• Amoriza Gunnink

Playing the race card: Perpetuating symbolic boundaries

If you were to survey the average person on the street in Canada about diversity, responses would reveal high tolerance overall. Racism, bias, and prejudice are hot topics our children and youth have grown up with and are sensitive to. Moreover, Canada was the first country in the world to adopt a multicultural policy. Extolling the virtues of tolerance, diversity, and multiculturalism is the sine qua non of a principled and civilized person in the West today. Yet, in our day-to-day affairs, patterns of deep-seated prejudice and bias surface, and overt and covert racism, symbolic violence, and micro-aggressions occasionally rear their ugly head. Why is this? Even as we quote Martin Luther King’s famous lines or appeal on the heart’ strings through sentimental memes, racism persists, and we can, quite unintentionally, promote what we purport to stand up against. And so while the events leading to the mass demonstrations in North America are tragic, we must dare to ask deeper questions beyond race and prejudice to understand how symbolic and social boundaries are constituted in society.

The creation of social boundaries (typically symbolic) refers to the ways members of different ethnic groups either extend or break down the lines of difference to align with other groups. These boundaries can be: socially closed, politically expedient (e.g., varied ethnic groups compete over resources), and culturally differentiated (e.g., boundaries are marked by customs, traditions, and certain cultural practices) (Carter, 2012). Feelings of “group threat,” “laissez fair” racism (the preference for sameness), or “racial fatigue” impede the expansion of social boundaries and instead maintain prejudice as some groups exercise superiority and proprietary claims to certain aspects of privilege and advantage in society (Carter, 2012). These expressions perpetuate the cycle of "Othering," and promote fear and suspicion of minority groups as different. Inequality becomes framed as a measure of deservedness, deficit thinking, or misplaced values. Thus the differential access to resources, processes, and opportunities is not accounted for in our democratic societies (Carter, 2012).

Social policies should forward critical and transformative discourse in the public sphere to leverage cultural flexibility, diversity, and equity to sustain socially cohesive communities and to address the complex and multidimensional challenges of globalization and geopolitical instability and division across the world. Starting at the individual level, each of us must acknowledge and take responsibility for the ways we have internalized and legitimized the contraction of symbolic and social boundaries. Together, we need to mobilize and dismantle unjust disparities and leave a positive legacy for our children of human dignity, equal opportunity, and cultural understanding in the social and public spheres.


Carter, P. (2012). Stubborn roots: Race, culture and inequality. New York: Oxford University Press