Social norms and racism in Canada
Toronto, ON – June 24, 2022. A new national research project documents for the first time the social norms that govern how Canadians think about and act on different types of racial micro-aggressive actions directed at people who are Indigenous or Black.
The research is based on a national survey of 6,600 Canadians across the country, conducted online by the Environics Institute for Survey Research in February and March 2022. This is the first study of its kind to measure the social norms that influence racist or anti-racist behaviour across a population.
Social norms are widely held expectations about what is and is not acceptable or appropriate behaviour in a particular situation. Such norms are unspoken rules about how to behave, and play a key role in how racist behaviour happens because they set powerful boundaries that either encourage or restrain how people act toward others who are seen to be different. This makes social norms an important dimension to consider in understanding how racism happens and how it can be reduced. Social norms are part of the “connective tissue” between systemic racism and the actions of individuals.
Key findings from the research include the following:
- A significant minority of Canadians have personally witnessed, or know someone who has seen, each of 12 types of racist actions directed toward Indigenous or Black people within their community or social circles. Most believe such actions to be personally or morally wrong, but are less certain whether others they know would agree with them or would speak up to say something to the person committing the offence. This demonstrates the social norms restraining these forms of racism are not currently well established across the population.
- Social norms are somewhat stronger in situations involving collective support for a bystander who chooses to intervene when witnessing a racist action directed at someone who is Indigenous or Black, such as telling an insensitive joke or harassing the individual in public.
- Among the 12 types of racist actions measured, social norms are somewhat stronger against racism expressed through social media posts, which are seen to be prevalent but widely considered to be unacceptable. Making claims that racism doesn’t exist in Canada or is overblown is also seen to be commonplace and socially unacceptable, but less likely to be situations in which people believe someone witnessing the transgression would speak up to confront the perpetrator. By comparison, appropriating Indigenous or Black attire (e.g., wearing a native headdress or blackface to a party) is believed to be relatively uncommon and not a big social transgression.
- The strength of the social norms measured is notably consistent across the Canadian population. Such norms tend to be a bit stronger among Canadian ages 18 to 29, women, and those with a university degree, but show little difference across regions and among urban and rural residents. Counter intuitively, the strength of social norms expressed by Indigenous and Black survey participants do not differ much from those of other Canadians as they apply to situations involving racist and anti-racist actions directed at their own people (even if they are more likely to consider such actions to be morally wrong).
Social norms can perpetuate the continued racism in day-to-day life in Canada but they can and do change, as has happened with the “denormalization” of smoking in public, comments Dr. Keith Neuman with the Environics Institute. Organizations involved with anti-racism efforts may find it valuable to look at how they can make progress through strengthening positive norms and weakening negative ones.
This research represents a first step in understanding the role that social norms play in how racism takes place in Canada, and how this knowledge can be meaningfully applied. The research:
- Demonstrates the important role that social context plays in the expression of racism in daily life, which is related to but distinct from institutional racism and individual prejudice;
- Provides important new metrics documenting the extent of racism in Canada overall and across different subgroups of the population; and
- Provides a foundation upon which to develop new tools for diagnosing social norms within specific settings and organizations, and developing effective interventions to strengthen positive social norms and weaken negative ones.
The research was supported through a contract for syndicated public opinion research with the Government of Canada and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.