As far as I know, Canada is the only country that divides its population into "visible minorities" and "non-visible minorities." In this post, I describe how, and why, Canada counts people this way.
A person's visible minority status is ascertained by asking:
"Is this person....White, South Asian (e.g., East Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, etc.), Chinese, Black, Filipino, Latin American, Arab, Southeast Asian (e.g., Vietnamese, Cambodian, Malaysian, Laotian, etc.), West Asian (e.g., Iranian, Afghan, etc.), Korean, Japanese, Other - Specify" (Source: National Household Survey):
Respondents may choose more than one option, or provide a write-in answer. The responses are coded as follows:
- white = not visible minority
- white and West Asian, Arab, or Latin American = not visible minority
- West Asian, Arab or Latin American (as a single response) = visible minority
- any other response = visible minority
Lest anyone object to being asked about whether or not they are white, the National Household Surveyexplains why this information is being gathered:
This information is collected in accordance with the Employment Equity Act and its Regulations and Guidelines to support programs that promote equal opportunity for everyone to share in the social, cultural, and economic life of Canada.
The Employment Equity Act is a piece of legislation that aims to promote equal opportunities for members of four "designated groups": women, people of Aboriginal origin, those with disabilities, and members of "visible minority" populations. The Employment Equity Act is the source of Canada's official definition of visible minorities: “persons, other than Aboriginal persons, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour.”
Why this particular definition of visible minority? I can trace it back as far as the 1984 Abella Report, formally known as "Equality in Employment: A Royal Commission Report." (See the links below to download a copy of the report). But it does not originate there. The Abella Commission's Terms of Reference were: "to explore the most efficient, effective, and equitable means of promoting equality in employment for four groups: women, native people, disabled persons, and visible minorities." The inclusion of the term "visible minorities" in those Terms of Reference suggests that it was in use prior to the Commission, but where, and by whom, I am unable to discover.
The Abella Commission, being tasked with identifying barriers to the employment of visible minorities, had to come up with some workable definition of the concept. Their Report describes how, and why, they came up with the definition they did:
Visible minorities were defined by this Commission for purposes of the questionnaire requesting data from the designated crown corporations as "non-whites". It is undoubtedly possible to define this category by country of origin, by race, or by some other criterion, but arguably it is as reasonable to approach this ambiguous categorization from the point of view of what problem was meant to be addressed. The issue was to attempt to ascertain the extent to which people who were visibly non-white were excluded thereby from employment opportunities available to whites.
It seems then, that the Commission defined visible minorities as "non-whites" because it was reasonably easy to collect data on how many non-whites were in Crown Corporation's workforces.
At the time, such an approach might have seemed good enough. The figure below shows the evolution of Canada's population from 1881 to 1971. Canada's Asiatic population is represented on the graph as a tiny purple sliver; the slightly larger, baby-blue "other origins" group includes those who did not state their ethnicity, Aboriginal Canadians, as well as people of "Negro" or West Indian ancestry. It really was like "That '70s Show" - right down to the avocado-coloured appliances.
The demographic character of Canada began to change in 1976, with the introduction of a points-based immigration system, which admitted newcomers on the basis of their skills, regardless of race or ethnic origin. Yet at the time that the Abella Report was written, the only two non-European ethnic groups of any size were Chinese- and Afro-Canadians. Even these groups were tiny: according to my calculations from the Census public use microfile, in 1981 just 1.2 percent of Canada's population was Chinese, and 0.6 percent were Black. No other non-European ethnic group was big enough to list individually (The smallest ethnic group listed was Czech/Slovak with 0.28 percent of the population).
When 90 or 95 percent of the population is of European descent, it may be easy to spot non-whites. Yet, even when the Abella report was written, the authors realized that "non-white" was a problematic way of identifying people who face discrimination in the workforce. I cannot say it any better than the authors of the report do:
It is by no means a definitive approach. Some non-whites face more serious employment barriers than others. Although it is unquestionably true that many non-whites face employment discrimination, the degree to which different minorities suffer employment and economic disadvantages varies significantly by group and by region. To combine all non-whites together as visible minorities for the purpose of devising systems to improve their equitable participation, without making distinctions to assist those groups in particular need, may deflect attention from where the problems are greatest. In devising ameliorative programs, therefore, the emphasis should be on concentrating efforts on those minorities in those regions where the need has been demonstrated. (Emphasis added).
At present, data available from Statistics Canada are not sufficiently refined by race or region as to occupational segregation, income levels, job promotions, or other indicators of disadvantage to make determinative judgements as to which visible minorities appear not to be in need of employment equity programs. Any such exclusionary judgements should be made not only on the basis of better data, but also on the basis as well of consultations with the relevant minorities.
We now have data to prove what the Abella Commission suspected: some "visible minority" groups are highly successful, out-earning their counter-parts of British origin. If the purpose of identifying visible minorities is to counter-act discrimination in the labour market, why are we including highly successful groups in the visible minority count?
The answer is, in part inertia - change takes effort, and no one cares enough. The politics of deciding which visible minority groups are in need of ameliorative programs, and which groups are successful enough to stand in their own, would be toxic. No one in their right mind would want to go there.
Another reason for sticking with the established "visible minority" categorization is that, having being used for a quarter-century, it has gained a life of its own. The Statistics Canada visible minority counts are now a standard measure of Canada's ethnic and cultural diversity. They feed into newspaper stories about white flight or about immigrant foods "with names I can't even pronounce."
Unfortunately, the white/non-white distinction never was a particularly good way of measuring visible minority status, and it gets worse with each year that passes.
One piece of evidence that the distinction between "white" and "non-white" is arbitrary and artificial is that Canada and the US count "whites" in entirely different ways. The 2010 US Census question on race is reproduced on the right.
Several of the categories on the National Household Survey questionnaire, notably Arab, West Asian or Latin American are not included in the US Census categorization. Members of these groups can either write in their race, or chose whatever racial categories they feel are most appropriate. It is impossible to know precisely how, say, Arab-Americans answer this Census question, but it is certain that it produces a different racial categorization of the Arabic population than Canada's visible minorities question, which specifically lists "Arab" as a possible response. The fact that the identification of people as white or non-white varies from place to place, and is sensitive to the precise way that questions are asked, suggests that it is a far from objective measure.
A second piece of evidence of the arbitrariness of the visible minority categorization comes from comparing the responses to the Canadian census question on visible minority status with responses to the ethnicity question, as is done in the table on the left (thanks to SimonC for suggesting this idea).
Groups that were more than 98 percent non-visible-minority, such as British or Aboriginal, were excluded from the table, as were groups that were less than 2 percent non-visible-minority, such as Japanese. The table shows, for example, that 21.3 percent of Arabs (excluding Lebanese-Arabs) identified themselves as white, or both white and Arab, hence are not included in Canada's "visible minority" count. That some people of a given ethnic origin are considered to be white, while others with the same ethnic origin are considered visible minorities shows how subjective and culturally constructed the idea of visible minorities is.
The sociological literature has largely abandoned terms such as "visible minority" and race. This passage, from Changing Race, Clara Rodriguez's book on Latinos in the US census, explains why. Racial identities are subjective and socially constructed. What is "white" and what is "non-white" depends on context:
Even in Latino contexts, I saw some people as lighter or darker, depending on certain factors such as their clothes, occupation, and families. I suspect that others saw me similarly, so that in some contexts, I was very light, in others darker, and in still others about the same as everyone else. Even though my color stayed the same, the perception and sometimes its valuation changed.
The National Household Survey question on visible minority status could, perhaps, be rescued, by adding another option: "It's complicated." It's complicated would cover the complex racial identities of young multi-ethnic second and third generation Canadians. Its complicated would describes a Muslim woman's transformation from invisible to visible minority the minute she puts on a hijab. It's complicated would describe the ways that subtle markers - a person's name, address, accent, clothing, educational choices - affect the way others perceive them. But even that might not be enough.
An alternative might be to ditch the entire concept of visible minorities, and simply categorize people on the basis of their ethnic ancestry, as, for example, Australia does. When three quarters of young Canadians fall into one of the four Employment Equity "designated groups" - women, members of visible minorities, people with disabilities and Aboriginal Canadians - one has to ask: is the concept of "designated groups" useful any more? How about focusing on good hiring practices, ensuring a fair workplace for everyone, and helping those who are seriously disadvantaged, whoever those may be.
This is hardly an original thought. This is what the Abella Commission had to say on the subject:
Focusing on visible minority groups through employment equity programs does not relieve society of the responsibility to eradicate discrimination for all minority groups. It does not cancel the duty to provide for immigrants adequate language and skill training, bias free mechanisms for determining the validity of foreign credentials and experience, and vigilant regard for whether employers are unreasonably making Canadian experience a job requirement. Nor does it absolve the school systems of their responsibility to ensure that minorities - visible or otherwise - are not being streamed routinely into certain types of courses. These are examples of the kind of measures that should be undertaken in any event to protect Canada's minorities from arbitrarily exclusionary systems.
The Abella Report was submitted in 1984. Thirty years later we are still talking about credential recognition, unreasonable Canadian experience requirements, education and language training.
Canada has changed so much, and yet so little.