Contesting White Supremacy: An Interview with Professor Timothy Stanley

By Yeow Tong Chia

Professor Timothy A. Stanley recently published his new book Contesting White Supremacy: School Segregation, Anti-Racism, and the Making of Chinese Canadians (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011). The launch of this book is timely, as it comes in the wake of Maclean’s Magazine TOO ASIAN article, which stereotypes Asians as nerdy and hardworking and “whites” as fun and party going people. In the light of that, I had an email interview with Professor Stanley on his views on racism, Chinese Canadian history, Asian Heritage Month and his book.To start off, could you share on what motivated you to write the book Contesting White Supremacy? Is there a contemporary message you’d like to address in your book as well?

Contesting White Supremacy comes as much out of my 30 years of experience in antiracism education as it does my historical interests. It seems to me that there are some recurrent patterns in Canada. Aboriginal people and people of colour, Jews and Moslems testify to experiences of racism as every day, common realities, while people in privileged positions often see racism as exceptional events in a sea of otherwise polite discourse. This conception of racism as individual and sporadic also shapes the way in which the historical profession approaches the problem. The racism of the past, its centrality in Canadian life and state formation, have become marginal topics, things to be discussed in footnotes and sidebars, rather than things that are seen as having shaped and continuing to shape our everyday realities. To me this pattern of denial is part of the actual structure of racism in Canada. My historical argument is that racism was built into Canadian state formation and social relations. The contest that the title refers to is not only the past contest of Chinese Canadians as seen in events like the 1922-3 students strike, it is the contest of our own times to understand, name and overcome racisms.

How far do you think Chinese Canadians and Asian Canadians have integrated into mainstream Canadian society? Does racism and segregation still exist today, and if so, what forms does it take?

With respect to groups like Chinese Canadians and Asian Canadians, I think that we need to be careful of treating them as monolithic, as if everyone is in the same position. I count at least seven different groups of Chinese Canadians, for example, each having their own rather different histories. There are the by now nth generation Chinese Canadians whose ancestors survived the students’ strike and exclusion. This group is in a different position and has different needs, even speaks different languages, than say recent immigrants from North China who enter Canada as professionals. Despite these differences both can still encounter racisms. There is a recurring tendency to position people of Asian origins as outsiders to Canada. Even 10th generation Chinese Canadians can still be asked, ¨Where are you from” and discover that answers like “Burnaby” or “Kanata” do not suffice. This is something that does not happen with people of European origins in quite the same way. This is only one example of the racism that is always imminent in Canada. Segregation continues today as well, most obviously in the case of Aboriginal peoples, but also in the case of Asian Canadians. Indeed indices of racialized residential segregation have been increasing in Canada in recent years. Studies have consistently shown that Chinese Canadian professionals on average earn less than professionals of European origins. Thus, while it may be that Asian Canadians have won formal legal equality in Canada and even some degree of legal protection from discrimination, cultural, economic and institutional racisms continue. Think of it this way. Chinese has been spoken in Canada longer than the country has existed, yet it is still not considered a Canadian language.

What’s your take on the “Too Asian” article by Macleans? Do you think the article is racist? Why or why not?

I think, on balance, the article is racist. This however is not a simple racism of an individually prejudiced journalist and faulty editing. The article gives voice to a larger structure of racism. Thus, I have no objection to the article raising the issue of some young people seeing schools like the University of Toronto as “Too Asian.” Indeed, it is important to report on racist views of this kind. Something that is not done often enough in the mainstream media. I do object to the way that the article uncritically reproduces an imaginary that makes the problem into that of Asians themselves. Thus it re-enacts the 1979, W-5, “Campus Giveaway,” discourse. The problem is placed on racialized Asian bodies, and the thing that escapes is the problem of white supremacy. Let’s assume for a moment that it is that case that there are certain universities to which people of Asian origins in Canada are drawn. The thing that disappears is the question of whether this is so because other places are not welcoming of them. Maclean’s for example does not ask whether other places are “too white.” Yet we know that this is a problem that is recognized by some universities. For some time, for example, Queen’s University has been trying to address its chilly climate for people of colour. Thus the effect of the Maclean’s article was to once again position Asians as outsiders who do not really belong while affirming that people of European origins somehow naturally do belong.

Do you think that Asian/Chinese Canadian and Asian/Chinese history is adequately taught in schools? What more do you do think should be done to ensure that Canadian history that is taught in schools become more inclusive (ie. incorporative the histories of visible minorities in Canada as well as First Nations)?

The short answer is, “No.” Indeed, I think that most often no one’s history is taught adequately in schools. While individual teachers or groups of teachers often do truly amazing things to interest young people in discovering the past, there is a vicious circle at work when it comes to ensuring that more teaching of history is more inclusive. First, if teachers were themselves taught the old European-only grand narrative, they do not have enough knowledge to even know that people and their histories have been excluded. This means that we need to change the ways university history departments write and teach history, so that twenty years from now teachers will have a wider knowledge of the real past. Second, we need to teach teachers to teach kids how to think historically, so that they can investigate their own histories and those of their families and communities. Third, we need to create and publicize resources that teachers can use in classrooms, while at the same time bringing political pressure on governments to make curricula more inclusive. As it is now, it is possible for young people to come of age in Canada and to know nothing of Asians, let alone of Asian Canadians. Fourth, we need to find ways of getting all of our histories represented in our popular culture. Imagine a movie about the Komagata Maru, or the Victoria Students’ Strike, or Obesan? Indeed, I think that this remaking of our collective memories is needed so that people no longer have to ask, “Where are you from?”

Is Asian Heritage Month a success? How can we ensure that Asian Canadian history and heritage becomes part of Canadian history, of what it means to be Canadian?

Asian Heritage Month is still relatively new. It does not as yet have the profile of Black History month, for example. The problem with these special months is that what is really needed is integration of these excluded histories into the histories that circulate. On the other hand, Asian Heritage Month and Black History Month are better than the alternative which is no representation of Asian or African histories anywhere. The long term solution is a multifaceted antiracist project of finding and engaging and bringing into knowledge and understanding the meanings and life experiences of those who have been excluded by histories of racism. Amongst other things it means acknowledging the ways in which racisms have shaped conceptions of what and who is Canadian. This is very much what I am trying to do in Contesting White Supremacy. But it is also something that each of us can do in our everyday interactions. Some questions to consider: whose stories and experiences are in our face all the time? Whose do we not hear? Do we not hear them because we are not listening? Or it is that they have given up trying to tell us? Or it is that they have been silenced? Can we recover these silenced voices or bear witness to their absence? Thus begins a journey that can redefine all that we are, including what it means to be Canadian.

Yeow Tong Chia will be graduating in June 2011 with a PhD in the History of Education, as well as Comparative and International Education programs at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto.

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