“Visible Minority”: This box is too small for the lot of us!

by Amber Melhado

You sit down and poise yourself for another job application, prepared to answer many utterly irrelevant, tedious questions—along with a smattering of applicable ones—before the magic button appears at the end, allowing you to Submit. As you go, the bar that indicates what percentage of the application you’ve completed fills up. But before you are able to click Submit, and simply hope for the best, there it is: “Do you self-identify as a visible minority?”

When I am in this scenario, I have to pause. The simple answer is no. Visibly, I am not a minority. With strawberry-blonde hair, green eyes and very fair, freckled skin, most people think I am Irish. When I correct them and say I am half-Welsh and half-Jamaican, I always get the same wide-eyed response—and I have always loved it. As a child, I thought of my Jamaican heritage as a prideful piece of myself that I could share, like a treasure. The more I saw that question crop up in the months of endless job applying that followed university, though, the less I liked being asked.

The Employment Equity Act defines visible minorities “as ‘persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour.’ Using this definition, regulations specify the following groups within the visible minority population: South Asian, Chinese, Black, Arab, West Asian, Filipino, Southeast Asian, Latin American, Japanese and Korean.”[1] That is a lot of rich culture and important history to fit into one little box.

Almost all of my cousins on my father’s side have one Jamaican parent and one French parent, Italian parent, or Scottish parent. My half-Jamaican cousins all have a similar complexion to my own. But there are plenty of people like us who have a darker complexion. Yet, skin colour should not dictate how closely tied one is to their heritage. I do not fit into the same box as someone who is of visibly Jamaican descent. If I, as an outwardly white female, leave the ‘visible minority’ box unchecked on a job application, and another similarly qualified half-Jamaican female with a darker complexion does the opposite, who gets the job if the decision is just between us? It is simple: the defining difference between us should not be our skin colour. Perhaps in some organizations it is not, but having the question on the application implies that possibility. Each lens I look at the issue through reveals a new reason to oppose the use of the term ‘visible minority’. The nuances of ethnicity only become more pronounced as Canada grows as a nation; with this in mind, it may be time for residents of this nation to do away with categorizing the population by skin colour.

Though it is divisive now, the term ‘visible minority’ did have a place in legislation years ago. As immigration rates began to increase in Canada, the term was created as legislature under the Employment Equity Act with the goal “to achieve workplace equality and to correct representation in the workplace for the four designated groups: women, visible minorities, Aboriginal peoples and people with disabilities.”[2] However, use of this term is not the only way to achieve equality in the workplace.

Many other western-dominant countries use other methods with which to monitor cultural representation in the work force that are less focused on skin colour. In fact, according to Statistics Canada, the term ‘visible minority’ is uniquely Canadian—a tad ironic for a country that considers itself so forward on the subject of multiculturalism. As Douglas Quan of the National Post writes, “A United Nations committee in 2007 criticized the Canadian government for using the term, saying that it was racist to use “whiteness” as the standard which determines who belongs to a visible minority.”[3] This method of gathering information about an applicant’s ethnicity crams many rich, complex cultural backgrounds into one tiny box. This box not only dismisses their uniqueness from one another, but also perpetuates the “us and them” mentality that allows racism to fester. The term has been outdated for quite some time now, and yet it continues to be asked on many types of applications across many sectors—including Arts and Culture.

In Canada’s arts and culture sector, that idea of a Eurocentric standard or ‘measuring stick’ is still prevalent. Promotion of a more diverse arts scene is listed as a priority for nearly all the arts funding bodies, which is a positive step. However, there are many negative implications linked to funding a project because it fills the cultural diversity quota. “Boxing multiculturalism” so to speak, has an impact on the creation of art across all disciplines within this context. Many artists who fall under the category of ‘visible minority’—even if they don’t have to officially check a box that labels them as such—often feel pigeonholed into ensuring that any art that they create serves as a commentary on their culture, or their experience as a minority. Can a black woman not star in a show that makes no mention of her complexion?

Communicating the histories of specific cultures is important, and will always remain a key device for social awareness as new history is made. However, artists should not feel restricted to create artwork that speaks solely to their racial status. If multiculturalism is to maintain its status as a positive characteristic of Canadian society, non-dominant cultures should not be confined to a tiny box within the larger construct of western regularity.

Frances Woolley states in her article for the Globe and Mail, “In Canada, anyone who considers themself neither white nor aboriginal is classified by the government, for a number of purposes, as a visible minority.”[4] As a Canadian woman who identifies with both her Jamaican and Welsh roots, I cannot fully identify as white simply because it suits my outer appearance. This would feel to me as though I slighted my Jamaican heritage solely because it is not visible on my face. Woolley’s rewording of the definition of ‘visible minority’ is effective in illustrating that in today’s multicultural Canada, attempting to fit every individual into one of three boxes is unrealistic and alienating. Furthermore, since the coining of this term, the issue of workplace equality has shifted from its original position. As Woolley points out later in her article, it would be more effective to use statistical research and hard evidence to focus on specific groups who are actually hard-pressed to find equal opportunity at this point in time.

To infuse the issue with some positive vibes, the following is listed as the first responsibility that Canada Council for the Arts’ Equity Office upholds: “Maintaining a strategic focus on supporting Canadian artists of African, Asian, Middle Eastern, Latin American or mixed racial heritage, and their artistic practices.”[5] By separating out each of these cultures, this wording is much more inclusive than use of a term that homogenizes them all into one little check-box.

Some may argue that this is merely semantics—and I agree! In this case, the semantics are vital to quibble over. As a writer, I never undercut the power of words. It is time for more funding bodies and employers across all sectors to articulate their efforts toward equality at a higher standard. Every culture in this world is rich, and full of a vitality that has stand-alone merit, without comparison to a Eurocentric standard. Inclusivity can only be achieved if it exists at all levels of an organization, right down to the legislative diction. To operate any other way is a disservice to so many Canadians, and an antiquated method of achieving equality.


[1] “Visible Minority of person.” Government of Canada, Statistics Canada. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2015. 

[2] “Visible Minority Women.” Government of Canada, Statistics Canada. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2015. 

[3] Quan, Douglas. “Have Canada’s Changing Demographics Made It Time to Retire the Concept of ‘visible Minority’?”National Post. 27 June 2014. Web. 16 Mar. 2015. 

[4] Woolley, Francis. “‘Visible Minority:’ A Misleading Concept That Ought to Be Retired.” The Globe and Mail. 10 June 2013. Web. 17 Mar. 2015. 

[5] “About the Equity Office.” Canada Council for the Arts. 1 Jan. 2011. Web. 17 Mar. 2015.