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Women's Different Experiences

The Economics of Race

As this Women & Economy website makes clear, women's experiences of the economy are very different from men's. But gender is not the only factor that plays a major part in one's place in the economy. Race and racism are other important determinants.

This article discusses experiences of racialized women but not Aboriginal women. To learn more about that story visit Aboriginal women and the economy.

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What is racism?
Like sexism, racism is a form of structural and inter-personal discrimination. It is a prejudice that says that people of certain colours are more deserving of rights and privileges than people of other colours. In most of the world, racism means that white people experience certain rights and privileges that people of other colours cannot take for granted. These privileges are social, cultural, legal, economic, and physical. Privileges whites enjoy include ease of access and mobility, knowing they will be represented in the media, and being part of institutions and systems that favour them. An easy working definition of racism is: prejudice + (systemic) power = racism.

What does racism look like?
Sometimes racism is very blatant. For example, white people owning black slaves is a very obvious outcome of racism. But often racism is very subtle. Looks and nods that tell people that they are inferior are common all over the world. Racism takes many forms and is experienced on an individual as well as a group level. It is manifested through individual people as well as whole systems, such as our education system.

Here are a few subtle and not so subtle examples of racism:

  • A society in which racialized people are twice as likely to live in poverty than non-racialized people.
  • Children making fun of children who have darker skin or different hair than theirs.
  • The fact that countries in black-majority sub-Saharan Africa experience a disproportionate share of deaths from HIV/AIDS.
  • A Customs Officer spending triple the time checking the paperwork of a Canadian of Arabic descent in comparison to a Canadian of European descent. (This is called racial profiling.)
  • Immigration practice that speeds through applications of people from wealthy countries and stalls on applications of people from poorer countries.
  • An automatic assumption that the perpetrator of a crime was a racialized person.

Many people find ways to excuse racism blaming incidents of discrimination on other factors. "It's because she wasn't dressed right not because she's black." Or, "It's because he didn't have the qualifications not because he's Arabic." Other people point out individuals who break the stereotypes arguing that race is not an excuse. "Well he became a doctor," or, "She was elected to parliament." Situations are never simple and there are always people who stand outside the statistics. However, it is important to recognize an overall global picture that gives white people privileges that people of other colours do not receive.

Effects of racism
Like disability, the most pervasive effect of racism is poverty. In Canada this means that the poverty rates among racialized people (people from outside the historically dominant white population) are disproportionately high. In fact, the incidence of poverty for racialized women is double that of non-racialized women. Women of colour have a 37% chance of living in poverty while the rate for white women is 'only' 18%.1

In the global context, monetary wealth is concentrated in countries with a predominantly white population. Most of the poorest countries in the world are found in sub-Saharan Africa, a region of the world still reeling from the effects of historic colonization and now burdened with present-day colonization in the form of crippling debt loads. The fact is that wherever you are born in the world, you have a much greater chance of growing up poor if your skin is a colour other than white.

Double wage gap
In Canada one of the major reasons why racialized Canadians are much more likely to live in poverty is because of differences in pay. Racialized people, on average, earn significantly less than other people. Racialized women are at a major disadvantage because they experience the wage gap twice - for gender and for race. The average annual income for a woman of colour in Canada is $16, 621, almost $3000 less than the average for other women, almost $7000 less than for racialized men,2 and nearly $15,000 less than for other men. Women aged 15 and older who immigrated to Canada in the last decade had an average income of only $16,700 in 2000, around $6,000 less than the figure for both the overall female immigrant population, as well as Canadian born women.3

Citizenship and immigration centre signThese pay differentials are a result of many factors. But perhaps the greatest of these is because racialized Canadians tend to be segregated in low-end jobs while at the same time being under-represented in highly-paid jobs. Racialized women in particular find themselves occupying an unequal percentage of non-standard jobs including a "disproportionate concentration in part-time, temporary, and homework"4 - all low-paying, low-status kinds of employment. As well, racialized women are more likely to work part-time as opposed to full-time.5 They also experience a higher incidence of unemployment: 15.3% compared to 9.4% for other women.6

What makes these statistics and their accompanying stories and faces particularly alarming is the fact that racialized Canadians tend to be better educated than other Canadians, in part because of Canada's increasingly stringent immigration policies. As of 2001, 21% of racialized women had university degrees compared to 14% of other women.7

Evelyne at schoolRacism at work
So what's going on? Why do racialized Canadians earn so much less and occupy so many of our lowest-paying jobs? One reason is simply workplace discrimination. While many organizations and corporations have adopted equal-opportunity employment practices, many more have yet to do so. Evelyne (see Evelyne's story), a recent university graduate expects to experience this herself when she enters the workforce in the next couple of years. "It's a given," she says. "The first thing they see is black." Evelyne cites her own experience of showing up for a job interview:

You see people's reactions sometimes when you come in for an interview and they didn't expect to see a black woman. Maybe you didn't sound like that on the phone. But you see their whole demeanour change and they don't even have to say anything. You just know it in the back of your head. You can almost predict the outcome.
Unfortunately, racism is alive and well in our workplaces creating sometimes subtle but no less challenging barriers.

Another challenge that many racialized Canadians experience, especially recent immigrants, is the lack of accreditation for degrees and qualifications earned overseas. For years, Canada has relied on recent immigrants to do the work that other Canadians did not want to do, and the same is true today. Stories abound of teachers, nurses, doctors, and other professionals who are delivering pizzas, working as live-in nannies, and mopping floors in Canada. Some immigrants even go so far as to hide their credentials in order to get jobs for which they are vastly overqualified because that's all they can get.8

Lynn picking up the slack from Canada's immigration policiesLynn (see Lynn's story) has experienced this frustration herself. Her Mexican-born husband was forced to completely redo his medical residency in order to get Canadian qualifications. The sole program available to him was not funded so he also needed to work full-time. As a result, Lynn was required to take on the lion's share of the responsibilities for raising their young children, one of whom has a disability requiring extra care and attention. These demands left almost no room for Lynn's own education and career aspirations. She felt that she was forced to personally pay the price of racism in Canada's immigration policies. In the meantime Canadian society is missing out on much of the skills, creativity, and energy of both Lynn and her husband, not to mention the tax dollars they could have generated if allowed to participate in a more meaningful way in the paid workforce.

Race and global economics
While the resources of Canada are not shared equally among Canadians of all skin colours, the same is true in the global context. A deadly combination of racism and greed set the stage for colonization. Although this was hardly the advent of racism, it did begin a 500-year process of European plunder. Much of the bounty of the world's wealthiest countries was stolen from the colonies. The enslavement of African peoples was a key factor in the development of American economies, yet today Africa experiences a massive equality deficit. At the same time, Aboriginal peoples were displaced from their lands and livelihoods by arriving immigrants - an injustice which continues until today. (For more visit Aboriginal women and the economy.)

The colonization of the racialized world is perpetuated today through economic globalization and staggering debt. As the market economy makes its way across the globe, wealthy countries are finding all sorts of ways to exploit the labour and resources of the rest of the world. And still today, trillions of dollars of resources including diamonds, oil, and timber, continue to be taken out of resource-rich African countries like Congo, Nigeria, and Sudan, with little or no payment to peoples to whom these resources belong. (For more on the deep economic injustices that divide our world and the alternatives you can promote visit the Globalization section of this website.) Lastly, the drain on Southern countries continues today as those countries pay to educate their citizens only to have many of them immigrate to wealthier countries.

What can I do?
A good place to start to unlearn racist ideology and practice is to fill in the gaps in your own education. Learn about the history of your country and the world and how racism has been a part of that history. Find out about your own ethnic roots and how they have influenced your identity. Find ways to talk with others about what you have learned and spend time listening to others' stories too.

Be aware of your own prejudices and be open to hearing how you can change your behaviour and language. Make sure that the organizations and workplaces of which you are a part accurately include and represent people of colour. Take part in anti-racist and white privilege workshops or organize sessions yourself. Challenge others on racist jokes and stereotypes. If you are white, recognize your privilege and refuse to accept special treatment when it is offered to you.

Find out about movements that work to right past injustices such as the African repatriation movement. Demand that companies and governments adopt equity-hiring practices. Find ways to work with others towards a world in which all peoples receive their rightful share. Racism is deeply engrained in all of us and in our cultures and societies. It is a long road to healing so the time to start is now.

1 Karen Hadley. "And we still ain't satisfied: Gender Inequality in Canada. A Status Report for 2001." Centre for Social Justice and the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. And Marika Morris. "Women in Poverty: A Fact Sheet." Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW). Updated 2005. Available here.
2 Marika Morris. "Women in Poverty: A Fact Sheet." Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW). Updated 2005. Available here.
Women in Canada: A Gender Based Statistical Report. Statistics Canada. Downloaded October 21, 2010.
4 Grace-Edward Galabuzi. "Canada's Creeping Economic Apartheid." May 2001. Centre for Social Justice.
5 Is Work Working for You? Canadian Labour Congress. Downloaded March 12, 2002.
6 Grace-Edward Galabuzi. "Canada's Creeping Economic Apartheid." May 2001. Centre for Social Justice.
7 Women in Canada: A Gender Based Statistical Report. Statistics Canada. Downloaded October 21, 2010.
8 Saraswati, Jeea. National Organization of Immigrant and Visible Minority Women of Canada. "Poverty and Visible Minority Women in Canada." Canadian Women's Studies. vol 20. no. 1. Spring 2000.

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