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.

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