November 12, 2007

White and polite: A study of Canada's cultural legacy garners top award

Hamilton, ON -   A book that breaks the long silence in Canadian literary and cultural studies around Canadian whiteness and its role in the country’s colonial and literary roots has won the 2006-2007 Raymond Klibansky Prize. The award is given to the best English-language book in the humanities

Written by Daniel Coleman, professor and Canada Research Chair in Diversity in Canadian Literary Cultures, White Civility: The Literary Project of English Canada describes a deliberate imprinting of a British-based white culture on Canada during its formative years, specifically between 1850 and 1950.

Studying four allegorical themes that repeatedly appear in the literature of the day (popular journalism, literary works, mass-market bestsellers), Coleman traced a geneology of white culture that remains influential:

  • the early Loyalist twins: intended to show the moral superiority of Canadians in terms of our treatment of Natives and blacks, and to create a distinction between Canadians and Americans.
  • the Scottish orphan: the scrappy, enterprising kid; model of the Protestant work ethic of hard work, sacrifice, industry and capital investment.
  • the muscular Christian: often couched in a story of redemption, it focuses on reaching out to those in need; the beneficiaries of this assistance are always Native or black.
  • the maturing Colonial son: this character illustrated the breaking away from Britain, a rejection of the refined British class structure in favour of a more rugged independent masculinity.


“They were all presented as models of what the ideal Canadian should be,” says Coleman. “They were exclusively white and they conveyed a distinctly paternalistic attitude, a theme that continues to this day.”

“We’ve cultivated a sense of civility, politeness and tolerance but there’s a hard edge that we don’t like to look at, and that edge is consistently drawn at a racial border,” said Coleman. “Malcolm X got it right when he said that racism is like a Cadillac: there’s a new model every year. The reasons for excluding people, the logic of discrimination, shifts over time, but the people in the company headquarters remain the same.”

Often, the very notion of race studies produces an automatic assumption that it’s about the problems encountered by non-white people.  “White culture is a social category in itself,” says Coleman, “and one of its ways of staying in power is to avoid being studied and analyzed.”

He says the popular stance of professing colour-blindness is “a cop-out because it refuses to recognize the differences racial history has created. It pretends that someone’s history is nonexistent. The first step to changing traditional attitudes is to recognize that it’s not a level playing field: racial history has created and reinforced differences that people live with today.”

Coleman will receive his award on Parliament Hill on November 24.

McMaster University, a world-renowned, research-intensive university, fosters a culture of innovation, and a commitment to discovery and learning in teaching, research and scholarship. Based in Hamilton, the University, one of only four Canadian universities to be listed on the Top 100 universities in the world, has a student population of more than 23,000, and an alumni population of more than 125,000 in 125 countries.