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Not White Enough: What the Maclean’s article says about our country, our media, and our schools.

November 25th, 2010     by Anoushka Ratnarajah     Comments

There is so much ugly in this picture, I hardly know where to start. But as a woman of colour, a Canadian, and a recent graduate of UBC, I have to respond.

Dear Canada. Dear Maclean’s. Dear Stephanie Findlay and Nicholas Koller. This is going to hurt. But not as much as you have hurt us.

When I read “Too Asian?” I wanted to stop right there. The title really could have been all they printed - and it would have been more succinct. Because that was the point. You say that “Too Asian?” is not about racism”? No. “Too Asian?” is exactly about racism. And no amount of unachievable journalistic impartiality can cover that up. “Too Asian” as a category implies that there is a norm from which this “Asianness” is deviating. And that norm, in Canada, is whiteness; to be Canadian is to be white. Multiculturalism in our country is not about equality. It’s about consumption. Food, clothing, celebrations, dancing, music - these are all cultural “others” that we enjoy from time to time. But when it comes to treating people of colour like we belong here - no. “They” are Indo-Canadian, Chinese-Canadian, African-Canadian … in the discourse of nationalism, even the Indigenous peoples of this land, ironically, are not allowed to belong here. We are all other. But not white people. White people get to be Canadian, no hyphen.

And before white readers get all offended and pull out the always-hilarious reverse racism card, let me clarify. You are not specifically to blame. You and I and everyone are all part of systems that categorize us and dole out privileges based on identities we are born with. Whiteness is a constructed tool for the maintenance of socio-economic and political power. Whiteness is the top of a racial hierarchy that exists because of histories of colonialism and imperialism that, contrary to popular belief, are not over and done with. The effects of those histories are felt in communities of colour every day, and colonial and imperial powers continue to exert themselves in new ways all over the globe, whether it’s through direct or indirect conquest or economic hegemony. Yes, whiteness itself is a constructed identity; there are many ethnicities within whiteness, as well as different histories of exploitation and hardship among those white identities. However, it is important for us to understand that the formation of whiteness as a homogenous monolith is a direct result of colonialism and therefore racist ideology. And it is created to disguise difference within whiteness in order to repress and control “other” identities: ie. people of colour.

Maclean’s has contributed to racist ideology very nicely in their article. Quoth the authors: “Many in the education community worry that universities risk becoming too skewed one way, changing campus life.” What’s really being said here? That many in the education community worry that universities risk skewing away from an ideology that they are comfortable with, in which they hold power. The piece pre-supposes that white students deserve entrance to post-secondary institutions more than Asian students, and that Asian students are directly taking this opportunity away from white students. It also sustains the notion of a competition between the races. The very fact that one of their “sources” uses a pseudonym (“Alexandra”) should serve a giant red flag that she knows what she’s saying is wrong, and like many so-called liberal racists, she doesn’t have enough stomach to own her words. The blatantly racist overtones and undertones of “Alexandra” and others interviewed in the article are never called out, and in this way, their racism is implicitly sanctioned.

And then there is the actual stereotyping itself. For instance, this little gem might actually be my favorite: “That Asian students work harder is a fact born out of hard data.” But where is this data? All I can see are the one or two people who are used to draw wild generalizations about both white students and Asian students. Some might say that being categorized as studious and hard workers is “the good kind of stereotyping,” but a stereotype is a stereotype is a stereotype. There are no positive ones. They all generalize, they all other, they all hurt. They are all tools of racism. Oh, and by the way, quoting Confucius doesn’t mean you have an understanding of Chinese culture, which in itself is multicultural and nuanced.

Familial pressure is brought up many times in the article, but is not followed by any analysis of this pressure. Here I’m going to use my own experience as the bi-racial daughter of a first generation immigrant father. Although my father earned a professional degree in England, he was forced, like most immigrants to earn his degree a second time when he and my Canadian born-white mother decided to move to Vancouver permanently. Since high school, he has encouraged both my brother and I to go to law school. We joke sometimes about the stereotype of South Asian parents wanting lawyer/doctor/engineer children, but my father’s main concern is the financial security of his children. As an immigrant, he had to fight very hard for a Canadian education and for the employment that comes with it. As a man of colour, he understands that racial barriers still exist in hiring practices, and that as a person of colour you sometimes have to prove yourself twice as hard a white person. My father was lucky enough to have a supportive and working partner in order to afford to earn his degree a second time; many first-generation immigrant parents do not have the resources to do this, and end up working menial jobs in order to send their children to school.

The Maclean’s article presses on, suggesting that Asians are “the new Jews.” There is a false assumption that all Asian kids have rich parents; many come from working-class backgrounds, with parents who work their hands to the bone to be able to give their children opportunities they don’t have themselves. The article constructs all Asians as wealthy, based on an already anti-Semitic sentiment (that all Jews are wealthy). The article erases the Asian poor (and Jewish poor) in Canada. Along with the obvious stereotyping, I wasn’t aware that Jews had ceased to exist and the position of “new Jews” was open! Not only that, the authors completely neglect to consider whether class factors into the admissions of other ethnic demographics, such as Caribbean (who are mentioned) or Indigenous (who are not mentioned) youth.

The article makes plenty of generalizations about white students, too: “White students, by contrast, are more likely to choose universities and build their school lives around social interaction, athletics and self-actualization—and, yes, alcohol. When the two styles collide, the result is separation rather than integration.” So, basically, white students are better at making friends and playing sports, and have a greater sense of themselves than Asian students. Gosh, it sure is depressing to be Asian.

Human beings are nuanced, complex. Yes, culture and parenting play a part in student’s lives. But did it ever occur to Maclean’s that “Asian” kids can enact conventional Western alcohol-based rebellion too? I know, it’s a big idea. You may need a moment to digest it. Because, guess what: not all Asian kids are the same. In fact, not all Asian people are the same. And what is meant by the term or identity “Asian” as used in this article? Is this a pan-east Asian identity being referred to? Or does Maclean’s include people and students of South Asian decent and diaspora as part of the attack?

“When the two styles collide, the result is separation rather than integration.” This sentence is the most tragic one in the whole article. Because what has failed to be understood here - what privileged people and institutions fail to understand on a daily basis - is that this country is not an easy place for people of colour, especially recent immigrants. Canada does not necessarily make itself friendly to those who are different. With all our sense of pride around multiculturalism, what the dominant “we” really wants is for everyone to assimilate, and the tokenization of difference distracts us from this.

People choose their communities based on shared histories and experiences. When you come to a country that does not respect your education or your language; that tokenizes your dress and your food; that assumes things about you based on your skin colour and your accent - why wouldn’t you seek refuge in the company of people who understand, spoken or unspoken, a certain level of your experience? In a place that perceives you as foreign, why wouldn’t you comfort yourself with the familiar? Wouldn’t you be grateful to find community and understanding, even if it’s just based on speaking the same language? We are human beings; we seek connection, and sometimes in not very “daring” ways, because we are vulnerable, and lonely.

Why is there no analysis here of why white students are so uncomfortable with “Asianness” or people of colour? The article is completely un-confrontational, and does nothing to question the ways in which education in our nation is incredibly flawed, because according to these authors, “Canadian institutions operate as pure meritocracies when it comes to admissions, and admirably so.”

Let’s talk about the myth of meritocracy. Let’s talk about the fact that academia evolved out of patriarchy, colonialism, classism, ableism. Let’s talk about the physical and emotional geography of our universities, and whether or not they are accessible to people with disabilities. Let’s talk about women’s and gender studies coming under fire more and more in recent years; that some misogynists in academia think there is a need for “male studies” since it is not enough for them to have the dominant voices in history, the sciences, literature, art, anthropology, engineering. Let’s talk about the fact that African Studies only exists as a minor program at UBC, and only that because students had to fight to call the program into existence. Let’s talk about the fact that the University is no longer an academic institution, but a corporation. Let’s talk about the fact that students will be climbing out of a thirty thousand or more dollar hole simply after their undergrad, never mind their graduate or post-graduate studies. Let’s talk about the fact that tuition is climbing ever higher, that campuses across Canada are turning into a real estate goldmines. Let’s talk about the fact that because of a history of colonialism, genocide and assimilation, that even as we sit on unceeded Indigenous land, there is hardly any respect held for the people we displaced to go to school here, to live here. Let’s talk about the fact that so many Indigenous people in Canada are living in such abject poverty and isolation that they will never see the inside of a University classroom. Let’s talk about meritocracy. Let’s talk about the pool of people who even get to apply to post-secondary institutions, and why they deserve education more than others, simply because they have more class privilege than others. Let’s talk about that.

No. Instead, Maclean’s, “Canada’s magazine,” would prefer to perpetuate the status quo of racism and smug “multicultural” superiority, with sentences like this: “Diversity has enriched these schools, but it has also put them at risk of being increasingly fractured along ethnic lines.” No, diversity hasn’t done that. This article does that. And considering the current economic climate, this article is even more dangerous. Marginalized people always become the targets of violence when countries are dealing with an economic downturn, because a scapegoat is the most effective tool for distracting people from the ineptitude and corruption of government. This article is a contributing factor to racist language and discourse that makes people feel justified in committing violence.

I call for a public apology from Maclean’s and the authors of this piece to communities of colour, to student communities, and to Canada at large. Because my country has its problems, but it also has so much potential. And this article is an instant of that potential. This is a chance for Maclean’s to challenge its already existing dominant discourse on the nation. This is a chance for two young journalists to learn something about journalistic integrity (please have it) and journalistic objectivity (that it does not exist). This is a chance for us all to start thinking about Canada, whom it privileges and whom it oppresses.

If you are interested in further grassroots action in response to this article and the atmosphere of xenophobia and racism it upholds, a Youth Coalition Against Maclean’s “Too Asian” has already had a meeting in Toronto. Further action will be listed on the Shameless blog as we become aware of it.

Tags: media savvy, race and racism

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