Canadian Consulting Engineer

Face to face with prejudice

These days, we've become extra sensitive to the issues of racial and cultural stereotyping. Following the lead of politicians and editorial writers, we are careful not to attach blame to Muslims or Ar...

December 1, 2001  By Bronwen Ledger

These days, we’ve become extra sensitive to the issues of racial and cultural stereotyping. Following the lead of politicians and editorial writers, we are careful not to attach blame to Muslims or Arabs for the tragedy in New York and Washington. Instead we recognize that these were the actions of extremist individuals who were motivated by a twisted and unrepresentative view of their religion.

In a multicultural society like Canada, these are good lessons in tolerance and understanding for us to heed every day. By coincidence — in articles planned well before the terrorist attacks — two writers in this magazine deal with the issues of racial and cultural difference as they exist in the context of the consulting engineering firm.

Lionel Laroche’s article (page 39) points out that engineering firms are so diverse today, they are often nicknamed the “United Nations.” He goes on to show how people’s ethnic backgrounds will subtly weave their way into tensions and conflicts around the meeting room table.

David Tay’s essay on the experience of the black engineer in North America (page 33) is more personal, and more deeply touching. I grew up in the birthplace of William Wilberforce, the early 19th-century English politician who led the cause for the abolition of slavery through the British Parliament. Childhood visits with my parents to the Wilberforce Museum in Hull inducted me early into the terrible sufferings of African slaves during the 400 years of European colonialism. We would wander through the elegant Georgian architecture of Wilberforce’s quiet riverside mansion — and gaze up at the horrific exhibits. Mounted around the walls were whips, three or four inches in diameter, that were used on the backs of slaves, branding irons that marked people like cattle, and plans of slave trading ship holds. The drawings showed bodies packed tight together in rows, the “cargo” chained and not able to move for weeks on end. Half the people died on the voyage.

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When I describe those museum visits now, 40 years later, the evidence I saw of man’s inhumanity to man seems even more shocking. And remembering those crimes, I personally believe that there should be financial reparations made, as was being proposed at the controversial conference on race relations held at the United Nations a few months ago.

Some will be offended to be reminded of the dark days of slavery — including the descendants of those kept in bondage. They would rather we forget that part of history, believing it only perpetuates the racial stereotype. They are anxious to move on, to gain at last that highest possible plateau of civilization where all people truly do treat each other with respect and honour and justice.

Since Martin Luther King, Jr.’s walk in 1963 and the rise of the U.S. Civil Rights movement, North Americans have moved a long way along the road to that bright new vision. Unfortunately, though, as Tay shows, we haven’t yet reached the destination. To do so we must — minority as well as majority groups — continually remind ourselves that each person we encounter is first and foremost a unique individual, rather than see them as a member of a racial or cultural group. To keep our eyes focused on the person before us, rather than the collective, is the only way to rise from the boggy mire of mutual prejudice, suspicion and fear.

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