On November 10, Maclean’s Magazine published “Too Asian?”, an article describing (some) White students’ decision not to apply to top-tier universities like the University of Toronto, the University of Waterloo, and the University of British Columbia, because they are “so academically focused that some students feel they can no longer compete or have fun.” According to these students, universities like that are known as being “too Asian”. Understandably, the backlash to this article has been fast and furious:
- there’s a Facebook campaign that which includes both articles (such as “Let’s Talk About Race, Canada”, by Shelly Chan), and calls for grass-roots organizing and activism;
- opinion pieces have been written for other mainstream publications: “Why Maclean’s and Racism Should No Longer Define Canada”, by Henry Yu, and “Canadian Media: It’s Time to Cover the Uncovered”, by Minelle Mahtani; and
- satire has been used to highlight the not-so-subtle racism of Maclean’s cover images: “Too White?”: The Maclean’s Magazine Archives
All of these responses are excellent, and make many of the arguments I would have made had I gotten around to writing this post sooner. There is one argument, however, that I feel is missing from the conversation. Both Shelly Chan and Henry Yu allude to it, but I want to explicitly address it. The Maclean’s article says that, according to the White students they interviewed, “Too Asian” is not about racism. I argue that it is, indeed, about racism.
In fact, I argue that it’s always about racism.
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of attending a public lecture by Dr. Angela Davis as part of the University of Toronto Student Union’s annual Xpression Against Oppression Week. Among the many incredible, brilliant things she said, one comment in particular, resonated with me:
Our conversations [about race] have not kept up with the various permutations of racism.
In other words, because we* refuse to talk honestly about racism, we don’t fully understand how it works. We don’t realize that the more overt, state-sanctioned forms of racism that were the norm only a few decades ago have left us a powerful, poisonous legacy. We don’t recognize how contemporary forms of racism twist, shift, slip, and slide their way into our collective unconsciousness, influencing everything we think, feel, do, and say.
So, when Alexandra** and her friends say that they don’t want to go to a university that’s “too Asian”, thereby attributing a singular trait to a highly diverse group of people based on assumed similarities of phenotype, language, and/or citizenship? That’s about racism.
When she says that going out east for university would suit her younger brother “because it’s chill”, or out west because “he could be a ski bum”, thereby sanctioning his sense of entitlement (as a privileged white male) to both a good education and a good time? That’s about racism.
When Alexandra’s friend Rachel*** says the University of Western Ontario suits them because “they work hard, get good grades, then slap on their clubbing clothes”, thereby suggesting (if unwittingly) that good grades is a relative term that has different meanings for different “kinds” of students? That’s about racism.
When some Asian students sacrifice almost everything else in their lives to be at the top of their class, because they understand that in order to compete with their White peers in the labour market, they have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good? That’s about racism.
When mainstream media take advantage of our (willful) ignorance of the subject by using cheap, simplistic reporting techniques to increase the number of page views on their website? That’s about racism, too.
And it will always be about racism until we stop pretending that it isn’t. Judging by the more than two thousand comments on the Maclean’s article, we might be on our way to doing just that.
* I’m speaking generally, of course, because there are many people who do talk honestly about racism.
** Not her real name.
*** Also not her real name.