UBC symposium on anti-Asian racism finds Maclean's "Too Asian?" too insensitive
Two weeks ago, I wrote a commentary in response to Maclean’s “Too Asian?” Since then, many voices have chimed in from left, right, and centre to offer their two cents. Aside from a brief non-apology released yesterday, minimal effort has been done by Maclean’s or Rogers to remedy the offense that “Too Asian?” has caused readers.
On November 25th, the University of British Columbia held a campus dialogue organized in response to an overwhelming interest from students in wake of the focus on Asian students after the publication of “Too Asian?” Not even the generous snowfall from the night before prevented the large room from filling up to capacity. The forum featured a panel made up of a mix of distinguished faculty and administration members as well as two undergraduate students. It was refreshing to be in an environment where the objective was to engage in a safe constructive dialogue about stereotyping in media.
Brian Sullivan, Vice-President, Students at UBC opened the dialogue by addressing the issue as one “not about admissions” nor was it about “unhappiness over the way that students choose to associate or to be engaged.” Sullivan added, “(students) are experts of their own experience” and that this episode is fundamentally about “people” and “about learning.”
Panelist Dr. Kerry Jang, Professor, UBC Psychiatry and Vancouver City Councilor, shared a story about his own upbringing; of how his grandfather arrived in British Columbia and paid the Chinese head tax and how emphasizing his Canadian citizenship was more important than identifying with his Chinese heritage. “You had to be as non-Chinese as possible,” Jang said, “so I kind of grew up being kind of non-Chinese but being reminded that I was Chinese every so often. We went back and forth with this kind of thing. So quite frankly, I didn’t know how to react when I read the article.” Jang’s sentiments echo with many Canadian-born and naturalized Asians who read the Maclean’s article but were caught in-between cultural worlds and thus, did not know how to react.
“This article harkens back to an older Canada,” explains panelist Dr. Henry Yu, Associate Professor, Department of History and Principle pro tem at St. Johns College, UBC. “It’s also a hurtful article for a lot of people. And in fact, the irony is if you just arrived from Asia, if someone says, ‘You’re so Asian’ – well of course, I was born in Asia.” Yu doesn’t fail to recognize the distinction between Asian international students and domestic Asian-Canadian students, an acknowledgment that Stephanie Findlay and Nicholas Kohler did not care to make nor did the Maclean’s editorial team care to include.
However, the international student is “not the person who’s actually going to feel hurt the most,” Yu continues, “You know who’s going to hurt the most? The person who tried really hard in elementary school and high school to fit in. The person who, like me, thought ‘maybe if I’m captain of the basketball team, it’ll be okay. Maybe if I really work hard to fit in.’ But then every once in a while someone calls you ‘rice’.”
“It’s the feeling of ‘what else do you want me to do?’ You say I don’t fit in – I do everything to fit in- and then you say I don’t fit in. And that’s the hurt.”
Canadian universities have changed significantly in the past four decades. It is should be of no surprise that the children of Asian immigrants and first-generation Asian-Canadians are entering university. It was a surprise for me to see a national magazine adhere to a dangerous discourse to choose not recognize their Canadian identities, but as Asian and as “others.”
As a UBC student and a regular consumer of news media, what I have witnessed in these past two weeks are many reputable journalists bickering with one another, arguing about semantic senses and references, pointing fingers at each other’s observations, and arguing the merits of “Too Asian?” in Canada. Conservative pundits are too busy crying “not racist” instead of listening and investigating why Canadians have reacted to this article with such emotion and anger. Student journalism and alternative media coverage on this controversy is far out-shining the articles and commentaries offered by seasoned writers like The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente, or The National Post’s Barbara Kay and Tony Keller. They do not bear significant weight because they all recycle the same UC Berekley example, the same statistical racial breakdown of UBC (UBC is the only Canadian institution that collects this data from voluntary post-admissions surveys), and the same casual “it’s not racist if it’s true” attitude.
Dr. Candis Callison, Assistant Professor at UBC’s School of Journalism and panelist, explained from a journalistic standpoint, why the article was troublesome and misleading. First, the writers began the piece by framing a discussion about diversity and admissions with two anonymous party girls - a unusual case since anonymity is typically granted only when a source’s life is in danger. The second problem is within the choice of title. As a linguistics student, the use of the degree adverb “too” is problematic as it alludes to the view that “x” is exceeding “normal” levels. And in the title that Maclean’s chose, that “x” was “Asian.” If Maclean’s had truly not meant to publish an article that held a negative view of Asian students, they would have been more careful with the end choice of “Too Asian?”
“Journalism is not just about highlighting tensions or pointing out tensions,” Callison reminds the full room, “but it’s in fact about disentangling the conflict of values.” Rather than instinctively falling back to the old formula of dividing the dialogue into non-constructive exchanges between “us” and “them” and strategizing ineffective ways to coexist as “we” and “you” – more efforts like those taken upon UBC to provide a safe environment for open dialogue need to be made.
One of the first things that you learn in psychology is that correlation does not mean causation. The claims made in the Maclean’s article that Asian students are anti-social academic drones and that Caucasian students are party-hungry academic slackers was problematic because the data it used to was questionable and absent in places. Correlation does not mean causation. Earlier in the discussion, Brian Sullivan made a great point and identified that “the largest single impediment we know from US students to your being able to associate when you want, with whom you want, and the depth you want, is the length of your commute.” How had the writers failed to acknowledge this important piece of data?
“Ah, racism: once you pull out that card, the discussion is over,” wrote Tony Keller, Toronto writer and former managing editor of Maclean’s, in response to the public outcry. Actually, no, it’s not. The only way that will end a discussion of racism is if all sides don’t continue to see a result worth striving for.
For those that subscribe to Keller’s attitude, it’s no wonder that the younger generation of students and recent graduates have gone to new alternative media and the blogoshpere to voice their distaste as to how a sensationalist piece attempted to reinforce both Asians and Caucasians stereotypes under the guise of a investigative journalistic report. The newsroom at Maclean’s should take a lesson from UBC; include some diversity in your community as a strategic means of reflecting the very audience you’re trying to appeal to. Maybe then, you will finally listen and learn.