So, I didn’t write about the Macleans’ “Too Asian?” controversy, because I’ve been a little busy these past couple of weeks. So, hopefully, you’re familiar with this fiasco. But, if you’re not, here’s the basic wrap-up.
Earlier this month, Macleans— a major magazine in Canada that typically releases a ranking of Canadian universities — wrote an article entitled “Too Asian”. That article, which “reported” (and I use that term loosely) a sentiment amongst students that Canada’s top universities are too populated by Asian/Asian Canadian students, sparked a virtual shitstorm of backlash.
So much so, in fact, that Macleans rapidly employed the revisionist history approach to damage control — within a week, they pulled the article from their online archives. A couple days later, the article returned, with the inflammatory headline “Too Asian?” rendered the far more benign “The enrollment controversy” (with a footnote noting the name change).
As a displaced Asian-Canadian, I am shocked and offended by Macleans‘ spurious discussion of Canadian campuses and their ethnic makeup. I never went to the University of Toronto, but I went to a high school associated with the UofT. In essence, I grew up on the UofT campus: I can say confidently that the stereotype that UofT is “too Asian” is just that — a stereotype. Asian Canadians are no more prominent on the UofT campus than they are in Toronto at-large. That is, roughly one-third of Toronto’s population are made up of Asian Canadians, which likely reflects the University of Toronto’s student demographics.
Macleans perpetuates this stereotype by asserting as fact in their article that Canadian campuses are “too Asian”. They choose, instead, to examine how the supposed over-abundance of Asian Canadians in Canadian universities miht be deleterious — to White students. With that spin comes the further perpetuation of stereotypes — that Asians are too studious, too narrow-minded, too boring, too “Other”. Asian Canadians students in Macleans’ article are characterized as Confuscious-loving nerds, who must be dragged out of their dorm rooms. Ironically, White students are also stereotyped by the Macleans article, as lacklustre students who prefer boozing over book-reading.
In short, Macleansracializes a controversy that need not be racialized. There is a real, and contemporary, debate in higher education about the purpose of college: are students here to get good grades and a degree? Or to grow, mature, and learn about life? Should students spend all their time and efforts studying in-class, or should college administrators devote resources to providing extra-curricular activities that promote growth and development of students away from their textbooks? This debate extends far beyond ethnic divisions, yet Macleans draws upon this conflict by irresponsibly casting Asian American students as incorrigibly studious, and White students as binge-drinking lushes.
Macleans further promotes the idea that Asian students are discriminated against in college admissions. To support this claim, they use Espenshade’s now infamous study No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, which presented data suggesting that Asian American students have a lower probability of entering college compared to students of other races — all designed to attack the practice of affirmative action. I have argued against the validity of some of Espenshade’s findings in a two part blog post, although other anecdotal evidence from current and former admissions officers suggest that there may be unspoken bias against Asian American applicants.
Macleans should have retracted their article outright. Their juxtaposition of Asian American students with stifling, inaccurate, homogenizing and racist stereotypes have no place in the academic debate over admissions, affirmative action, or the purposes of higher education. Their equation of Asian American students with undesirable, abnormal, and Other — producing a problem of excessive Asian-ness for non-Asian students at Canada’s schools — is downright racist.
Yet, rather than to acknowledge the original article’s reliance on such disparaging generalizations, Macleans issued a statement last week reinforcing their article’s original publication.
In their statement, Maclean criticizes American universities for affirmative action policies. They say:
Experts examined the growing tendency among U.S. university admission officers to view Asian applicants as a homogenous group. The evidence suggests some of the most prestigious schools in the U.S. have abandoned merit as the basis for admission for more racially significant—and racist—criteria.
Macleans argues that their original article lauded Asian American students, whom they argue are the primary benefactors of Canada’s meritocritous college admissions policies. Rather than to apologize for their own racist characterizations of Asian Americans, they instead deflect accuastions of racism upon America, and affirmative action, and in so doing, further rely upon a revisionist account of their own archives.
Oh, Canada, my home and native land — what the hell is wrong with you?
Henry Yu, a professor at University of British Columbia, aptly takes down Macleans‘ non-apology, by pointing out that the very purpose of the article was spurious: Canadian universities are not considering a cap on Asian American students, thus Macleans cannot claim to be a principled stand against the influx of American affirmative action practices to Canadian schools:
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.
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.
Way to try and pull a fast one on us, Macleans.
Further, I cannot fathom how Macleans, ordinarily a highly intelligent — and intellectual — publication, can perpetuate such misguided gibberish over affirmative action practices. How can Macleans write such unsubstantiated drivel, that would suggest that affirmative action in the States: 1) “abandons” merit, and 2) uses racist admissions criteria?
It must be the same magazine that defends their “Too Asian” article an example of good journalism — even though one source has since said that she was misquoted (a footnote in the pastebin version of the article), and another quote (regarding the teacher who switched to Mandarin mid-way through answering a question) was pulled verbatim from this 8Asians blog post comment.
Again, I feel obligated to say it: affirmative action in college admissions does not depend upon “racist” criteria. Under affirmative action, race, ethnicity or culture is considered only when deciding between two equally-qualified applicants, and only as a consideration of the overall diversity of your student demographics. Racial quotas cannot be established and enforced, and unqualified applicants cannot be admitted under affirmative action. Any argument that asserts that affirmative action depends upon racist quotas is based upon the argument that students admitted under affirmative action — Black or Latino students — are inherently “less qualified” than their White counterparts, but are getting a “leg up” based on the colour of their skin. That belief is, itself, where the racism in this debate lies.
Bottom line: Asian American students are well-represented on college campuses in America and in Canada, and it’s not because we’re really, really geeky. Asian American/Canadian students, like all students, run the gamut from engineer to artist, from dedicated to drug addict. Our increased representation relative to other ethnic groups in higher education reflects, in part, the high economic status of Asian immigrants, foreign students who are often lumped in with Asian Americans, and — yes — some cultural pressure to attend college. But it also reflects how Canada is failing its Asian Canadian student population; how can Asian Canadian students represents nearly half of all students at UBC, and yet still face these kinds of debilitating stereotypes in a publication hailing from one of the most multicultural countries in the Western hemisphere?
Act Now! Write a letter to the editor at [email protected], demanding a real apology — and a retraction — for their article. Also, please go check out the awesome Asians Not Studying, a reaction blog set up by two Asian Canadian students in response to the “Too Asian?” article.