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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2013

“Too Asian?”

Racism, privilege, and post-secondary education

RJ Glimour, Davina Bhandar, Jeet Heer & Michael C.K. Ma, eds. Toronto, ON: Between the Lines, 2012; 224 pp; ISBN: 978-1-92666-278-7, paper $26.95 CAD.

Review by Jenny Heijun Wills

Too Asian? offers a diverse collection of essays focusing on the ever-controversial discourses of affirmative action and meritocracy as they relate to Canadian college and university admission policies.

Contributors from disciplines including education, creative writing, history and sociology provide a rich collaboration that addresses the important (and often problematic) intersections between race, ethnicity and nationality in Canada.

Generally, Too Asian? embodies the ways that various communities can come together and use critical analysis to defy hasty generalizations about race and identity.

Specifically, it responds to Stephanie Findlay and Nicholas Köhler’s controversial ar­ticle of the same name published by Mac­lean’s magazine in 2010, which suggested that Asian students (reducing Asians to a homogenous group, and offering no distinction between Canadian-born and international students) were monomaniacal model minorities threatening to invade Canadian institutions after being displaced by American schools’ affirmative action policies.

Findlay and Köhler’s now-notorious article argues that the hordes of Asian students’ sole interest in studying and not socializing compromised Canadian values of integration and balance. Contributor Sarah Ghabrial best summarizes what the Maclean’s authors infer to be the problem: “As they sapped campuses of their vitality, Asian students were also turning off white potential applicants or else ‘stealing’ their futures.” (p. 46)

Essays in this collection are divided; the early articles elaborate on the ideological repercussions of the myth of meritocracy in a white supremacist society, and are undergirded by concepts with which those of us in Asian/American studies are abundantly familiar: the model minority, yellow peril and forever foreigner.

Henry Yu, who elsewhere has criticized the editors at Maclean’s for issuing a “non-apologetic nonapology” for the original article that “tried to evade the issue,” exposes “(A) new system that is fair in ideal has actually reinforced the unfairness of the past.” (p. 23)

Yu demonstrates the imbalances of race relations in Canada with an accessible, jargon-light framework that adds another important element to this debate when he insists that we dehomogenize Asian subjectivity in Canada, not just in terms of geographic and cultural difference, but also in light of historical context.

The majority of the essays in Too Asian? focus on the practical challenges of teaching race in Canadian colleges and universities, especially within the unique circumstances of “Canadian multi-racial, multi-ethnic contexts” for which American readings of race and privilege are decidedly “inadequate.”(p. 105) Several authors address the pedagogical opportunities afforded by the Maclean’s article: polemical works like Findlay and Köhler’s original essay can be invaluable fodder for initiating discourse in the classroom.

Ray Hsu and Julia Paek’s essay elaborates on a creative “teachable moment” instigated in response to the Maclean’s piece (a video produced by Hsu and his students in the creative writing department at the University of British Columbia) that later prompted a course entitled “Way Too Asian.” (p. 97) The course attracted students from diverse disciplinary, racial and cultural backgrounds and “allowed for very eclectic and innovative creative pieces.” (p. 98)

Other essays discuss race and education in more conceptual ways. Soma Chatterjee, Mandeep Mucina and Louise Tam’s essay deconstructs the power of the predictable narrative espoused by the “Too Asian?” article, offering their own personal stories to undermine the “single story of ‘Asian’ students as victims of their brutal culture, yet pawns of a Canadian dream of multicultural success.” (p. 121)

Anita Jack-Davies discusses the anxieties expressed by her student-teachers in Ontario who felt their “prior education did not prepare them to critically analyze issues of race in any way.” (p. 117) She observes that “Canada’s national discourse of multiculturalism…often occurs at the expense of explicit discussions of issues of race,” (p. 118) resulting in a white-neutral hegemonic ideology that leads to some students’ privileged assumptions of entitlement.

One section of the collection is pleasantly unexpected, but offers the greatest opportu­nity to extend these debates into larger conversations about race, identity and power. Consisting of just two works, and sandwiched between the other, more reactionary sections, the “Colonial and Imperialist Legacies” essays make important observations that push up against traditional mappings of race and ethnicity in Canada.

Adele Perry argues that “public conversation thinks that students of Asian origin have moved too much and Indigenous people too little but both are positioned outside the nation and its special institution, and both are perceived as a danger to a polity presumed to be and always to have been white,” (p. 65) drawing on an element of the original Maclean’s article that few other authors in the Too Asian? collection do: migration and xenophobia.

Strikingly absent from this collection is any significant mention of Quebec or French Canadians with Asian origins (beyond David Weinfeld’s limiting claim that “French Canadians … do not suffer from racial discrimination” (p. 33) — that itself envisions a racially homogenous French Canadian polity).

While the editors rightly criticize the Maclean’s authors for their “imprecise use of terms such as ‘Asian,’” of making the “assumption that the experience of upper-middle class ‘white kids’ (is) normative and therefore Canadian” (p. 4), they too are guilty of inferring a narrow, Anglo-centric version of Canadian subjectivity. Reference to the unique cultural qualities emerging in an increasingly multicultural Quebec would add an important layer of complexity to this book.

Also ironic is the mild inattentiveness with which terms such as “non-white” are deployed within derisions of white supre­macy, or terms like “Chinese-Canadian” are hyphenated within critiques of forever foreigner stereotyping. (p. 3)

Yet in all, Too Asian? is an important commentary on the ways that power and ideology are inextricably bound to the politics of race and identity within and beyond Canadian institutes of post-secondary education. This collection highlights some of the challenges that we must continually work to overcome, and applauds the collective work that has already begun.

Too Asian? is an important conversation-starter that gestures toward some of the uncomfortable issues from which we cannot (and should not) avert our eyes.

Jenny Heijun Wills is an assistant professor of English at the University of Winnipeg.