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College Quarterly
Spring 2012 - Volume 15 Number 2
“Too Asian?” Racism, Privilege, and Post-Secondary Education
R. J. Gilmour, Davina Bhandar, Jeet Heer and Michael C. K. Ma, eds.
Toronto: Between the Lines, 2012
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

There are three main kinds of books about social problems. The lines between them are often blurred and sometimes what seems like one is another in disguise. The typology is admittedly crude, but a few simple distinctions seem to apply.

There are “normative” studies, which have mainly to do with discussing how we should behave. These can run all the way from erudite essays on ethics and what philosophers call “axiology” (the study of the “good”) to polemical pamphlets stridently advocating social reform. Their standard of accuracy is moral value.

There are “empirical” studies, which have mainly to do with quantitative descriptions and explanations of how we do behave. These can include esoteric statistical analyses arising out of psychology experiments or complex economic statistics. They normally attempt to mimic the “scientific method,” or at least present a plausible historical or institutional account of actual behaviour in the real world. Their standard of validity is factual accuracy.

Then, there are “experiential” studies, which may involve “qualitative” research, phenomenological explorations and ethnomethodological inquiries on the one hand and compilations of oral histories or collections of private writings such as letters or diaries that express what events feel like to those who were participants in them.

“Too Asian?” contains elements of all three types, but its most compelling sections are rooted in the third. This is a book that was born of outrage. It contains a moral or normative core in that it is relentless anti-racist. It provides some interesting historical information and, for example, content analyses of classroom textbooks. What will probably appeal most to students and teachers, however, are the discussions of perceptions and understandings of people as they react to the people and conditions around them.

The spark that lit this particular fire was an article published in Maclean’s Magazine in November, 2010. For those unfamiliar with Maclean’s (which probably means most readers outside Canada), it is the most popular domestic newsmagazine in the country. Indeed, some would say the only one still standing. I have been reading it for roughly fifty years. Despite its higher quality “production values,” I read it less and less often, usually only in the waiting rooms of doctors and dentists. I used to regard it as a genuine expression of Canadian life, just as CBC Radio has been the genuine voice of Canadian culture. Some time ago (in 2005, to be exact), Maclean’s changed profoundly in its editorial content and reportage. It is now a strong advocate for neoliberalism. Its columnists are more shrill. Its choice of topics is more focused on the interests of business and industry. It discusses approvingly any related social or cultural matters that might enhance corporate interests. It denigrates and mocks those who dissent. It is not a Canadian journalistic equivalent of FOX News, for it still maintains a generally acceptable facsimile of journalistic standards, but it is seriously declining as a reliable source of ideas, information and informed opinion.

The article that gave the book its name was a particularly sorry lapse. Maclean’s had for some time acquired the bad habit of devoting time once a year to postsecondary education or, more precisely, to universities. It rated them in terms of all sorts of spurious variables and came up with ranking lists which might have done damage by overestimating institutions and underestimating others, as though what bureaucrats might call “key performance indicators” had much to do with honest assessment and evaluation. At base, it was an exercise in “product” appraisal of the sort that might be done by an agency hired to investigate the marketability of a brand of shampoo or canned soup. As part of its commitment to campus magic, Maclean’s published “Too Asian?”

Magazine apologists defended the piece. Some said it was intended to start an important discussion, but what it actually did was purvey the same tired old stereotypes with the same vague language that people have been used since complaints were uttered about the racist dread of the “yellow peril” a century and more ago. It considered the increased diversity on Canadian campuses largely from the viewpoint of the upper-middle-class male who might find people of Asian heritage intimidating. Not only are they “different,” but they “work harder!” Of course, even the demographic category of Asian is problematic. No serious national or regional distinctions are made, so people from Korea, Vietnam and Sri Lanka and melted into the same pot as people from Japan, China and India. They are put in an impossible position in many ways: they are, for example, often shunned and then accused to keeping to themselves.

Toronto Star columnist Heather Mallick called the article “one of the shabbiest and laziest pieces in the history of Canadian magazine journalism.” She was right. I’d mention the authors of the original article and their various defenders in the right-wing corporate media, but I just remembered that there’s no such thing as bad publicity; so instead, I’ll deal exclusively with the book.

A collection of articles that was inspired/ignited by one inflammatory error in judgement by a popular magazine is a risky business. The resulting book can fail for a number of reasons, not least that the offensive article might not warrant such a strong backlash thus giving the original more credibility and empowering its supporters more than if the matter were simply ignored and allowed to die a natural death. In his extremely helpful introduction, however, Jeet Heer explains that this wasn’t a “one-off.” He recalls at some length another media fiasco—a 1979 television program on the popular current affairs show W-5 that was and remains a mainstay of the very successful privately owned Canadian Television Network. In that case, the object was to scapegoat foreign students (mainly Chinese) who were allegedly filling up Canadian universities and thereby denying nice white boys and girls from getting an education. As Heer says, “sadly the Canadian media learned little from the W-5 incident” since the Maclean’s article repeated many of the same mistakes. Although these were the two main examples of an unsavoury tradition, many others can be found in less prominent stories in less important venues. As for learning something, it is worth mentioning that in response to the public outcry in 1980, W-5 issued a formal apology; in 2010, Maclean’s realized that it did not have to.

The main virtue of Too Asian? (the book) is that it uses the magazine article as a springboard for a wide-ranging and thoughtful discussion of the many ways in which racism is insinuated into the lives of students, teachers and educational institutions, and into our society in general. The articles vary in their approach, but are scholarly without being scholastic. There are, for example, ample footnotes to establish firmly the basis of the authors’ lines of reasoning, but nowhere is the language arcane and the arguments abstract to the point of distraction. The volume is a testament to the fact that academic credibility and popular accessibility are not mutually exclusive.

Another danger in anthologies of this kind is that the temptation to allow emotions to dominate reason is always present among people who care passionately about their work, and for whom the restraints of detached scholarship do not blind the writers to the authentic moral and political issues at stake. It is, in short, always possible, often desirable and sometimes necessary to bring the normative, the empirical and the experiential together in a mutually supportive structure or approach to topics of inherent controversy—which, of course, all topics of genuine social importance and interest almost certainly are.

The contributors to Too Asian? do a more than competent job of mixing (not blending) the three basic approaches. An especially good example is a chapter on “Ruling Through Discourse: The Experience of Chinese-Canadian Youth” by Dan Cui and Jennifer Kelly. Establishing the historical context for a discussion of the Chinese immigrant experience, it furnishes brief and beneficial definitions of the key concepts of “discourse,” “ideology” and “hegemony” which permit the reader to engage with personal stories as empirical data, not merely as subjective utterances. Within a very few pages the analysis of language reveals a great deal about subtle power relations.

The authors draw attention to descriptions of bullying in the passive voice, e.g., “Chinese youth are bullied more frequently than their non-Asian peers” and “they are more frequently targeted because of being ‘too smart’ …” They then show how these constructions convey a very different meaning than a rendition of the same “facts” in the active voice, as in “Students from the dominant group targeted or bullied Chinese youth.”

The former makes the prey seem complicit in the predation by allowing the act to stand without an identified agent. It permits the perpetrator to be “camouflaged and erased.” Such sentence construction, of course, is not necessarily conscious or intentional. According to Cui and Kelly, this is a manifestation of “democratic racism—a discourse that blames victims for their exclusion and subordination while leaving the root causes unexamined.” Anyone can learn to avoid racial slurs in nouns and adjectives. We prissily avoid embarrassing ourselves and others by referring to odious terms by prim talk of the “N-word” or the “F-word” although the finite number of letters in the alphabet limits how far this can go. On the other hand, awareness of the implications of sentence structure requires some actual attention and the understanding that, just because the language effect is better hidden, does not make it less injurious.

Also particularly praiseworthy is Sarah Ghabrial’s “Pink Panics, Yellow Perils and the Mythology of Meritocracy.” As is increasingly well known (cf. the review of The Twilight of the Elites in this issue), the notion of meritocracy—a system of allocating rewards on the basis of individual achievement unaffected by such ascribed characteristics such as age, sex or national originwas introduced into as the linguistic centerpiece of a satire in which “objective” criteria were to be used to establish rank and position. The predicted effect, of course, was that “the ‘meritocracy’ that succeeded the aristocracy would usher in not an upheaval of social hierarchies and the end of class-based mobility, but simply the reorganization of signifiers of mobility, falling largely on the same historically privileged groups.”

Apparently some people didn’t get the joke. Instead, there has been a great wail of distress about “affirmative action” and a demand of raceless, genderless advancement, especially in education predicated on premise that merit can be independently measured by objective standards, and that competition can therefore become “fair.” Central to the argument is the alleged plight or pathetic, underprivileged, defenseless, middle-class white men, who are now suffering “reverse discrimination” as previously underprivileged people are being given a helping hand.

The rhetoric of “hard work” and individual talent is at the core of the meritocratic hierarchical strategy and, of course, people of Asian (or, more acutely, Chinese heritage) are said to have an unfair competitive advantage since they seem burdened by a joyless, succeed-at-all-costs ethic that isolates them (they don’t get drunk on week-ends and attend football games) while permitting them to outpace their “normal” fun-filled white classmates. Once again, the “Asian” is put in an impossible position. As a result, they become the victims of a paradox or, better, an hypocrisy. Invited to compete fairly, they learn that their “competitiveness is seen to damage the spirit if competition; their merit upsets the meritocracy.”

Ghabrial cleverly conjoins the same pattern of rhetoric that was once used to justify discrimination against women (“they” were taking good jobs away from men who were seen in the role of the dominant “family provider”) to explore manifold forms of prejudice against any number of groups. She uses both documentary and public opinion survey research as empirical evidence for her normative concerns as expressed in the experiences of participants in the hysterically labeled “Asian invasion.” The result, again, is a persuasive mixture of fact, value and experience. For example, she relies in part on US research findings which demonstrate that give the lie to the relationship between the meritocratic asset of “hard work” and actual reward outcomes. So, Asians are accused of working too hard, something champions of the meritocracy ought to regard as virtuous, and yet continue to encounter discriminatory practices: “Asian university applicants,” she relates, must score, on average, 140 points higher on the SAT than their white counterparts just to be considered.”1

So, many decades later, former Ottawa Mayor Charlotte Whitton’s observation remains apt, perhaps both for women and for members of the so-called Asian and other racio-ethnic communities: “Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men in order to be thought half as good … luckily it’s not difficult.”

In sum, for courses that deal with multiculturalism, race and ethnic relations, equity studies or any of the applied sociology courses that involve immigration, assimilation, prejudice and discrimination, this collage meets and exceeds expectations. It is mercifully unencumbered with the polysyllabic theorizing of some books in “identity politics.” It is similarly unfettered by a pervasive apologia for an absent pluralism. It permits people to talk authentically about their own experiences without becoming a compendium of “just so” stories tinged, of necessity, with just a little bit of rage. And it should find an even wider audience among non-academic citizens seeking an informed insight into an enduring problem—not the problem of a group of people facing the difficulty of coping with prejudice and discrimination, but of the society that practices them. The editors at Maclean’s must wonder if publishing their original story and contumaciously continuing to defend it was worth it.

Endnote:

1. Thomas J. Espenshade & Alexandria Walton Radford, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life) Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.


Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at howard_doughty@post.com.

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