To me, the 'too Asian?' controversy is unwarranted

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I must admit that I learned about the criticism of the "Too Asian?" article in Maclean's before I actually read it. I received emails asking me to write letters of protest to universities that were warning of an "Asian invasion," help with community outreach, and was later invited to two "Youth Coalition Against Maclean's ‘Too Asian'" meeting in Toronto and Waterloo. The Chinese Canadian National Council also condemned the article for fostering an "us versus them" mentality. In other words, when I finally sat down to read the article I was ready to read about how university administrators trapped under an avalanche of Asian enrollment were asking governments for help, or, at the very least, interviews with professors and students stating that white students, all things being equal, were being given preferential treatment over Asian students because the universities were already too Asian. I was primed to be enraged.

After reading the article, I suspected that many of the critics had not bothered to read past the title before concluding that Maclean's was engaging in moral panic, fear mongering, irresponsible journalism and racism. The article, in essence, tackles two main issues. First, white students, who apparently want to party as much as they want to study don't go to certain universities because they are too much of a "study school." These white students, the article concludes through interviews, do not want to compete with studious Asian students, and want to party at university, so they choose other schools. This first argument, if one wants to venture into racial territory, is likely more, or just as, racist towards white students as Asian ones. The article states plainly that Asian students tend to be "high achievers" and states that white students care more about "social interaction" and "alcohol."

Second, the article points out that campus life is becoming too skewed in one direction -- the social or the academic. It is true that these camps are often highly racialized. But, pointing out that white students spend as much time partying as they do studying, while Asian students tend not to party with white students is, again, not racist. Research does support the argument that minority students in general are more academically studious. As sociologists have pointed out for years, this does create a facile multiculturalism in which student of different backgrounds attend the same university, but rarely talk to one another. University administrators may be spending time, as the article suggests, worrying about how they can get everybody to "hang out" with each other, but that is their prerogative. Racism it is not.

The Maclean's article also notes that the impact of high admissions rates for Asian students has created much controversy in the United States. As the article points out, some studies support the idea that "Ivy League schools have taken the issue of Asian academic prowess so seriously that they've operated with secret quotas for decades to maintain their WASP credentials." If similar secret quotas were being implemented in Canada, then that would indeed be despicable. At that point, we should be organizing Youth Coalition meetings, letter-writing campaigns, and protests. An article in a major Canadian magazine simply pointing out certain trends in our society need not be accused of racism and fear mongering.

The Youth Coalition meeting to which I was invited states that "we need to mobilize a Youth Coalition to form a unified stance against the article's attempt to instill a panic of an ‘Asian Invasion' of universities, reinforce racial stereotypes and irresponsible journalism." It does not seem to matter much that the words "Asian invasion" do not appear even once in the Maclean's article, nor is the overall tone of the article suggesting anything of the sort. In accusing Maclean's of fear mongering, critics have begun to do the same. Based on interviews with Chinese, Korean, and Japanese students in several Canadian universities, the article only attempted to explore some of the sociological trends that these communities are undergoing.

I suspect that if the article was entitled "Asian students working hard at Canadian universities" instead of "‘Too Asian'?" it would not have incited much controversy. This is not to say that students from minority populations do not experience challenges, racism or otherwise, at universities. In fact, this is precisely my point. There are enough real issues that should be occupying the time of anti-racism campaigners. They do not need to invent new ones.

Amarnath Amarasingam is a doctoral candidate at Wilfrid Laurier University, and is currently completing his dissertation entitled, Pain, Pride, and Politics: Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism in Canada.

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