Henry Yu: Why Macleans and racism should no longer define Canada

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      By Henry Yu

      Thirty years after CTV aired its infamous W5 program “Campus Giveaway”—insinuating that Canadian universities had too many "Asians" and therefore too many “foreigners”—Macleans magazine has cynically used racial stereotypes to invent a nonissue. In its annual university rankings issue last week, Macleans asked why “white” Canadians think some of our top universities are “too Asian”.

      Buried amid the article’s inflammatory racial profiling was an attempt at good reporting, which made Macleans’ appeal to “race” even more sad.

      The journalists interviewed a wide array of people; however, rather than addressing the worry among our younger generation about how hard they need to work in school when so much of their future relies upon the grades and rankings they receive, the editors decided to bury any insights they had acquired underneath a racist logic of “Asian” versus “white”.

      They created the fearsome spectre of too many “Asian” students who were somehow both overachieving and tragically marred by social awkwardness. They then blamed these students for the lack of dialogue (and cross-racial partying) on campuses.

      The title "Too Asian" draws upon over a century of racist politics using the term "Asian" to flatten everyone who looks "Oriental" into a single category, which is somehow threatening to "white" Canadians.

      Have we not advanced enough to recognize that people with black hair who do not look like their families came from Europe can still be "Canadian", rather than harbouring the assumption of the writers that “Asian” is the opposite of "born in Canada"?

      I see hope in a younger generation of Canadians who have enough sense to understand that an open dialogue about race requires first and foremost avoiding the easy analysis of lumping in a wide variety of people into simplistic categories such as “Asian” and “white”. Judging from the first 300 comments on Macleans' online edition, many of which dismissed the article as being pointless and inflammatory, there are plenty of Canadians more articulate and intelligent about the dangers of racial stereotyping than the authors.

      Each day in my classes, I hear intelligent and humane dialogues between students of every colour and from everywhere around the world. It's something that makes UBC and other Canadian universities special places that seemingly have better sense than the Macleans newsroom.

      We should be asking how our campus communities can be improved, and we should understand the diverse backgrounds of our students and how racial stereotypes continue to have salience. But racist questions obscure the important issues facing us.

      Talking about race involves seeing through the generalizations, and understanding what is actually happening, not posing racially inflammatory questions that reinforce rather than refute dangerous stereotypes.

      In referring to characterizations of Asian Americans in the U.S. as a “model minority” in the 1980s and 1990s and the ugly attempts in some private universities in the U.S. during that period to quietly cap enrolments of those considered “Asian”, the article implied that this “American” solution to campuses being “too Asian” should be dismissed as un-Canadian and against our meritocratic admission policy.

      What the authors fail to realize is that they have accepted throughout their own article the fundamental racist premise that was being criticized in the U.S.: the characterization of all “Asians” as overachievers who threaten “white” students.

      Framing their article around the question of whether our campuses are “too Asian” obscures whatever useful points the authors thought they were trying to make.

      Until recently in its history, Canada had a history of white supremacy similar to South Africa and the American South, building its immigration policy around the racial category of “white Canada”, passing a wide array of discriminatory laws that disenfranchised those considered “nonwhites”, and creating widespread racial segregation in jobs and housing.

      The category of "white" was used to glue together European migrants of many different backgrounds and as a political organizing tool, often using racial categories such as "Oriental," "Asian", “Jew”, or "Native" in contrast. We are still left with legacies of this history, including the unquestioned assumption that the term "Canadian" is interchangeable with "white Canadian”.

      Like a Molson Canadian television commercial, this lingering vision of Canada as uniformly white is so commonplace that we still think of it as the norm—we rarely ask whether a certain neighborhood or community or school might be “too white”.

      Why is there an issue of “race” only when a community or university is becoming “too Asian”?

      Our society no longer looks like the beer drinking all-white camraderie of a Molson Canadian commercial. Perhaps it never did, and white supremacy always needed to hide away into reservations and ghettoes all those who did not fit into the vision of “White Canada Forever”, which white supremacists sang a century ago.

      When large waves of European refugees came to Canada after the Second World War, they had little choice but to blend into a generic whiteness and an Anglo conformity in language and manners that allowed them to be accepted as Canadian. All of the rewards of a still-segregated society were available to those who would adapt, since Canada was still slowly dismantling laws that relegated “nonwhites” to second-class citizenship.

      We still live with many of the legacies of that slow dismantling of our own apartheid, and one of them is the racist presumption that the Macleans authors too easily accept: that the term “Asian” somehow captures a truth about people who have black hair and “Oriental” facial features.

      There are vast differences among “Asians”. So the next time you see people with black hair in a group, realize that they might be learning a lot about the differences and similarities they have with each other. Rather than blaming them for “self-segregating”, go think a bit more about why you assume they are all the same.

      Dr. Henry Yu is a professor of history at the University of British Columbia. He is writing a book entitled Pacific Canada, which argues for a perspective on our society that recognizes the inequities of our past and rebuilds in a collaborative manner a new approach to our common history and future together.

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      Sid Tan

      Nov 16, 2010 at 2:19pm

      My feeling is that Canadians are still haunted by the remnants of our past racist colonial white supremacist ideology. Manifested historically on this land with governments and media being arrogant and dismissive to its indigenous people and followed by the Chinese and all non-Europeans. Currently it is manifest in a "Too Asian" article which is giving the so-called newsmagazine alot of free publicity. Oh well...

      Interestingly, you mention the W5 "Campus Giveaway" story from three decades ago which begat the Chinese Canadian National Council, a leader for an inclusive redress. CCNC was formed as an anti-racism and human rights group and has met with people from the newsmagazine. Full disclosure: I am currently national chairman of CCNC.

      Citizen rights for the Chinese in Canada were only acquired in 1947.
      Descendants of lo wah kiu (old overseas Chinese) and racialized Canadian families must look to the future for their proper place in the history of Canada. Hopefully this becomes nation building, unleashing the supreme dynamic of participation and political power from marginalized oppressed citizens and undocumented.

      My conclusion is to "right" history in Canada. That history includes the pioneer Chinese families who overcame Canada's geography and climate and historical racist ideology. That is what an inclusive just and honourable redress means to me. It may even finally shut down those evil racist remnants of ideology. So good to be a Canadian with folks such as you and Victor Wong and Colleen Hua at CCNC.

      David Wong

      Nov 16, 2010 at 3:20pm

      "Fuck you Chink!" was directed at me and my then 4 year old son years ago at a supermarket. Our only crime was that our skin colour was not the same as his.

      I told the idiot (who had a non-Canadian accent) that our family was here, over 100 years ago, about the time Canada was founded.

      Although the Macleans magazine may appear to be innocuous at first glance, it sets a dangerous demarcation line between "us", and those who "don't look like us".

      Sid Tan

      Nov 16, 2010 at 6:31pm

      David - I prefer to consider it sloppy journalism and sensational marketing from the newsmagazine whose name is unmentionable!!!

      Brad Lee

      Nov 16, 2010 at 9:05pm

      The Maclean's article is a call to arms for Canadians of all colours and stripes who believe in multiculturalism and are proud of the diversity within our communities as well as without.The racial profiling and stereotyping of Asians -- "both Asian Canadians and international students," in the words of Maclean's -- is an insult, plain and simple.

      While Professor Yu's analysis mentions the W5 incident, which created victims in the Chinese Canadian community and resulted in the formation of the Chinese Canadian National Council, Maclean's "Too Asian"? article is an attack on the larger community of Asian Canadians. Anyone whose family history began in Pacific Canada or who still lives in that beautiful part of our country should be offended.

      With all due respect to those who had the foresight to form the CCNC, as a national voice for human rights and against racism, we should be building broader community consensus and agreement on ways to combat systemic forms of racism in Canada's national and regional mainstream media.

      I am glad to hear that CCNC has met with "people from [Maclean's] newsmagazine" and I look forward to a full report on the results of those meetings. I would also like to be assured by Mr. Tan, as national chair of CCNC, that every effort will be made to consult with other emerging voices in the Asian Canadian community in an inclusive manner to secure a full and comprehensive apology from Maclean's, along with other remedies.


      Nov 17, 2010 at 9:20am

      "I prefer to consider it sloppy journalism and sensational marketing from the newsmagazine whose name is unmentionable!!"


      Many of your articles and comments are sensationalist and based in sloppy journalism. Who are you to throw stones?


      Nov 17, 2010 at 11:36am

      I'm a Jewish Canadian and UBC alumnus, so I feel empathy toward Asian-Canadians in that my cultural background encouraged me to go to university, which was historically met with resistance and discrimination from white-dominated institutions (i.e., quotas and higher admission requirements) until recently.

      It hurts how thinly veiled white supremacist beliefs are; ultimately such beliefs paradoxically hold that certain groups are inferior while others are competing unfairly (which by their logic ironically acknowledges they are superior). Ultimately, if such racists don't have an advantage over everyone else (which they do to a large extent), then they blame others. There is no pleasing them.

      Ultimately, I'm happy I had the same opportunity as "Asians" or "whites" to get a quality education. Holding back others does not help one advance in the long term.

      Such trash from Maclean's should be disregarded. Most people have thankfully moved on.

      Darcey Johnson

      Nov 17, 2010 at 12:08pm

      Thank you so much for this eloquent response Henry. This was the response I was hunting for after reading "Too Asian?". You're a great leader for ALL of us Canadians.

      Justine Davidson

      Nov 17, 2010 at 2:41pm

      I'm still baffled when I encounter people who draw a line separating "Asian" and "Canadian". Growing up in Vancouver, I never assumed my asiatic-featured classmates were anything other than Vancouverites whose biggest difference from me was the snacks they brought for recess (still love those White Rabbit candies).
      A brief study of Canadian history will show that many of the people who built our railroad or spent their lives underground in Canadian mines were Chinese immigrants -- in other words, many of the people who built this country are of Chinese descent. For McLeans to equate "Asian" with "foreign" shows a complete ignorance of our country's history.
      Personally, I gave up on McLean's university stories once I realized their ranking system for law schools is based on how many students graduate to jobs on Bay Street. This is just another reason to keep moving along the magazine rack.


      Nov 17, 2010 at 3:13pm

      "Until recently in its history, Canada had a history of white supremacy similar to South Africa and the American South, building its immigration policy around the racial category of “white Canada”,

      What? Canada hasn't had anything like the racial problems of the American South and certainlly not South Africa IN close to one hundred years. Nor where those countries/region's problems defined by immigration restrictions they were defined by a segment of the population being treated in a subhuman manner and often subjected to massacres, lynchings or the brutality of a police state.

      Macleans using race baiting to sell magazines is so common to not even be worth reporting on but to compare what Asian Canadians experienced in the worst of times in Canada, much less now or in the last fifty years in just silly.


      Nov 17, 2010 at 4:06pm

      @Justine: You're welcome for those white rabbit candies! <3 <3

      I like how Professor Henry Yu brought up a good point how "white" Canadians are ALSO generalized into being one, monolithic entity, especially after the mass movement of Europeans to Canada after WWII. Minorities are not the only ones that are subjects to racism!

      I grew up hearing my own parents (of Chinese descent) make big assumptions on "white" culture. Despite having "white" friends, they continued to assert their views on "white" people and were in essence, being extremely racist. I can honestly say that I am guilty of using this vast generalization myself.

      I am appreciative of the topics that Henry Yu alludes to...I can't wait to take one of his classes at UBC :)