg — have a responsibility not just to hire more people of colour, but create workplace cultures where racist practices or behaviors can be addressed without pushing people out. He used his 25 years of experience in the Winnipeg Police Service to demonstrate that idea.
“The Winnipeg Police Service was not prepared to have a bunch of Indigenous officers,” he said of the time he was first hired.
“The proof is that before we even hit the street, we lost five Indigenous classmates. And when I retired in April of 2017, of all those Indigenous officers … there was only me and two others still in the organization.”
Sveinson shared ways to be part of the solution, including pointing out racist acts when they happen and continuing to work toward reconciliation.
“You don’t have to lead us, but you don’t have to walk behind us either,” he said during his presentation. “We’re all in this together.”
Bowman hopes community has changed
Before Sveinson’s presentation, Mayor Brian Bowman commented on the work his administration has done to address the idea that Winnipeg is the most racist city in Canada — a title bestowed on the municipality in a Maclean’s article in 2015.
“Racism was and continues to be an issue in Winnipeg, and across our country,” said Bowman.
“I’m proud of the steps we’ve taken that have transformed our community from one questioning the very existence of racism to one that has acknowledged systemic racism and has become an active leader in combating it.”
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Bowman mentioned a handful of ways the city has worked to address racism including starting the human rights committee and adopting an indigenous accord.
City staff are also in the midst of putting together a diversity database to parse out just how well Winnipeg’s civil servants reflect its population. Staff told the city’s innovation committee last week that they’re still encouraging employees to disclose that information for the database.
Sveinson commends the mayor and the current council for this work, saying it can be “unpopular,” and that Manitoba had a premier that “was in denial that there was racism.” Now, he hopes the city can move from addressing racism to being an anti-racist organization.
“[I hope] they watch these lunchtime sessions, they learn something, and then they take it upon themselves to do that self-directed learning,” he said.
“It took us a long time to get where we are with racism as a society, so it’s going to take a long time for things to get better. But we have to have a starting point.”