Image courtesy of Sakeeb Sabakka from Fotopedia.
There were more people than seats packed into the Toronto Women’s Bookstore for the launch of Too Asian? Racism, Privilege, and Post-Secondary Education on September 27. The book was much anticipated and – with the launch, only a few minutes away from the University of Toronto – much needed.
The anthology, published by Between the Lines, is a response to the controversial and much maligned November 2010 Maclean’s article, “Too Asian,” a look at the apparent discrimination of “Canadian” (see: white) students in major national universities. Based on an interview from a white Havergal College student, the writers found some Grade 12 students were ruling out universities like the U of T because of their Asian-ness. The influx of Asian students gave these schools a reputation for academic rigidity and would hinder their social experience and ability to compete.
It’s a term, allegedly imported from the United States. Report the writers:
“‘Too Asian’ is not about racism, say students like Alexandra: many white students simply believe that competing with Asians—both Asian Canadians and international students—requires a sacrifice of time and freedom they’re not willing to make.”
More than a thousand comments (overwhelmingly negative) and plenty of backlash from groups like the Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC) drove Maclean’s to post a response and change the title to “The Enrollment Controversy.” The original article also received some edits, but not before May Lui, interim director of the CCNC, could copy and paste it on her blog.
The article comes 30 years after a W5 story examining the Asian population “crisis” in post-secondary schools. The documentary, called “Campus Giveaway” singled out a group of non-white students sitting in a lecture hall, and questioned why university spots for Canadian students at were being handed over to foreigners.
The students filmed weren’t foreigners.
“Sometimes an article and one incident can galvanize people,” said Lui. She encouraged the audience to take pins leftover from the protest; large red and white buttons that read “Too Asian for Maclean’s.”
The now notorious article, called “one of the shabbiest and laziest pieces in the history of Canadian magazine journalism” by Heather Mallick of the Toronto Star, came together in under two years, a collection of essays by academics, students and community leaders. In it they address this country’s investment in the idea of meritocracy and multiculturalism (an ideal the article repeated), the skewing of our colonial history and the dangers of holding onto these beliefs without questioning their truthfulness.
Most importantly, the book exposes a reality of Canadian post-secondary education: that institutionalized racism is present in our universities.
The Eyeopener tackled race relations at Ryerson in its issue called “Dirty Little Secrets,” nine months before the Maclean’s article was published. The feature, “Shades of Grey” cited a lack of equity and diversity courses across programs and few alternatives to Eurocentric and cis-gendered electives in the course calendar. The article also reported that 32 complaints of racism had been filed with the office of discrimination and harassment services in 2009 and eight cases of anti-Semitic behaviour in January 2010.
Ryerson isn’t one of the universities named in the original article. The institution’s relatively young, post-war history means it doesn’t have the staunch conservative and Anglo roots that have contributed to U of T, Queen’s and McGill their elite reputations.
But the issue of privilege isn’t isolated to top-ranking universities. Racism faced by Asian students (international or otherwise) extends to campuses across the country, and was perpetuated by Maclean’s handwringing that Asian students and their strict upbringing are dividing university populations.
Sarah Ghabrial, a post-doctoral candidate at McGill and a founding member of the Miss_G Project, likens the language of Maclean’s and the W5 to the hysteria in the media that boys were falling behind academically. Canadians began to wonder whether affirmative action was needed, “not for historically disenfranchised groups, but for white men.”
Jeet Heer, one of the book’s editors slammed the lack of media accountability in Canada and the entitlement of journalists like Margaret Wente, whose history of plagiarism has, until last month, gone unpunished. Despite reluctant apologies from Wente and the Globe and Mail, he said, the public outrage was an important step in holding news outlets responsible for offensive content and journalistic misconduct.
Ryerson will host a full-day conference on activism against racism in the media on Nov. 10.
Heer is a journalist himself who has appeared in the National Post, The Walrus, the Boston Globe and many other publications. Maclean’s has yet to comment on the release of Too Asian though Heer is sure they’re aware. A senior editor at the magazine and former acquaintance mentioned the she knew he had “a book out” at a recent party.
“Maclean’s has never apologized and I suspect they will never apologize,” he said.
“But even if they don’t apologize I think it’s very significant that there was protest and that it is on the record that this was a terrible article that informs the most horrendous xenophobic ideas, and this will be part of the history of that article and the history of Maclean’s.” M