provoking thoughts about the presence of our past

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sorry Is Not Enough

Maclean's must answer for racial profiling

Asian-Canadians aren't just being too sensitive. There's a history behind their reaction to the magazine's 'Too Asian'? article

A Maclean's article about some Canadian universities being seen as 'too Asian' has raised objections, but no apology from the national magazine.

Photograph by: Steve Bosch, Vancouver Sun, Vancouver Sun

In the weeks since the Maclean's article ' Too Asian'? was published, there have been a lot of opinions expressed. As a historian, I would like to point out some problems of just having an opinion without understanding what has led to some of the emotional reactions to the article, especially among those who have grown up in Canada.
The problem was not just the simplistic racial profiling which served as the inflammatory lead. More disturbing to many was that in a seasoned newsroom at Canada's self-proclaimed only national news magazine, no one had the good sense to ponder whether publishing an article designed to incite racial profiling of Asians was a good idea. Judging by the continued insistence on the part of Maclean's that their story was good journalism and that they have nothing for which they need to apologize, their editors and publishers remain unclear about just what they did wrong.
So what is going on? These are not unintelligent people. The problem is that there are so few people in their newsroom (and indeed among many of our English-language daily newsrooms) who might through personal experience understand what it is like to grow up Asian-Canadian, and indeed to be a visible minority or an indigenous person in Canada. Like the misguided student quoted at length who kept insisting that she was "not a racist" even while expressing racist opinions, those people who have spent their lives enjoying the privilege of not having to think about their race often do not understand why non-whites are so "sensitive." It is one of the signal benefits of our racial hierarchy that being white is the norm and everyone else has to deal with being Asian, or native, or black. What an amazing privilege indeed to just be able to live.
It is not enough just to know someone who is non-white. Americans in the 1970s who resisted the desegregation of their children's schools would often insist that they were not in fact racists for wanting to exclude blacks; in fact, the phrase "one of my best friends is black" was so commonly uttered it became a joke.
One of the problems with the Maclean's article is that it represents for so many Canadians those often arbitrary moments when their race suddenly matters. They are reminded that despite whatever they do to fit in, they will be considered an Asian. Some people who are recent arrivals, or who have made peace with being considered exotic and different, have no problem with this. They like being different. But racial stereotypes have consequences beyond the level of personal identity.
If you think that being considered a model minority is a good thing, perhaps it would be useful to know the history of the concept. It first arose as the "yellow peril" in the 19th century, when Chinese and Japanese on the west coast of North America were stereotyped as "cheap" labour compared with whites. They were threatening because they were able to accomplish more with the same resources. Being productive, they were framed in anti-Asian rhetoric as being "too hardworking." They threatened "normal" whites. Sound familiar?
In the 1970s in the United States, the term "model minority" was coined to describe Japanese-Americans and then Chinese-and Korean-Americans. Why were they a "model"? Because they suffered racism, but unlike blacks, they just took the abuse and worked harder and accomplished more with less. In California, this justified the removal of affirmative action policies put in place to reverse centuries of anti-black racism. But many Asian-Americans resisted the label of being a "model" because even though it seemed like a positive stereotype, it came with high costs. One cost was the destruction of anti-racism coalitions with Jewish-Americans and African-Americans that had helped overcome white supremacy during the Civil Rights era. Another cost was the revival of the racist image that Asians were a threat to "normal" white Americans.
When the Maclean's writers and editors trafficked in this image, they invested in their article the values of a century-and-a-half of white supremacy. Many Asian Canadians immediately felt the cost, even if many of them cannot quite articulate why they feel angry. But they are not being "overly sensitive." Their hurt is real because the damage goes beyond personal feelings.
One of the costs of the image of Asians being studious is that it often justifies a glass ceiling that limits their promotions to positions of leadership or management. In the U.S., studies have shown how stereotypes of Asians as being good at math but lacking social skills has justified their stalling in lower or middle management while those who are seen to have better people skills are promoted past them. Many women in Canada may be familiar with similar justifications when their managerial skills are dismissed for equally empty reasons.
There are many approaches to managing people, but reserving positions of power for those who look and feel familiar to those already in power commonly hides bias in seemingly objective judgments. But these judgments often traffic in racial and gender stereotypes -- she's not "outspoken" enough or "too quiet" are words used to describe someone who works quietly behind the scenes to build consensus.
Maclean's is going to apologize at some point. Probably sooner rather than later. The reason is that Rogers, which owns the magazine, has other businesses, including Omni TV, a multicultural channel that relies upon Mandarin, Cantonese, Punjabi and other "Asian" language audiences. They are vulnerable because a boycott of one of their divisions for the sins of another will hurt. Maclean's itself is suffering from declining circulation and a subscription base that is dwindling, precisely because it is not based upon the urban demographic of young Asian-Canadian students and university-trained professionals that they so inanely targeted with their article. But their cellphone division does rely on this very important population of Vancouver and Toronto, and as soon as these customers decide that Rogers is not worth supporting because the national news magazine dismisses their concerns, they will apologize. One of my students mentioned that Rogers had lost its monopoly on the iPhone, and wouldn't it be great to organize a campaign with Bell to have her classmates switch over their cellphone contracts? The students can make fun of Rogers and mock them for being uncool. There is nothing worse for corporate branding than being laughed at. Forget lawsuits or waving placards in the streets; this will scare the wallets out of Rogers.
But saying sorry will not be enough. Even if it is as abject and grovelling as CTV's apology 30 years ago for their W5 program (you can find it online, and by the way it took nearly half a year for them to admit they had done anything wrong), the problem with just saying sorry is that newsrooms will remain the same. Maclean's is facing layoffs for having a shrinking readership, and so hiring young people to diversify their newsroom is not going to happen. Unfortunately, this is the problem with so many of our daily newspapers, which face the same problem of declining circulations and an obsolete business model. They are dinosaurs, and judging by the energy that young bloggers have shown in responding to the Maclean's article using the new media (often without spending a single penny on buying the magazine), the future is with the young Asian-Canadians university students so insulted by the magazine.
What would be better is if Rogers endowed some money from their more profitable communications divisions to help support the development of new media that will better engage a diverse Canadian society. Their current market segmentation model has created the paradox that they can insult Asians on the one hand while another hand makes money from the publicity in their Asian language news. They can profit this way for awhile, but not for the common good of us all.
I hope our boardrooms and leadership circles have a better chance of becoming more diverse than our English-language newsrooms. The first step is to avoid racial stereotypes about either Asians or whites, even if they seem at first to be positive images. Asking "Too Asian"? has been a question designed to reinforce white supremacy for two centuries. One look at our boardrooms and leadership circles in Canada might raise the question of what "Too White"? might mean in this context. But I don't write for Maclean's and so I won't ask such a question now. By the way, some of my best friends are white.
Henry Yu is a professor of history at the University of British Columbia. He is writing a book entitled Pacific Canada, which argues for a perspective in our society that recognizes the inequities of our past and rebuilds in a collaborative manner a new approach to our common history and future together.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Is it Racist to Ask "Too White?"

Is it Racist to Ask if a Community or a University or Company is "Too White?"

In February, in a Vancouver Sun Commentary, I asked rhetorically what was wrong with Kits. Many people believed that my use of the term "white" was racist. Was it?

When I pointed out that in a city where every neighbourhood had significant ethnic Chinese populations, and asked whether a neighbourhood that was all white was a "problem," the answer I did not supply was "Nothing is wrong with Kits." What does it mean that nothing is wrong with Kits? What does it mean that we can ask the question of a neighborhood or a school whether it is "too Asian?" and yet it is meaningless to ask if a neighborhood or a company is "too white?"

When you ask yourself what is wrong with Kits, and the likely answer you come up with is "Nothing is wrong with Kits," what is erased in that sense of normalcy is the great amounts of political work and a long history of white supremacy that made that normal.

Racial hierarchy in Canada started from the very first moments of clearing indigenous peoples from their lands, and the long history of white supremacy created anti-Asian and anti-Native and anti-Jewish prejudice. It created racial categories such as "Oriental," "Indian," and "Black." It also created a category called "white."

But the category of "white" is not the same as the other categories because in a society that is built around white supremacy, those able to be a part of the category of "white" received privileges that were denied the others. The categories are not equal. People who came to Canada as "Finns" or "Italians" or "Ukrainians" and had never thought of themselves as "white" in their home villages learned very quickly that to be "white" had advantages. Those categorized by the system of racial classification as "non-white" had almost no choice in the matter.

For most of Canadian and U.S. history, people wanted to "pass" as "white" because of the privileges. Very few people who could be counted as "white" wanted to pass as "black" or "Indian." What does that tell us?

We now live in a time when being classified as "white" doesn't seem to give the same advantages it used to give. In fact, many people now don't even bother trying to identify that way because it isn't much of a benefit. But that doesn't mean there aren't still long-standing legacies of racial hierarchy and white supremacy.

An all-white neighborhood takes a great deal of political work to build. It can endure long after such work has been done. There is nothing "wrong" with the people who live in Kits, but they might wonder what the historical causes are that led to the creation of whites-only neighborhoods such as Shaughnessy, Kerrsidale, and the British Properties, and why each of them were desegregated by Hong Kong Chinese migrants in the 1990s. Kitsilano was not.

We live in a society that was built out of inequity. So many of those inequities were overcome. We have mixed couples and marriages a-plenty. We have children who do not think about race. But that does not mean all of the legacies of inequity are gone. By asking "what is wrong with Kits?" the answer for most people is "nothing." And that should give us pause, because if we ask "what is wrong with Richmond?" the common answer is "too many Chinese." I haven't even touched upon the vicious anti-Native prejudice that passes for common sense in Canada, and our convenient forgetting that we live on someone else's unceded land.

If Macleans asks what is wrong with our top universities, and their answer is "Too Asian," that says a lot about just what we find so normal that the whiteness of Kitsilano is normal and all those "Asians" around us are a "problem."

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.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Our Future as a Half-Chinese City

Webcast sponsored by the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre. Original talk took place in UBC Robson Square.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Why Macleans and racism should no longer define Canada

originally published in the Georgia Straight, Nov. 16, 2010

Thirty years after CTV aired its infamous W5 program “Campus Giveaway”—insinuating that Canadian universities had too many "Asians" and therefore too many “foreigners”—Macleans magazine has cynically used racial stereotypes to invent a nonissue. In its annual university rankings issue last week, Macleans asked why “white” Canadians think some of our top universities are “too Asian”.

Buried amid the article’s inflammatory racial profiling was an attempt at good reporting, which made Macleans’ appeal to “race” even more sad.

The journalists interviewed a wide array of people; however, rather than addressing the worry among our younger generation about how hard they need to work in school when so much of their future relies upon the grades and rankings they receive, the editors decided to bury any insights they had acquired underneath a racist logic of “Asian” versus “white”.

They created the fearsome spectre of too many “Asian” students who were somehow both overachieving and tragically marred by social awkwardness. They then blamed these students for the lack of dialogue (and cross-racial partying) on campuses.

The title "Too Asian" draws upon over a century of racist politics using the term "Asian" to flatten everyone who looks "Oriental" into a single category, which is somehow threatening to "white" Canadians.

Have we not advanced enough to recognize that people with black hair who do not look like their families came from Europe can still be "Canadian", rather than harbouring the assumption of the writers that “Asian” is the opposite of "born in Canada"?

I see hope in a younger generation of Canadians who have enough sense to understand that an open dialogue about race requires first and foremost avoiding the easy analysis of lumping in a wide variety of people into simplistic categories such as “Asian” and “white”. Judging from the first 300 comments on Macleans' online edition, many of which dismissed the article as being pointless and inflammatory, there are plenty of Canadians more articulate and intelligent about the dangers of racial stereotyping than the authors.

Each day in my classes, I hear intelligent and humane dialogues between students of every colour and from everywhere around the world. It's something that makes UBC and other Canadian universities special places that seemingly have better sense than the Macleans newsroom.

We should be asking how our campus communities can be improved, and we should understand the diverse backgrounds of our students and how racial stereotypes continue to have salience. But racist questions obscure the important issues facing us.

Talking about race involves seeing through the generalizations, and understanding what is actually happening, not posing racially inflammatory questions that reinforce rather than refute dangerous stereotypes.

In referring to characterizations of Asian Americans in the U.S. as a “model minority” in the 1980s and 1990s and the ugly attempts in some private universities in the U.S. during that period to quietly cap enrolments of those considered “Asian”, the article implied that this “American” solution to campuses being “too Asian” should be dismissed as un-Canadian and against our meritocratic admission policy.

What the authors fail to realize is that they have accepted throughout their own article the fundamental racist premise that was being criticized in the U.S.: the characterization of all “Asians” as overachievers who threaten “white” students.

Framing their article around the question of whether our campuses are “too Asian” obscures whatever useful points the authors thought they were trying to make.

Until recently in its history, Canada had a history of white supremacy similar to South Africa and the American South, building its immigration policy around the racial category of “white Canada”, passing a wide array of discriminatory laws that disenfranchised those considered “nonwhites”, and creating widespread racial segregation in jobs and housing.

The category of "white" was used to glue together European migrants of many different backgrounds and as a political organizing tool, often using racial categories such as "Oriental," "Asian", “Jew”, or "Native" in contrast. We are still left with legacies of this history, including the unquestioned assumption that the term "Canadian" is interchangeable with "white Canadian”.

Like a Molson Canadian television commercial, this lingering vision of Canada as uniformly white is so commonplace that we still think of it as the norm—we rarely ask whether a certain neighborhood or community or school might be “too white”.

Why is there an issue of “race” only when a community or university is becoming “too Asian”?

Our society no longer looks like the beer drinking all-white camraderie of a Molson Canadian commercial. Perhaps it never did, and white supremacy always needed to hide away into reservations and ghettoes all those who did not fit into the vision of “White Canada Forever”, which white supremacists sang a century ago.

When large waves of European refugees came to Canada after the Second World War, they had little choice but to blend into a generic whiteness and an Anglo conformity in language and manners that allowed them to be accepted as Canadian. All of the rewards of a still-segregated society were available to those who would adapt, since Canada was still slowly dismantling laws that relegated “nonwhites” to second-class citizenship.

We still live with many of the legacies of that slow dismantling of our own apartheid, and one of them is the racist presumption that the Macleans authors too easily accept: that the term “Asian” somehow captures a truth about people who have black hair and “Oriental” facial features.

There are vast differences among “Asians”. So the next time you see people with black hair in a group, realize that they might be learning a lot about the differences and similarities they have with each other. Rather than blaming them for “self-segregating”, go think a bit more about why you assume they are all the same.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

What's Wrong With Kits?

Vancouver’s Own Not-So-Quiet Revolution

Published February 1, 2010 by Henry Yu in the Vancouver Sun

On the eve of the Winter Olympics, there is a not-so-quiet revolution going on here in
Vancouver every bit as important as that which transformed Quebec a half a century ago,
even if the Anglophone journalists and commentators of this city and of our nation seem
oblivious to its consequences. Inexorably, the tenor of civic debate in this city is no
longer being carried out only in the colonial language of English. But rather than in
French, it is in a multiplicity of Asian languages—Mandarin, Cantonese, Punjabi,
Tagalog--that the voices of people long silenced are talking. What are they discussing?
Important issues that bespeak both the deep colonial past of “British” Columbia and the
need for a frank and open discussion about our collective future.
Our city will soon be over 50% “visible minority,” with the vast majority of these “nonwhites”
of Asian heritage. The very term “visible minority” has become an oddity,
raising questions about who is the “minority” in a city that has such strong historical and
demographic connections across the Pacific. When Captain John Meares arrived in 1788
to be greeted by Chief Maquinna of the Nuu-chah-nulth, there were Chinese aboard his
ship. Right from the earliest moments that migrants from around the world came to the
land of First Nations peoples in B.C, we have had both trans-Pacific Asian and trans-
Atlantic European migrants.
It struck me last weekend when I was shopping in Kitsilano what an aberration that
neighborhood is—one of the few areas in Vancouver that has not been transformed in the
last three decades by new migration from Asia—Kits for instance does not have a
significant ethnic Chinese Canadian presence in a city where almost every other
neighborhood has percentages of ethnic Chinese that range from 20% to 55%. What is
wrong with Kits? The same thing that is wrong with so many newsrooms and boardrooms
in Vancouver, where a quick glance around at who shapes opinion and leadership
decisions reveals a blinding uniformity of faces as white as driven snow.
Its odd that the upcoming Winter Olympics, whose participants also used to reflect the
dominance of northern European origins, have become quite diverse with Asian faces in
skating and skiing events. And yet our city, so proud of our diversity, has still so far to go
in understanding just what it means to have a majority of its residents of Asian heritage.
Canadians are wonderful at criticizing other societies for inequity and their inability to
overcome racial discrimination and colonialism. Canadians helped lead worldwide
opinion against apartheid in South Africa. If the major universities in South Africa after
apartheid had a majority of their students non-white and nearly every single one of their
administrators blindingly white, Canadians would know that this was a legacy of white
supremacy and further change was necessary. Yet here in Vancouver, our major
universities have a majority of non-white students, but we retain an overwhelmingly
white leadership, and yet no one even notices that this might be the legacy of a long
history of apartheid and white supremacy. Why not? Perhaps it is because we had a
relatively peaceful transition from apartheid and so we are able to be deaf and blind to its
legacies here. We are so quiet about our colonial past that we so easily forget it existed.
There are many legacies of our colonial past and the white supremacy that undergirded
it—residential schools, the reserve system, the Indian Act, Chinese Exclusion, the
Continuous Journey Act, housing convenants in Shaughnessy and other neighborhoods
that prevented Jews, Asians, and Natives from buying houses. We have overcome much
of the racial discrimination of the past, and we continue to deal with many of the
continuing problems left unresolved, but the most dangerous are those legacies to which
we are deaf and blind.
One of the major unresolved legacies of colonialism and white supremacy in B.C. is our
language policy. We are so proud that businesses in Vancouver can advertise for workers
who need to speak Chinese or Punjabi or Hindi or French or German, and that it is
possible in this multilingual city of diversity that we can fill the applicant pool. But we
are mislead by the availability of bilingual speakers who can read and write both English
and Chinese, or English and Punjabi. We did not educate and create them—many of them
came here already functionally bilingual or learned English to supplement their existing
fluencies. We will ruin their children.
My parents spoke multiple dialects of Chinese when they arrived in Canada and learned
English within five years. We spoke English and Cantonese at home, and I eventually
received a full scholarship to Princeton to do my PhD. But I took ten years of French in
school and can barely order a sandwich in Quebec. My Cantonese is good enough to
order food and in an emergency ask for a bathroom.
You are better off coming to Canada as a 10-year old than being born here. If you come
as a 10-year old, you have a chance to learn English even as you retain some fluency in
whatever non-English language you learned as a child. If you are born here, you will
grow up in an Anglophone society that derides “accented” English (except if you have an
alluring British accent). At the end of K-12 education you will only be able to speak and
write English and perhaps have enough baby talk in your home language that as an 18-
year old you might speak as if you were an overgrown 5 year old.
We are complacent and cruel. We ask our job seekers to have multiple language skills so
that our companies can compete in a global economy where Mandarin, Hindi, Japanese,
and other Asian languages are a tremendous competitive advantage. We do not have any
problem finding such employees. And yet we produce monolingual children who are illequipped
compared to their immigrant parents. Why?
Over a century of Anglophone dominance in B.C. led to policies designed to erase non-
English language use among children. Residential schools set out to eradicate aboriginal
language use; hiring policies rewarded native English speakers and reduced those who
had the “wrong” accent to subordinate roles even as they were useful as translators.
Perversely, speaking only English was considered superior to speaking multiple
languages, as long as the English had the right accent and the face was the right colour.
Edmonton, Alberta, a city that Vancouverites almost universally deride as uncivilized and
backward—we have sushi they have cattle and oil!—has had bilingual Mandarin-English
programs from K-12 for 26 years, with 13 schools and thousands of children learning
Mandarin and English on a 50/50 equal basis. There is a healthy mix of children who
spoke Chinese and English as toddlers before entering these programs in kindegarten, so
that kids in their daily interactions feel that the two languages are equally useful and
important and feel motivated to learn both. Every time I mention to a Vancouverite that
Edmonton has had these programs for over a quarter of a century, and ask them how
many schools in Vancouver have such programs, they assume that we have such a
progressive city that we must have dozens. We have none.
Beginning in Fall 2010, after the Olympics, the school boards of Coquitlam, Vancouver,
and Burnaby will begin early start Mandarin programs. Only Coquitlam has made their
program open to all learners. Vancouver and Burnaby have made the mistake of limiting
entrance to English speakers only. These classes need kids who can speak Mandarin.
Decades of scholarly research has shown that without Mandarin speakers in the
classroom, English speakers will not effectively learn how to speak Chinese. Like my ten
years of French from grade 3 to grade 12, not having native French speakers in the
classroom led to a stunted language learning experience.
We are undergoing a not-so-quiet revolution in this city. The daily circulation of our
Chinese language newspapers dwarf the readership of the Vancouver Sun and Province,
and our common future will be determined in a variety of languages both English and
non-English. If we cannot cure ourselves of the colonial legacies of making our children
monolingual in English, we will stunt the next generation and waste the incredible human
capital that we welcome each year to our shores.
Henry Yu is a professor of History at the University of British of Columbia. He was born
in Vancouver and graduated from UBC, the son of immigrants from China but also the
fourth generation greatgrandson of Chinese migrants who came to B.C. in the 19th