In 1979, Canadian students produced a TV program called Campus Giveaway against what they called a “foreign” (i.e. Chinese-Canadian) takeover of university campuses. Chinese-Canadian students protested the equating of “Chinese” with “foreign” and challenged the exaggerated statistics used to justify the arguments of the program.

Some 30 years later, the same sentiment re-surfaces, albeit in a different guise. In a recent Toronto Star article originally titled “Asian students suffering for success,” Louise Brown reported on a GTA Asian parents conference organized to encourage “East Asian” parents to consider alternatives to university education for their children. The article simultaneously referred to a Maclean’s magazine article about “Asian” and “East Asian” students (debatable categories themselves) signifying a growing demographic imbalance of ethnically insular cliques.

In writing this response, we do not defend imposition of parental values and expectations on children, a practice we believe cuts across cultures due to complex factors in increasing career and other social vulnerabilities of our times. Having said that, we are a group of students, researchers and educators who are concerned about these representations where “Asian” parenting and children’s pursuit of university education are framed as problems of culture. Frankly, the articles promote gross stereotypes about “Asians,” whose professional aspirations are posed as unusually ambitious and excessive. While “East Asian” parental “tyranny” and its damaging impact was reported, neither the conference organizers nor the reporters from Maclean’s and The Toronto Star drew connections between this drive towards university education and the fact that, in our societies, racialized populations still remain at the bottom of the professional ladder: that gender and colour divisions in employment are stark.

What is the difference between “Asian” and “non-Asian” (read: “white”?) goals in educational accreditation? Are we willing to ask why many in our generations work multiple jobs to sustain our families and if that is embedded in the race for professionalization? We believe that the pressure to enter professional jobs originates from a desire to secure respect through economic safety in a hostile social environment where non-white bodies continue to encounter contempt for not belonging or measuring up to Canada.

The conference cited by The Toronto Star was fixated on how many “Asian” students are entering universities without the “independence or social skills” necessary for university life. Once there, students form ethnically exclusive cliques due to “low confidence” and lack of “friends to talk to” as they have “no way to express their feelings and no connection outside their community.” Blows to self-esteem and the stress of university preparation are lived realities for many students starting post-secondary education. We need to consider what is being understood as “social skills” and if/why that is a challenge for “Asian” students only.

We also need to ask if academic excellence and social skills conflict with each other in the way claimed by individuals in these discussions. For example: how and for whom is working in the library on Friday nights a problem? Further, rather than vilifying “Asian” students for hanging around with their own, should we not ask what may be compelling them to do so? Are we refusing to discuss racist name calling and bullying that is characteristic of many Canadian schools?

Brown is misleading in her portrayal of “Asian” as interchangeable with a Chinese stereotype of unchanging, decontextualized traditional values — such as Confucian principles of hard work and obedience. Together the fixed ethnic traits and claims by the GTA conference organizers of Chinese emotional imbalances depict “Asian” bodies as inherently dysfunctional, though desirable for their propensity for workaholism. This specific representation is severed from experiences of labour subordination not only in Chinese, but Filipino, Indian, Cambodian, Thai, Malaysian, Korean and Japanese communities, from multiple homelands, born in Canada or not — this list is not exhaustive.

Ideas about cultural character, such as hard-working “Asians,” are emptied out of enduring institutional discrimination by Canadian policies that contribute to contemporary Asian identities. To name some examples: Head Tax levies, Continuous Journey regulations, Immigration Exclusion laws, World War II Internment and more recently the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program and The Live-In Caregiver Program. All of these Canadian legacies have adversely affected the basic access of “Asian” and non-white people to education and overall well-being.

Furthermore, the article in Maclean’s Magazine reports on another “problem,” namely that Canadian universities may be becoming “too Asian” and that many “non-Asian” (namely white) students are rejecting universities with too many “Asians,” as they are “too competitive.” The spectre of Asian invasion rises again. Taken together, these discussions paint a pathological picture of “Asian” and “East Asian” students as lacking social skills, while excelling academically. They are also contradictory given that on the one hand, we have a brood of dysfunctional, anti-social “Asian” and “East Asian” kids entering universities with low survival skills, yet on the other, they are competitive superstars driving “non-Asian” students away.

Rather than questioning “non-Asian” students about the problems they have in attending what they call “Asian” universities the Maclean’s article legitimizes racist fear-mongering by posing this as a real issue for Canadian universities. The discomfort felt by university administrations about large numbers of “Asians” on campus and their desire to re-establish a racial “balance” seems more indicative of a problem that preoccupies dominant Canadians: the fear of “Asian power.” This fear is at least partially resolved by focusing on behavioural problems within Asian homes (understood as naturally over-demanding and violent) and by extension, within cultures. Such attitudes ignore ongoing struggles for equity by many working class, socially marginalized communities. We wonder whether institutions of higher learning (or any institutions) worry that they are becoming too “South Asian” or too “Black” or even too “Indian”?

We call for a closer examination of the enduring legacy of racism in regard to the presence of non-white bodies in Canadian higher education and within the Canadian nation state in general. Failure to do so has deep implications for all of us: university and college students, teachers and educators, professionals and non-professionals, parents and children, Asians and non-Asians, whites and so on.

Soma Chatterjee, Louise Tam and Adriana Berlingieri are graduate students at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE/UT). Dr. Izumi Sakamoto is an associate professor at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto. Many students and professors at OISE/UT and many other post-secondary institutions made it possible for us to write this response.

Cathryn Atkinson

Cathryn Atkinson is the former News and Features Editor for Her career spans more than 25 years in Canada and Britain, where she lived from 1988 to 2003. Cathryn has won five awards...