[Editor’s note: Under the White Gaze originally ran as an exclusive Tyee email newsletter last fall. We’re republishing the full series of essays on our site this month. This essay, the third in the series, was originally titled 'Elves, Dwarves and the Magic of Intersectionality.']
Step into a time machine with me.
Not so far as to see the Big Bang, just the 2000s. Flip phone in your pocket, Black Eyed Peas on the radio, 99-cent TacoTime in your tummy.
Destination? Eric Hamber Secondary, my Vancouver high school.
The student population at the time was “majority visible minority.” The census data said as much, but so did our yearbooks, with names that read from Au to Zhang.
Facebook had just shown up, and someone made a group called “You Know You Go to Hamber When.... ” One of the first entries was about being lost in “the sea of black hair.”
That was how we talked about race, ethnicity and culture as teenagers, zeroed in on appearances and behaviours.
The majority of our “minorities” were Asian, specifically with roots from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Philippines, India and Korea — a mix of Canadian-borns and those born overseas.
Because of this, there was a phrase we commonly used: “So Asian.”
Taking AP Chemistry? So Asian. Playing on the ping-pong team? So Asian. Listening to K-pop? So Asian. Eating cup noodles for lunch? So Asian. Writing notes with gel pens? So Asian. Parents bought you a too-large jacket? So Asian.
As we grew older, we thought we had matured in our discourse. Instead of saying something was so Asian, we described it as being part of “Asian culture.”
Parents strict about curfews and dating? Parents saving extra napkins and condiments from the food court? It’s Asian culture!
We didn’t question how ridiculous it was to assume that stashing soy sauce packets was some sort of time-honoured practice shared by 4.6 billion people — or that other factors like class might play a role.
Let’s zip back into the present.
I’ve noticed a lot of journalism still presents race, ethnicity and culture in an “essentialist” way, where people who share a social category like race are thought to share fixed characteristics due to some singular essence.
A 2010 Maclean’s story, originally titled “Too Asian?”, is a particularly egregious example. It was about white prospective students avoiding universities that were “too Asian” and “a bit of a killjoy,” and about the supposed differences between white and Asian students on campus.
The author described the “Asian students,” without specifying from where exactly, as “strivers, high achievers and single-minded,” and mostly not “fun-loving.”
Not too different from my high school chatter!
So what’s missing? Intersectionality.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, a Black feminist American scholar, coined the term back in 1989.
It describes the ways in which social categories and systems of power overlap, such as race, class, gender, sexuality, age, religion, appearance, immigration status, where one lives and more.
Together, the categories shape how a person experiences life, from privilege to discrimination. (Many conservatives hate the term because they don’t understand this.)
The term came about because Crenshaw, also a legal scholar, was concerned that the law seemed to neglect how Black women were subject to discrimination due to race, gender and sometimes a combination of both.
In a 1976 case of workplace discrimination against General Motors, Black women argued the company segregated its workforce: the Black jobs were men’s jobs, and the women’s jobs were for whites only. Neither was believed suitable for Black women, but the courts didn’t believe the plaintiffs were allowed to combine their race and gender claims into one.
Crenshaw used intersectionality to reveal the “prism” of social categories.
In Vancouver, there are many issues to do with race that require other intersections to understand fully. Is something an Indigenous issue, or is it specific to urban Indigenous women? Is it a Chinese issue, or is it specific to single seniors who live alone? Is it a Filipino issue, or is it specific to women on caregiver work permits?
Where ‘community’ can create misperceptions
Without intersectionality, we often get an essentialist, Lord of the Rings approach to race.
You know, how all elves are poets, how all dwarves love gems, and how all Asians are geniuses.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the word “community,” but journalists often use it in a way that implies the people in them share the same beliefs, speak the same languages and vote the same way.
It makes groups like the "South Asian community" sound like one happy homogenous family. Journalists often interview these communities’ “members” and “leaders,” as if they share a single brain with no debate or disagreement within.
For example, the Vancouver Sun once talked about how "Chinese leaders" in Vancouver have “long opposed schools instituting anti-homophobia policies,” spotlighting a shared ethnicity rather than religion as the reason for individuals’ beliefs.
The implication that we’re all part of harmonious “communities” almost has me disappointed that I don’t have a membership card to my local Asian community for weekly hot pots at the clubhouse, where we decide which Asian politicians to vote for. We’re not allowed to think independently, right?
Essentialism has also plagued the pandemic, as people often try to use race and culture to explain health outcomes.
Take this story from the Edmonton Journal about a COVID-19 outbreak at a Cargill meatpacking plant. In it, Alberta’s top doctor talks about COVID-19 within the “Filipino community” (there’s the word again!), saying the virus spread because of the workers’ “strong ethic” that doesn’t let “sniffles get in the way of a hard day’s work.”
Just because an article has expert quotes or data doesn’t mean it’s immune from essentialism. Journalists should take care to add context. In this case, all the author adds is an explanation that many Filipino Albertans are frontline workers who live and carpool together.
But let’s consider immigration status. Many meatpackers caught in the outbreak were temporary foreign workers, a precarious standing that makes it hard to speak up against unsafe conditions.
Let’s consider socioeconomic status. Many of these workers can’t afford to lose income because relatives overseas depend on their remittances.
Let’s consider housing. To save money, migrant workers share homes. They may not have as many housing options, facing discrimination by landlords who prefer Canadians.
Let’s consider geopolitics. Ironically, the stereotype of the hardworking and compliant Filipino was marketed by the Philippines government itself, says scholar Robyn Rodriguez. This was to encourage the export of Filipino labour to places like Canada, with initiatives like the caregiver program that are often gendered.
Without these important intersections, it makes it sound like Filipino people don’t know when to stop working and are “existential threats to themselves,” UBC professor John Paul Catungal once told me.
Considering intersections like this makes for more human stories and exposes the workings of systems that people live under.
I don’t envy headline writers, because their work paring stories down to essentials can lead to essentialism.
A recent Toronto Star headline: “Alberta’s South Asian community has some unhealthy eating habits, study finds.” (“Community” again!)
Is the story seriously telling us that Alberta residents who come from a group of countries totalling two billion people are all inherently unhealthy eaters?
Or is it — as the rest of the story explains — about newcomers to Canada (intersection: immigration status) and food literacy (intersection: education), about remote communities having limited access to food choices (intersection: location)?
Here’s a health story that does intersections well.
Are rates of diabetes high among Chinese Canadians because it’s a Chinese thing? The South China Morning Post reported on a study that challenged the notion of a “homogenous” community with similar health issues.
The study says it’s likely a phenomenon of Canadian immigration pathways that seek out wealthy and high-skilled immigrants. It’s also a phenomenon of growing nations, because the relatively well-off from a place like China with a recent economic boom are more likely to suffer diabetes, particularly young men.
A doctor in the story reminds us this is why we can’t talk about race, ethnicity and culture in “broad strokes.”
Where an intersectional lens can help
An intersectional lens can also help with choosing stories.
It’s great that we have a lot more Canadian-borns of colour who are native English speakers, well-educated and work in the city sharing their thoughts in the news these days.
But journalists also need to work hard to find sources that might be harder to come by and interview.
How about those in the ’burbs? Those who’ve arrived recently? Those who work blue-collar jobs? Those who speak another language more fluently than English?
This doesn’t mean journalists should slice and dice every source they interview by every intersection.
A helpful tip from the Canadian Press in a recent workshop: beware of “othering.”
Being specific helps to avoid this.
Covering Canada’s relationship with China’s communist party? Are elites from China trying to launder money in Canada? Great! Very newsy! But journalists should be careful when describing who’s involved, otherwise audiences might ascribe behaviour to an entire race.
There’s also the harm of vague phrases like the Filipino “ethic,” and South Asians’ “unhealthy eating habits” I mentioned earlier.
Journalists can also avoid othering by avoiding differentiations that aren’t related to the story at hand.
If I did have a time machine, I could add nuance to my high-school chatter with this understanding of intersectionality in mind.
Hey, maybe it’s not “so Asian” that you have tiger parents who care so much about your education. Maybe it’s that they’re blue-collar immigrants who want a different future for you and your siblings, and because Vancouver has a lot of immigrants from East Asia like your parents, you’re associating this with “Asians,” and adopting an essentialist belief that all Asians care about educational achievements?
I’m sure I would’ve been very popular.
Kidding aside, intersectionality offers a crucial lens for journalists. It’ll help them see racialized people beyond members of monolithic groups of elves and dwarves, and the resulting coverage will give audiences a deeper and more empathetic understanding of society.
Think of all the questions intersectionality opens up:
Who’s being targeted by discrimination, and why? Who are we importing for labour, and what’s life like for them? How are newcomers changing the landscape of religion? What does it mean to be gay and a refugee? Which ethnocultural groups are more accepted by white Canadians, and what are the structural factors behind this?
Much more complex than phrases like “so Asian,” right?
- What are issues in your community that could do with more intersectional journalism?
- What are some generalizations you’ve come across (i.e. model minorities) that sorely need intersectionality?
Amanda: “As someone who was raised with Reform Judaism, rejected it, and now sees myself as a secular Jew, I feel there isn’t a very nuanced understanding by people in general or coverage in the media of intersectional factors/aspects related to Jewish people: that we aren’t all white; that we aren’t all rich; that we aren’t all religious (lots of us are secular, non-practicing, etc.)...; that we don’t all support Israel or the government of Israel, that many of us support Palestinians; that being Jewish is both a religion and an ethnicity (I see it as my ethnicity but not my religion); that we immigrated to Canada at different times, from different places, for different reasons; that immigrant values and experiences still shape some of our lives; we’re diverse politically and not all conservative; that there’s still prejudice against us, which I hear in people’s comments from time to time, usually when they assume I’m not Jewish.”