After years of working on Toronto’s Bay Street, Karlyn Percil was burnt out — not from the demanding workload, but from the subtle racial slights from colleagues that had finally taken their emotional toll.
Percil, originally from St. Lucia, said these microaggressions came in the form of derogatory comments about her accent, or expressions of surprise that she was smart and articulate, and presented herself well.
“I had panic attacks at work. I was crying myself to sleep,” said Percil, who eventually left her investment banking job in 2017. “It takes a toll on you.”
And it’s something that many Canadians of colour have experienced. Indeed, a new study, Race Relations In Canada in 2019, conducted by Environics Institute For Survey Research, has found that one in five Canadians experiences discrimination regularly or from time to time.
Of those who experience racism, nearly 40 per cent said those incidents occur “on the street”; an equal number said they experience racial discrimination at work.
Subtle slights or insults
Some of that, according to the study, takes the form of day-to day experiences involving subtle slights or insults, such as being treated as being not as smart or mistaken for someone who serves others.
Percil, who was a senior project manager in international banking, said there were times when it was assumed she was at a meeting to take the minutes.
Meanwhile, other colleagues, she said, wanted to get rid of their accents and take classes to try “to learn to speak like everybody else.”
She was also self-conscious about being considered too loud, and would be reluctant to share ideas with passion “for fear of being called ‘the angry black woman.’
“It’s exhausting … the anxiety sets in. The fear of saying the wrong thing. You find yourself speaking less, you find yourself holding back,” Percil said.
‘It’s a constant battle’
Even today, as a motivational speaker and the founder of SisterTalk Group, a network aimed at mentoring women of colour, Percil said she experiences similar prejudices. For example, when she walks into a room to speak at an event, organizers rarely assume she’s the keynote speaker.
“It is a constant battle that we have to go through. It’s not just once.”
Shakil Choudhury, a Toronto-based consultant who provides diversity and unconscious-bias training to police and teachers, said the more obvious egregious slurs are lessening in the workplace.
“The overt racist and the overt bigot is really, really hard to find. I don’t even think very many exist in the context of a lot of organizations,” he said.
“I think the stuff that happens in the workplace is actually way more subtle.”
It’s not unusual for women and people of colour to experience being cut off and not being heard when they’re at meetings, Choudhury said. As well, ideas expressed by them and by Indigenous people only get validated when they are mentioned by white people, he said.
“The micro is one of those things that if you’re not in a body that’s experiencing it, you’re not going to notice it.”
The survey bills itself as the first of its kind in Canada to look at race relations at a national population level and to examine Canadians’ experiences, attitudes and perceptions. It was conducted online between April 17 and May 6 with a sample of 3,111 Canadians 18 and over.
Keith Neuman, the lead researcher, said one of the unexpected results was that a significant proportion of Canadians across all racial groups acknowledged that racism is a reality in Canada.
“A significant proportion of white respondents say that as well. I think it’s notable, maybe a bit surprising, because sometimes there’s this notion that non-racialized Canadians don’t think there’s a problem.”
Lilian Ma, executive director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, which partnered with Environics for the study, said she wasn’t surprised by the results.
They are “what we’ve been hearing all along from racialized groups, talking about experiencing racism,” she said.
The survey is also important, she said, because it asked people about their experiences and perceptions of racism.
“And the results are consistent,” she said. “This is very comforting in the sense that people are telling you the truth and not just, ‘Oh, they are just whiners.’ So this confirms that racism is a reality in Canada.”
However, the survey also found optimism. For example, six in 10 say they are very (14 per cent) or somewhat (46 per cent) optimistic that all racialized people in Canada will be treated with the same respect as other people, in their lifetime.
“The fact that you realize that there is a problem and the fact that you are optimistic about that we can improve on it says a lot,” Ma said.