provoking thoughts about the presence of our past

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Macleans' Nonapology for "Too Asian?"

Henry Yu: Macleans offers a nonapology for writing a nonstory called "Too Asian?"

UBC historian Henry Yu has suggested that Macleans employed disingenuous arguments in justifying publication of the article "Too Asian?", which focused on Canadian universities.

By Henry Yu

Macleans editors have issued a commentary online in which they “regret” that some people (putatively the “Asians” they stereotyped) were offended, but defending their story "Too Asian?" as good journalism.

It was not good journalism. What is particularly offensive about this nonapologetic nonapology is how they have tried to evade the issue.

Their statement, rather than dealing with the racist and inflammatory nature of their article, tried to rewrite the intention of their story, disingenuously asserting that their story was in fact a principled stand against the adoption of U.S.-inspired admissions caps on Asian Americans. It was no such thing.

Let me state this unequivocally as a professor teaching at UBC and who taught Asian American studies for 12 years at UCLA. I have knowledge about how Asian Americans have been categorized and racialized in admissions processes in the U.S., as well as how Canadian universities differ in their approach. There is not a single Canadian university considering adopting some form of admissions cap on “Asians”.

In fact, it would be practically impossible because our universities in general do not collect that form of information as part of our admissions process.

The ethnic-breakdown statistics that the Macleans article used from UBC were collected from a survey conducted of first-year students who were already admitted. The Macleans suggestion that there are private whispers or discussions of adopting race-based admissions for Asians in Canada is not only irresponsible journalism through unsubstantiated insinuation, but an outright lie.

They raise a red herring (Canadian universities considering U.S. policy) and then use the word "perhaps" to say we should “perhaps” not consider it, but there is nothing that is being considered (or dismissed) that they themelves have not invented out of fantasy.

Their article is not, as they claim, a principled antiracist stand calling for Canada to somehow defend meritocracy against American race-based admissions.

The main point of their article is the statement—clearly made—that there is a problem on campus caused by so many "Asian" students. That is what the title “Too Asian?” refers to—not a nonexistent nonmovement by Canadian universities to adopt U.S. policies.

And their absurd claim that the title was borrowed from an “authoritative source”? Let’s just call this what it is—bullshit. If you go to the original article in 2006 that used the title "Too Asian" in the U.S., a careful reader will quickly realize that the Macleans story takes the main idea of that story—that Asian Americans only seem to want to apply to prestigious schools, and therefore less prestigious schools face a challenge of convincing Asian American parents and students to apply to their schools—and twists it to conveniently become a story about race-based admissions capping too many Asians.

Except for a few exclusive Ivies in the 1980s and 1990s, no school in the U.S. wants "less" Asian American students; in fact they are considered prize students to be recruited, as is indicated in that article.

I taught at UCLA during the debates in the 1990s about removing affirmative action from public universities. I was a graduate student at Princeton when allegations surfaced that Ivy League schools were secretly capping Asian American admissions at 15 to 20 percent.

There were contentious and heated conversations about race and the meaning of meritocracy. There were many different opinions, and sometimes the debates were ugly. But the truth is that not a single university or college in the United States had a publicly stated race-based admissions policy that limited or put a quota on Asian Americans.

Whatever the debates, there was never any such thing as a race-based admission policy for Asian Americans. In fact, part of the complexity of the controversy regarding Ivy League admissions involved the need for activists and scholars to use statistical means to establish that these institutions were somehow limiting Asian American enrolments, a fact that Ivy League universities still deny.

But if there is a secret policy that is race-based in the U.S. in regard to Asian Americans, it is not explicitly stated as policy in the way that Macleans implies, nor is any single Canadian university contemplating such a policy in secret or in the open.

It is disingenuous and nauseating that Macleans editors raise this nonissue as if they themselves are the white knights riding to the rescue of the “Asian” students that they blame as the problem.

During my years at UCLA, I spent over a decade as a scholar trying to counteract the noxious effects of stereotypes about so-called “overachieving”, “model-minority” Asian Americans. I counted among allies other scholars and also a large community of political activists, parents, and educators from a wide spectrum of ethnic backgrounds.

When I returned to Canada in 2003 to the city where I was born and the university from which I had received my undergraduate degree, I felt relief to be again at home in a society that had legally enshrined multiculturalism and to teach at a university where mixing and socializing across a wide variety of differences was the norm.

Can we do better? Of course. Do we have a problem of being “Too Asian?" I do not even understand the meaning of the question as Macleans has posed it.

What is an “Asian” in their mind? Is it the same definition created by the anonymous pair of girls from Havergal College, who were mentioned at the beginning of the original story?

I am sickened that Macleans, in the most disingenuous way, would claim to be taking a heroic, principled stand against race-based admissions capping “Asian” enrolments, as if anyone other than this magazine was contemplating it for Canada.

Over a century ago, William Randolph Hearst perfected “yellow journalism”, a way of selling newspapers through outrageous and sensationalist headlines. Race-baiting was a common technique in yellow journalism, and in California a series of newspapers owned by Valentine McClatchy used anti-Asian headlines to incite the movement to disenfranchise and exclude Chinese and Japanese immigrants.

The “Too Asian?” headline that Macleans used, and more importantly, the nonexistent Asian “problem” that they themselves invented, could have come right out of one of those rags. They should be ashamed of using it, and they should be even more ashamed of foisting responsibility off on the Americans that they falsely accuse, as if Macleans had no responsibility for creating the headline.

Words matter, and no matter how you spin and twist their meaning, you cannot reinvent what was written for all to read. Macleans fucked up. Own up to it and stop pretending that you were saying the opposite of what you actually wrote.

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