“Too Asian,” One Movement, from Vancouver to Toronto

Posted by manori.ravindran & filed under Pop Culture.

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If Maclean’s magazine thinks readers will forget about its “Too Asian?” article in the new year, it’s wrong.

The now infamous piece questioning the number of Asian students at Canadian post-secondary institutions was published on Nov. 10, 2010, angering Canadians from coast to coast. But unlike other problematic commentaries, the article has inspired a countrywide movement to combat racial stereotypes in the media. Several of the groups spearheading the movement stem from universities in Vancouver and Toronto, institutions specifically discussed in the article as being “too Asian.”

Last week, UBC student Tetsuro Shigematsu posted a video and article on the Vancouver Observer detailing professor Ray Hsu’s challenge to Shigematsu’s writing class. Hsu asked his students to respond “creatively” to the Maclean’s article. Upon Shigematsu’s request, the class produced a cover of the1980s charity single “We Are the World.”

“The lyrics were emailed the night before and the class was asked to show up with headphones, sunglasses and rock and roll outfits,” Shigematsu writes.

Prof. Hsu, dressed as Michael Jackson, also participated in the five-minute music video that parodies the Maclean’s article. The video, which superimposes Asian stereotypes onto various characters, has received over 6,000 hits on YouTube since it was posted on Jan. 23.

“There was recognition among students at UBC that this was a once in a generation opportunity to come together in solidarity over one of the defining issues of our time,” Shigematsu says. The master of fine arts student adds that UBC professor Henry Yu, a historian who has been vocal about the “Too Asian?” article, called the video “a new kind of politics.”

In the same week that Shigematsu’s video was posted online, Toronto’s Ryerson University held the event “Too Asian? Talk Back: Calling Media to Account,” a panel discussion aimed at educating attendees about the media’s role in perpetuating racial stereotypes.

“It’s not enough for media to claim that the article is meant to be provocative,” said panelist Roland Coloma, an academic with the department of sociology and equity studies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). “If the media can offend us, we have the right to talk back.”

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Coloma said that although it has only been two months, the kind of coalitions that have taken place is thrilling. “Something like this has not been seen in Toronto or Canada for a long time. This coalition is a victory in many ways.”

Lawyer Khurrum Awan, however, said that this wasn’t the first time students had mobilized against an offensive Maclean’s article. In law school, Awan had been part of a group that condemned 22 Maclean’s articles that they believed to have anti-Muslim sentiments. “The national discourse is really controlled by these media organizations,” he said.

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Perhaps the most stunning information revealed in the Ryerson panel came from Irene Chu, an executive producer at OMNI TV. Chu said that the Maclean’s article closely mirrors “Campus Giveaway,” a 1979 television segment that was aired on CTV’s W-5 program. Much like the “Too Asian?” piece, the premise of the segment was that Asian foreigners are taking the places of Canadian students at universities.

The program asked viewers how they would feel if their children had the marks to get into university but were unable to because of “foreign students,” all the while showing visuals of Asian Canadians at university.

“Students were determined to fight racial discrimination…A committee was able to mobilize hundreds of volunteers and community leaders,” Chu said.

Ultimately, a video rebuttal narrated by diplomat Stephen Lewis and produced by Chu was aired, later prompting CTV to apologize for “Campus Giveaway.”

“The video was made 31 years ago, but the message it conveys is still relevant,” Chu said. “There are many of us – thousands of us – who may not be in the forefront, but we are with you, behind you, for you, and will be beside you all the way.”

If the activities at UBC and Ryerson are any indication, the “Too Asian?” movement is far from over. In fact, as the months pass, student activists across the country are becoming more creative in their efforts to fight discrimination in the media. These dialogues are not a guaranteed safeguard against offensive articles or broadcasts, but educating media consumers about racism is important in protecting ethnic groups against future misrepresentations.

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