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.