"Too Asian"? We must defend diversity at all costs

By Dr. Shelly Chan

Concerned members of several university campuses are condemning an attack on diversity from an article entitled "'Too Asian'?" published in Maclean's magazine on Nov. 11.

Written by Stephanie Findlay and Nicolas Köhler, the article claims that too many Asian students—Asian Canadians and international students from Asia—are attending several top universities in Canada, making these institutions too competitive and lacking in fun for white students. As "strivers and high achievers," says the report, Asian students narrowly focus on studying and fail to participate in "social interaction." As a result, "balkanization" and "segregation" typify life on Canadian campuses that are "too Asian." In a cautionary tone, the writers say, "diversity has enriched these schools, but it has also put them at risk of being increasingly fractured along ethnic lines."

Within a few hours of its online appearance, the Maclean's article drew hundreds of comments on its website and the wider blogosphere. Bombarded by scathing criticisms, the magazine was forced to remove the article temporarily for re-editing, but the print version retains most of the original content. Student, faculty and community members have been organizing discussions and activities on campuses including the University of Toronto, the University of Waterloo, and the University of British Columbia, and right here at UVic. At my last check, the Facebook campaign to "talk back" to the article has garnered over 400 members within just days of its launch.

Many participating in the discussions condemn the "'Too Asian'?" article as unmistakably racist and sadly reminiscent of the W5 "Campus Giveaway" in 1979, in which Chinese Canadians were represented as "foreign students" occupying the rightful places of "real" (white) Canadians at the universities—a controversy that sparked a fierce community-wide struggle for equality. Thirty-one years later, participants are sickened that Asian Canadians and Asians from Asia got lumped together once again. Non-Asian students, including many of my own, share the disappointment of their peers. They reject the absurd assumption of the writers that alcohol and partying define their educational lives, and that Asian students are natural rivals in their minds.

Many others poke fun at the indefensible oversimplification of "Asians" as "academically focused" and "self-segregating" in relation to "whites." Even though university presidents have responded that their Asian students actively engage in extracurricular activities, thereby proving the theory of "segregation" groundless, some wonder why the writers still insist that the presidents, rather than they themselves, are "in a state of denial." In a sardonic spirit, two students at McGill University named their blog "Asians not studying" in response to the false stereotype that "Asians" cannot have fun.

These different voices have spoken in a powerful unity–diversity is the life of Canadian campuses. As Canadians, we have chosen to accept the challenges that come with differences. However, we fall short of confronting the enduring legacies of racism in our society. We have yet to learn how to approach differences without resorting to the fearful binary between "Asian" and "white," and between "us" and "them." Any attack on diversity as such is an attack on a common dream about education—that our universities should excel in many fields and embrace many Canadians new and old, First Nations peoples, as well as non-Canadians from any shore. The "'Too Asian'?" article is a sad indication of fear and ignorance about an imagined other. To keep forging ahead, we must defend diversity at all costs.

Dr. Shelly Chan is an assistant professor at the Department of Pacific and Asian Studies and a member of the Asian Canadian Working Group at UVic.

Editor's note: Views expressed in this Viewpoint are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of The Ring or the University of Victoria. The online version of the Maclean's article, which has been retitled "The enrollment controversy," is available at http://www2.macleans.ca/2010/11/10/too-asian/

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