Let’s talk about race, Canada

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By Shelly Chan

Talking about race in Canada is a lot like talking about sex in the old days. There is so much imposed silence on the subject. We skip around it, pretend that it is not there, and pray that it will go away.

Those who break the silence are often chastised, labelled as “racist” (“pervert”!), or hastily dismissed. Others who tout half-truths indulge in self-congratulatory glory. Because heaven forbid, we insist, only Americans do “it.”

None of this has ever prevented people from being cognizant of the centrality of race and ethnicity to Canadian life, given the history of immigration and indigenous peoples in this country. From time to time, we rehash age-old biases and re-ignite familiar debates about the dilemmas of diversity and integration. Nevertheless, the cycle of silence, missteps, and occasional foreshortened discussion has done little justice to a complex and longstanding issue in multicultural Canada.

It is undeniable that some opinions about race are outright racist. But many others are just misconceptions and deserve serious attention. Yet, by failing to confront them in a sustained manner, we may be left without tools to understand difference and thus find ourselves in the same situation every few years. We are in danger of becoming so ignorant that we risk damaging the very foundations of tolerance, an ideal in which Canadians take enormous pride.

“Too Asian?” Too Ignorant

A clear indication of the costs of silence is found in the controversial article entitled “Too Asian?” by Stephanie Findlay and Nicholas Köhler in the November 11 issue of Macleans magazine. Findlay and Köhler report that Asian students dominate the attendance of a few top universities in Canada, making these institutions too competitive and lacking in fun for white students. According to the writers, “too Asian” is a well-recognized term borrowed from the U.S. but only “whispered” in Canada. A photograph of two young Chinese males carrying the national flag of the People’s Republic of China is blown up to one and a half page in the print version of the magazine. “Balkanization,” “segregation” and “ghetto-ization,” says the report, typify life on Canadian campuses.

Drawing outrage from coast to coast and blog to blog, the Macleans story of Asians outrunning whites is strongly reminiscent of the W5 “Campus Giveaway” in 1979, in which Chinese Canadians were portrayed as stealing the rightful places of the “real” (white) Canadians in postsecondary education. The CTV show sparked a well-known struggle for equality led by the Chinese Canadian National Council.

Ironically, thirty-one years later, a similar pattern of misconceived assumptions emerges in the Macleans report. First, there is a conflation of Canadians of Asian descent with Asians from Asia. The failure to distinguish Canadian citizens from foreign students is irresponsible. Second, the whole discussion thrives on a rigid and fearful binary between “whites” and “Asians.” This representation pits the two groups of students against each other and demonstrates little sensitivity to the commonalities among them as youth. Third, it is still claimed that Asian culture is not Canadian. It is alien to our nation, and therefore must be restricted or otherwise transformed.

Sickened by this hardy bias, I remain optimistic that Canadians can change their minds, if only they can be shown how. It is time again for the nation to open up about race.

Think, not Fear

As a professor in the department of Pacific and Asian Studies at the University of Victoria, I have daily experiences of meeting and teaching many Canadian and international students. I offer courses on historical and contemporary aspects of China, Asia and the Pacific. My undergraduate and graduate students are a diverse mix of Asian, white and mixed-race youth born in various parts of B.C. and Canada, the U.S., Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China. Encouraging them to think with cultural and intellectual differences, not to fear them, is one of my main and toughest activities in and out of the classroom.

It is true that Asian Canadians and Asians are a visible presence in some sectors of our universities. But some consideration of facts is in order. On the one hand, the visibility merely reflects changing demographics in Canada over the last few decades because of federal immigration policy, a transformation that our nation seems slow to recognize and reluctant to absorb. On the other hand, university administrations nationwide face a declining undergraduate-age population and years of cuts to provincial funding of postsecondary education. To combat the adverse effect on budgets, many major universities in Canada have taken to increasing the admission of international students in order to help balance the books. Under the grand slogan of “internationalization,” it is no secret that East Asia, particularly mainland China, is a main target of university recruitment. Yet, once these international students land in Canada, they are largely left on their own to negotiate many demanding adjustments to a strange environment. Many tend to find sympathy and support among others who are culturally and linguistically similar.

Despite the widening diversity of our student population, our capacities to meet their needs are not improving, but have been rapidly undercut. As university administrations are forced to tighten their belts, there has been a general assault on humanities, traditionally a cluster of disciplines devoted to the studies of the depth and breadth of human experiences. Recent alarming efforts to eliminate comparative literature and East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto, an “Asian” university claimed by the Macleans writers, are a clear case of marginalizing faculty and students whose interests do not fall within the sciences and businesses, or are confined to the study of European traditions. In my own department, even a relatively small but essential amount of funding for Indonesian language instruction has been removed, dealing a heavy blow to the long-term survivability of the Southeast Asian studies program and the study of the Muslim world on our campus. These short-sighted moves to “save” the university could jeopardize our ability to foster common values, a utopian goal that the Macleans writers seem to embrace. If all our tools are neglected, what can we use to build and sustain a cross-cultural dialogue?

Beyond “White” versus “Asian”

Finally, while the Macleans reporters classify Canadian students into white/Asian without any trouble, I see them in myriad categories. There are kids who care about school and those who cannot decide yet. There are kids who have to deal with difficult personal and family issues, and those who seem happy and okay. There are ones who never do their reading before class, and those who would love to do more. There are also kids who cannot stop texting or surfing the net while you lecture, and those who respect you and their own educational efforts enough not to do that. There are kids who are confident and outspoken in class discussions, and those who are reticent but just as bright. There are kids who cannot write a coherent essay, and those who just know how.

In my view, our university students are endlessly challenging and interesting. Their needs go beyond the binary of “white” versus “Asian.” By framing a superficial divide as the most burning question of the day, the Macleans story distracts us from the real and serious issues in postsecondary education that cut across race – how to ensure that our youth can afford and find value in a university education, think and communicate clearly, enjoy a well-rounded development physically and mentally, and learn to live with others who are not like them culturally and politically. One of the answers, I believe, lies in the fortification of the humanities.

Indeed, the overdue dialogue urged by the Macleans article needs to take place, albeit on much different terms.

Shelly Chan is an assistant professor at the Department of Pacific and Asian Studies and a member of the Asian Canadian working group at the University of Victoria. Born and raised in Hong Kong, she moved to Canada with her family as a young adult. She received her B.A. and M.A. from the University of British Columbia and her Ph.D. in modern Chinese history from the University of California, Santa Cruz.  Shelly started a new blog, Think, not Fear, where this post first appeared.

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3 thoughts on “Let’s talk about race, Canada

  1. Lisa

    Jeet Heer wrote a great article in the national post that nicely complements what you are saying here: http://activehistory.ca/2010/11/let%E2%80%99s-talk-about-race-canada/

    I think what you say about “Beyond White versus Asian” is really important and deserves a wide reading! And, there are all sorts of ways that you can broaden the discussion to talk about how race, class, language barriers, culture, etc. contribute to (or act as a barrier) to student learning and achievement in university.

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