Too Asian?: Racism, Privilege, and Post-Secondary Education

Too Asian?: Racism, Privilege, and Post-Secondary Education

By RJ Gilmour, Davina Bhandar, Jeet Heer, and Michael C.K. Ma, eds.
Between The Lines, November 30, 2011, $26.95

Recently, the Bank of Canada removed the image of an Asian woman peering into a microscope from its new $100 banknotes after focus groups participants viewed the woman’s “racialized” identity as an issue warranting review. Equally reprehensible was how Canada’s central banking institution chose to resolve this dilemma: by replacing the original image with one of a European woman (i.e. a woman with a “neutral” ethnicity, according to a spokesperson).

Sadly, the linking of white skin with neutrality is nothing new, but is rather an assumption entwined with our domestic narrative — one that defines which bodies belong to the nation and which bodies remain imperfect fits. This recent instance is not a glitch in an otherwise just and equal society; despite a great deal of progress, Canada possesses a long history of anti-Asian racism, both legislated and cultural, dating back to the second half of the 1800s.

Not long before the banknotes incident, Maclean’s magazine came out with the infamous “Too Asian?” feature. It discussed demographic “asymmetries” on Canadian campuses, sympathetically portraying “white” high school graduates from private school backgrounds who were avoiding Canadian universities with reputations for being “Too Asian.”

“Too Asian?”: Racism, Privilege, and Post-Secondary Education is a necessary antidote to such reckless journalism. It not only takes Maclean’s to task for propagating racist tropes against “Asians”; it also pulls the lens back to explore race and representation in Canadian higher education more generally. The collection of essays is divided into three sections: “Myths of Meritocracy,” “Colonial and Imperialist Legacies” and “Race in the Classroom”.

In the Foreward, labour activist Winnie Ng (full disclosure: though of no relation to me, Ng is a family friend) argues that the magazine article is eerily reminiscent of a CTV news episode that aired in the fall of 1979.  The “Campus Giveaway” story on W5 constructed students of East Asian descent as foreigners who were stealing spots in medical schools from “real” Canadians (i.e. “white” Canadians). The bright side of this ordeal was the political action it incited in Canada’s Chinese communities (actions in which, I’m proud to say, my parents took part) and the outcome it effected with CTV finally issuing an apology. It’s shameful that, some 30 years later, we find ourselves in such a similar controversy; worse still that, unlike CTV, Maclean’s has thus far failed to show any remorse beyond an online headline-change.

At the time the original article was published, one of the sharpest rebuttals on offer was from writer and critic Jeet Heer. His analysis of this subject is extended in the introductory essay to this collection, of which he is an editor. He cautions against exclusively laying the blame on the four writers of the issue, but rather directs our attention towards Maclean’s publisher and editor-in-chief, Ken Whyte, “a four-star general, who has had the pivotal role in transforming Canadian journalism in a right-wing direction.”

In the essay “Asians and Affirmative Action on Campus,” Harvey Weinfeld — continuing Heer’s arguments in the introductory chapter — argues that the stereotypes used to portray Asians are similar to the ways Jews were constructed in Ivy League America during the 1920s, as “unathletic, clannish, charmless, grade-grubbing grinds.” However, the author’s blanket statement that French Canadians “do not suffer racial discrimination” struck me as slightly Pollyanna considering the nature of this book (i.e. from what I gathered is an opportunity to explore the issue of race in Canada with a fine-toothed comb).

Sarah Ghabrial’s essay “Pink Panics, Yellow Perils, and the Mythology of Meritocracy” compares the unease towards Asians in the Maclean’s article with “Pink Panic”, a phenomenon that emerged a few years ago when girls surpassed boys in academics. (I remember “Pink Panic” clearly, not least because I was extremely surprised when some of those whom I regarded as progressive viewed it as an actual crisis.) Ghabrial argues that these twin backlash discourses expose the underlying hypocrisies held by original enthusiasts of North American meritocracy. Once others (i.e. non-white, non-male) begin advancing within the current system — demonstrating, perhaps, meritocracy carried to its fullest potential — those who are in historically privileged positions begin demanding their own brand of affirmative action (ironically, a practice they firmly lobbied against in its earliest manifestations).  Her concluding sentence powerfully punctuates her discussion on the shifting demographics of higher education: “In the wake of this disruption, we are left either to accept the new bodies of merit or give up the charade.”

Historian Adele Perry’s essay uses the photos of graduates hanging on the walls of the University of Manitoba as an entry point into her piece on the changing face of post-secondary education, and the backdrop against which these transformations take place. The chapter reminds us that racism directed against people of colour in Canada — of which the Maclean’s article is but an instance — needs to be considered alongside the history of Indigenous communities: “[these] two analytics [of Indigenous people, dispossession, and colonization, and of peoples of colour and migration] are rarely put in conversation and the tools we have to think about race in Canada… are poorer for it.” Perry invokes important issues that should not only be discussed within the context of formal education, but within left movements more broadly.

As a qualitative researcher of Chinese descent, I was particularly drawn to the essay “Ruling through discourse: The experience of Chinese Canadian youth.” Based on interviews the authors conducted with Chinese Canadian youth in Alberta, readers are offered insights directly from Chinese-Canadian youth themselves, a refreshing departure from the condescending, generalizing tone of the Maclean’s article. These young voices highlight the harmful implications of using “Asian” to describe a population brimming with variations in class, citizenship, nationality, and disposition. Their perspectives challenge existing categories about Asians being academically oriented, culturally insular and universally affluent (In response to the latter point, my comedian husband observed “it’s never ‘Sweatshops: Too Asian!’”).

Julia Paek and Ray Hsu’s (again, full disclosure: a friend; though I promise, we don’t all know each other!) two-part essay “Way Too Asian!” shows how the Maclean’s article created a “teachable” moment.  Hsu, strongly encouraged by students and friends, created the Way Too Asian (WTA) class — a name which was intended to be “a satirical spin on the original article” (97). He briefly shifts the book away from its academic tone into prose-poetry:

“Who am I? I was in grade four, looking into the mirror. I wondered what the future would look like. Now I am on the other side of the mirror: I see the worry in his nine-year-old face. He looks like my mother. He looks like my father. He has been looking for me for a long time. I wish I could tell him how things turned out. He is my audience.”

How have things turned out for Hsu? I’m intrigued by the ambivalence of his writing — of whether the expression on his nine-year-old face would be worried had he been privy to what his adult self knows.

In her essay, Anita Jack-Davies subverts the “Too Asian” concept: she argues the article should have been called “Too Privileged” because of the ways it exposes the “safety net… built around privileged [white] students and the audacity of such students to complain about having to compete with their hard-working peers.” This is an astute argument — the Maclean’s article framed Asian students as problems while leaving the entitlement of students from elite backgrounds unchallenged. Jack-Davies’ chapter reminds us that the actions of the powerful often elude critical gaze. For instance, while the image of an Asian woman was considered too “racialized” to be on our  $100 banknote, the image of a “white” woman was considered “neutral”. This assumption simultaneously preserves the privilege of white-skinned Canadians and hides this privilege from view. How is it possible that anyone can be culturally “neutral”?

“Too Asian?”: Racism, Privilege, and Post-Secondary Education boldly advances the dialogue around the ways race functions in Canada; and, as it should, it regards this conversation as a prerequisite for building a more just and civilized society. It might sit uncomfortably with its readers; it offers little by way of resolution. It suggests the rest is up to us.—Cara Ng 

Cara Ng is a Vancouver-based researcher.

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