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“Too Asian?” How the model minority myth feeds anti-Black racism at institutions like U of T

Working hard doesn’t necessarily topple social barriers
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FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

In November 2010, Maclean’s published a cover story about race in Canadian postsecondary education that was met with biting backlash. The piece, originally entitled “Too Asian?” raised the spectre that American affirmative action policies might spread north of the border and defended Canadian universities’ meritocratic admissions process as the fairest option.

In the same breath, the authors worried that Asian students were so adept at navigating the Canadian meritocracy that they were becoming a cultural danger to “top-tier schools” like U of T.

“That Asian students work harder is a fact born out by hard data,” Stephanie Findlay and Nicholas Köhler wrote in “Too Asian?” “They tend to be strivers, high achievers and single-minded in their approach to university.”

To Findlay and Köhler, that work ethic meant that ethnically Asian students were becoming overrepresented on Canadian university campuses. “The only people from our school who went to U of T were Asian,” a white high school student named Alexandra said in the article.

“Too Asian?” had many immediately apparent issues. It lumped all Asians together into a monolithic group, cast their presence on campus as sinister, and blamed them for racial friend group divisions within schools like U of T. As well, the authors portrayed white students as primarily interested in partying and athletics, and the article was generally rife with problems of journalistic integrity.

Maclean’s later renamed the piece and issued a statement of regret. Still, there was no retracting Findlay and Köhler’s twisted contribution to the narrative of the ‘model minority,’ which purports that Asians — through a cultural propensity for achievement — have transcended racial barriers to enjoy unbridled success in the west.

With the recent wave of racial upheaval across North America, the model minority myth has come under renewed scrutiny for pitting the Asian community against the Black community in a way that benefits neither.

This is because the myth’s central claim is that with enough conformism and hard work, any racialized group can follow the Asian path to achievement. Subsequently, this myth claims that any groups that remain impeded by racial barriers — like Black people — simply lack the grit to rise above.

At U of T, the anti-Black racism that the model minority myth is inherently tied to runs rampant. Most recently, three Black students from Trinity College wrote a powerful op-ed calling out the racial slurs, stereotyping, and exclusion they’d experienced from the administration and their peers alike. In the piece, they noted that their presence on campus and at dining halls was treated as suspicious and unwelcome.

Ultimately, the model minority myth is especially influential in the arena of Canadian education like at U of T, where it tells a convenient story about Asian triumph and Black failure that protects a deeply racist status quo.

The history of the model minority myth

The earliest use of the term ‘model minority’ can be traced to a 1966 New York Times article titled “Success Story, Japanese-American Style.” In it, sociologist William Petersen presented Japanese Americans as a group that used effort to rise above trauma and structural obstacles.

“Despite being blocked from citizenship,” he wrote, they were “exceptionally law-abiding”; although they were barred from a wide range of jobs, “they undertook menial tasks with such perseverance that they achieved a modest success.”

It is important to note that Petersen framed Japanese American success as a “model” to weigh it against the African American case in an attempt to challenge the notion that the poor treatment of racialized groups would create “problem minorities.” The idea of the model minority has, since its inception, been inseparable from anti-Black racism.

As we know, the model minority label stuck around and has evolved over time, stretching to incorporate all Asians in the west. As it gained momentum as a discourse, it refused to be hemmed in by borders — it diffused into Canada in the 1980s and 1990s, when Canadian journalists like Robert Sheppard pulled from American writing on the topic.

Since then, the case of Asian American success has been circulating in the Canadian national consciousness, transforming into a story of Asian Canadian success and contributing to the broader conversation about race in Canada.

Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s theory of racial formation seeks to foreground “the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed.” To Omi and Winant, this process occurs via racial projects, which interpret the meaning of race and connect those meanings to the organization of the world.

This statement is an example of a racial project; racism is a problem of the past and it’s no longer fair to recognize racial differences, so all we need to do is treat everybody equally. Or, consider this: Asians perform well in Canadian education, so our schools must be equitable places where Black, Indigenous, and Latinx students can succeed, too.

At any given time, Canadian society is saturated with a multitude of racial projects competing for air, and the attractiveness of the Asian American success story has allowed the model minority myth to billow larger than many other narratives about race. Although it’s far from its origins, the idea of the model minority has made itself right at home in Canada.

What the statistics show

Those who believe that hard data speaks for itself — overlooking the layer of human interpretation needed to make sense of numbers — will see a certain story in Statistics Canada’s data on educational attainment.

The most recent numbers come from the 2016 census, during which respondents were asked to self-report their ethnicity and the highest level of education they’d acquired. When you collapse the Japanese, Korean, and Chinese categories together — as the model minority myth does — and compare them with the Black category, a trend emerges.

Black respondents are more likely than East Asian respondents to report having no degree, diploma, or certificate at all, and those who identify as Black are slightly more likely to have a high school diploma. But as you travel up the scale, from bachelor’s degrees to master’s degrees to doctorates, East Asian Canadians begin outperforming Black Canadians. That gap is widest at the undergraduate level — compared to Black Canadians, Canadians of East Asian ethnicity are twice as likely to have a bachelor’s degree.

The model minority myth relies upon data like this to tell a racialized tale of determination: one group deserves to succeed because of their hard work and the other doesn’t. Of course, statistics only present an aggregation of outcomes.

For example, this numerical picture of success leaves out the racism Asian students continue to experience and obscures the influence of immigration policies that funnel top Asian students and professionals into the country. It also completely erases the lived experience of studying while Black in Canada.

Empirical evidence of anti-Black racism in education

Read a single study on Black students’ experience in Canadian education and you’ll begin to question the meritocratic narrative that the model minority myth sells. Read as many as you can get your hands on and you’ll realize that no matter how well-read you are, you’ll only understand a fraction of what it is to be Black in Canadian schools. That is, unless you’ve experienced it yourself.

In 2001, Henry M. Codjoe studied a group of successful Black students in greater Edmonton and found that each and every one of them had faced racialized barriers in the classroom. To begin with, student after student recounted stories of anti-Black racism, such as white students’ use of the n-word to harass them. Racial slurs and mocking inflicted “psychological damage, emotional pain, and… personal humiliation” to the extent that one Alberta-born student cited this as a direct cause of his decision to drop out of school.

Negative racial stereotyping added to Black students’ difficulties; they were seen as intellectually inferior and were steered away from science and mathematics to roles that teachers believed suited them better, like athletics and entertainment. Teachers simply didn’t expect much from their Black students. One girl’s teacher recommended that she reassess her ambition to study medicine, as they doubted a Black person could become a doctor.

Racism, though, has always been about more than prejudice-charged interactions and racial slurs. Codjoe emphasized that the students he interviewed had the most to say about the impact of racially biased curricula, as Canadian history classes tend to centre on and naturalize the white experience, rendering the history of other groups invisible.

In Codjoe’s study, a student named Abena pointed out that whenever Black people were discussed, it was in the context of slavery. Black youth were given no models of excellence or positive representation that they could see themselves in. Their textbooks ignored African Canadian contributions and reinforced the general sentiment that Black students did not belong.

Overall, Codjoe reported that his subjects’ school environments were alienating, isolating, and demoralizing; he argued that the psychological implications of these racialized barriers were underestimated and that racial issues needed scrutiny in order to improve the situation.

Nearly 20 years later, very little has changed: in 2019, Carl James published a study on Black boys in middle schools in the GTA that echoed many of Codjoe’s findings. In both studies, Black students exercised agency and aspired to succeed in their studies, and they were beaten back at every level by factors out of their control.

These factors are certainly not isolated to the educational system; rather, they’re entwined with racism in broader Canadian society. Heightened surveillance and policing of Black bodies seeps into schools. This results in the violent mistreatment of Black children in hallways and classrooms, like the 2016 case in which an unarmed, 48-pound first grader was perceived as a threat and handcuffed at the wrists and ankles.

“Because Black youth are so often not seen or treated as children, schools too often become their first encounter with the organized and systemic devaluation of Blackness present in society at large,” Robyn Maynard wrote in The Walrus about the incident.

This systemic devaluation includes a Black income and employment gap, which is significant because of the association between low income and undesirable learning outcomes. Students whose families have fewer economic resources will miss out on crucial early learning opportunities, contend with more household instability as they study, and are more likely to be streamed into applied-level classes that restrict their access to postsecondary opportunities.

Across spheres — legal, political, economic, cultural, and educational — racialized disadvantage is always compounding, knotting itself deeper into the fabric of Canadian society, leaving Black Canadians devastatingly entangled.

Naturally, many issues identified in the literature are deeply embedded at U of T today. Earlier this year, The Varsity reported that, of all the authors assigned in the four core courses of the St. George campus’ English program, only 7.2 per cent were Black. Members of the Black Graduate Students Association have been working to combat isolation on campus and have spoken about microaggressions like being doubted when they say they attend U of T.

Black students and professors are underrepresented on campus. Chika Oriuwa, the Faculty of Medicine’s 2020 valedictorian, was the only Black student in her class of 259 people. When anti-Black incidents occur, Black members of the U of T community advocate for change and are met with roadblocks and delays. These examples barely scratch the surface — anti-Black racism has been given plenty of room to fester at U of T.

It’s important to remember that there are many Black communities on campus, and their experiences are not homogenous. Still, it’s clear that the relationship between aspiration and achievement cannot be linear when symbolic and structural obstacles are thrown up at every turn.

Black students of all identities are proud, resilient, and capable of success. When they do not perform well, know that they are enduring a system that has failed them generation by generation — a system that remains intentionally blind to its own failures, bitterly resistant to change.

What we need to change

When proponents of the model minority myth hold the Asian subject up as a success story fueled by discipline, they lend credence to essentialist views of race: all Asians work hard, all Black people do not. On top of this, they buy into the neoliberal view that character alone can determine success, rendering invisible the various ways in which racialized students are marginalized.

No matter how well Asian students perform academically, they are forever foreign, forever an alien threat. No matter how tenacious and intelligent Black students are, they have to expend precious resources fighting for their place at a hostile table in their every pursuit. Ultimately, the model minority narrative is a tool of white supremacy designed to keep our focus on culture and character-driven achievement and off the racist structures and systems impeding it.

Despite their many shortcomings, the authors of “Too Asian?” did make one point that remains relevant 10 years later: Canadian universities still resist addressing the topic of race in sufficient depth to understand the problems they harbour, let alone solve them.

However, Findlay and Köhler’s prescriptions for dissolving racial divisions on campus — like “[encouraging] groups to mingle” — are woefully and predictably insufficient. A better starting point for U of T is to deliver on its 2017 promise to collect demographic data.

It is impossible to diagnose a problem without sufficient information about the character of what you’re up against. Also in order: diversifying curricula to decentre whiteness, releasing more equity-seeking scholarships, and ensuring that Black, Indigenous, and people of colour students can voice their concerns safely in a way that leads to meaningful change.

Canadian schools are microcosms of a broader Canadian society that denies it has a racism problem and, in doing so, perpetuates it. Until universities like U of T actively examine and dismantle their racist structures, they will remain fractured in ways far more meaningful than who hangs out with whom. And until we abandon the idea of the model minority, the myth that hard work works for everyone, regardless of their race, will continue to define Canadian education.