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

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.

Comments (70) Add New Comment
Sid Tan

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.
9
20
Rating: -11
David Wong
"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".
25
14
Rating: +11
Sid Tan

David - I prefer to consider it sloppy journalism and sensational marketing from the newsmagazine whose name is unmentionable!!!
15
17
Rating: -2
Brad Lee
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.


14
20
Rating: -6
TC1
"I prefer to consider it sloppy journalism and sensational marketing from the newsmagazine whose name is unmentionable!!"

Sid,

Many of your articles and comments are sensationalist and based in sloppy journalism. Who are you to throw stones?
12
16
Rating: -4
12vis
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.
11
16
Rating: -5
Darcey Johnson
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.
21
10
Rating: +11
Justine Davidson
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.
13
19
Rating: -6
borguy
"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.
11
16
Rating: -5
J
@Justine: You're welcome for those white rabbit candies!
12
16
Rating: -4
Tyler Durden
I'm a white male, and I'm very glad we have asians of all nationalities here. They have a lot of admirable qualities. I think we can all agree that we should be thankful we have asians in this country instead of blacks!
17
19
Rating: -2
Matty Poon
In response to Mr. Durden's comment.

I believe that your comment is a bit racist? The point of this rebuttal to the Maclean's article is to shed some light on racially charged media, actions, and discussions that should not be tolerated.

Your comment on preferring 'us' in this country instead of Africans, of African Americans is extremely racially charged, which brings to light whether or not you fully understood what the rebuttal is all about.

Racial discrimination and racial supremacy should not be tolerated, no matter who is being discriminated, or who is doing the discrimination
12
18
Rating: -6
Tristan Ridley
Just to be clear, I'm a 3rd generation Canadian of mixed European/German descent.

I disagree with one part: We often can and do consider a neighbourhood too white. My entire town of Keswick, Ontario is 'too white'. It lack cultural variation and any fraction of the life you see in more mixed communities. Perhaps it's only my own subset of Canadian culture that sees things this way, but we seem to think any lack of variety and juxtaposition is... unnatural and unhealthy.
20
12
Rating: +8
Tyler Durden
Matty, when you can't discuss the differences between race, racism will flourish. White people who are angry or hurt over universities being "too asian" need to step up their game. Many white people are lost in the cult of the self, where doing well at school takes a backseat to the latest TMZ updates, their status on Facebook, and what's happening with Snooki.

Asians who do well at school are most certainly not interested in such topics.

Whether or not it's racially charged is not the point. The election of Barack Obama was racially charged, but because it was viewed as a positive racial statement, it's accepted.

Bill Cosby was boo'ed by the NAACP for pointing out the lack of black fathers, people don't want to hear the truth. The Empire of Illusion is falling apart. Without discussing these negative things, nothing will ever change. You'd think if white people were interested in competing with asians, they'd tell their kids to do as the asian kids do, rather than crying foul over culture which is academically superior.

Why is it that worldwide, asians typically thrive anywhere they go? Asians have faced a lot of racism and within a few generations are renting out basement suites to their former oppressors' progeny!

Why is it that worldwide, blacks tend to be incarcerated the most and produce the most illegitimate children?

The truth hurts, but without discussing and acknowledging the facts, we can never overcome. Without pain, without sacrifice, we have nothing.
9
15
Rating: -6
12vis
Right on Justine.

Did you know that there were Chinese on the first European ships that explored BC? This means that Asians have been in BC exactly as long as whites. The idea of Asians as foreigners and that Canada's "traditional" state is white is flat out wrong and fabricated. To the First Nations, we're all foreigners.
19
7
Rating: +12
Taxpayers R Us
Discussing something that's so readily obvious as a large concentration of one people or another should not be taboo. I think it's fairly harmless to note that at the average convocation, the names starting with the letter "C" far outnumber the others, and those who fall into that group should simply accept it.

Discussing it in terms of whether or not it's a problem is fine too, IMO, if it's clear that one group of people is unfairly monopolizing what's available.

If it's a constant stream of European Caucasians filling up the limited seats in our universities and keeping the local's kids out, it's just as much of an issue as if they were another race. The race part doesn't matter as much as the perceived issue.

20
7
Rating: +13
Bruce W
I grew up in Dartmouth, NS and experienced racism. I played hockey as well. All I know is we still have a long way to go for racial harmony, anybody tells you different is not in touch with reality
24
8
Rating: +16
Jen
In fairness, I think while Maclean's in general has degenerated in recent years to the point that I can't read it without a pinch of salt anymore, the majority of any population will be uneasy when a sizable minority begins to appear on university campuses or the workforce. This is not a Canada-specific thing, it happens EVERYWHERE, I guarantee it.
Still, it is incredibly unfair to second, third, and fourth generation Asians who are stereotypically Canadian in every respect except their skin colour. By choosing to lump them in with "arrived yesterday" students, the writers are doing us all a huge disservice.
17
11
Rating: +6
John Boy
The magazine is doing exactly what it is intended to do, which is to create divisiveness. Asian vs White. Gay vs Straight. Christian vs Muslim. It behooves you to understand that they don't really care what we are arguing about; as long as we are arguing. Classic divide and conquer strategy.

When our feathers get ruffled and we get drawn into these types of discussions (Asian vs White, etc.) we are reacting exactly how the publishers want us to.
10
20
Rating: -10
Sid Tan

Good stuff going on here folks. Hoping an effort by UBC students will materialize.

Brad: I understand you are working with CCNC Toronto chapter and that workgroup is trying to build a coalition. You should be in that loop right?

TC1: yeah right. no examples. fyi, i don't claim to be a journalist and do my best as media producer and community organiser.
10
19
Rating: -9

Pages

Add new comment
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.