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Rights + Justice

When Media Erase Places of Colour

What are journalists really saying when they talk about ‘emerging neighbourhoods’?

Christopher Cheung 18 Aug

Christopher Cheung reports on urban issues for The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung.

[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 fourth in the series, was originally titled 'Of Monsters and Maps.']

If you don’t live in South Burnaby, your impression of it is likely of Metrotown mall, packed with chain stores. It’s not the New Yorky, Portlandian and San Franciscan parts of bohemian Vancouver that journalists and content creators like to focus on.

But South Burnaby is more than a mall.

Yes, it has big box offerings like Superstore and Walmart, but it also has supermarkets like Assi, King’s and Persia Foods, where residents restock their kitchens with Korean, Chinese and Iranian staples.

All of this branches out from Kingsway, a thoroughfare that predates colonization. In addition to these treasured cultural supermarkets are the food producers. From commercial kitchens and warehouses come locally-made tofu, noodles, phyllo and kimchi — the lifeblood of retailers elsewhere.

Burnaby gets a bad rep for being the boring old ’burb next to Vancouver, but there are more than just monster houses here. Karaoke bars blast K-pop hits past midnight. Car dealers and auto shops brandish neon palm trees and inflatable tube men. Among the likes of A&Ws and Wendy’s are giant signs that ask you to pull over for hot pot and bubble tea again and again.

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The Metropolis mall at Metrotown. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

It’s no wonder that 70 per cent of the people who call this part of the city home are “visible minorities,” according to the census. It’s also the place in Metro Vancouver where you’re most likely to run into someone born in a different place than you.

There are many immigrant families, and many have live-in grandparents, whether in a shared house or a one-bedroom apartment in the old wood-frame walk-ups. Plenty of refugees make their Canadian starts in the area’s relatively cheap rentals. Sprinkled throughout the subdivisions: the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre, the Michael J. Fox Theatre, a gurdwara, a Hindu temple, a Buddhist temple and dozens of churches.

Needless to say, it’s a textured neighbourhood.

So imagine my surprise when I opened up Vancouver Magazine to read about the “deepest throes of South Burnaby,” where “a lot of people in the area” have “no amenities whatsoever.”

And what’s the “sole reason” the writer says you should visit the area? A new craft brewery.

Ouch. The trope of neighbourhood as “no man’s land” strikes again. As I read those words, I saw a big fat eraser scrub out the people and places that make this community home.

What’s going on here?

I know my mental map of the city is not going to be your mental map of the city.

We’ll each have fog over the different places we’re unfamiliar with. If I don’t like to shop, why would I know where the shops are? If I don’t live in or near Burnaby, why would I know that much about it?

The narratives we hear play a big role in how we form our mental maps. Communicators and institutions wield enormous power over which places are privileged and which places are left in the fog — “here be monsters” and all.

Everyone from journalists to historians to governments craft narratives of place. And in Metro Vancouver, there’s an inequality to those narratives.

Guess who lives in parts of the city that are uncelebrated and under-serviced, dismissed and disdained, misrepresented and misunderstood?

“Ethnic” people!

Let’s look at another neighbourhood called a 'no man’s land.'

That’s what Vancouver Magazine called the east side’s Mountainview, until hip eateries moved in and the area was rebranded as Fraserhood. The magazine had another word to describe the place’s past — “boggy.”

But it neglected a history: the Polish, Filipino and Vietnamese newcomers who built a community in the area. Today, there are a dwindling number of mom-and-pop stores, though cornerstones like a Polish community centre and the Vietnamese newspaper Thời Báo still call the neighbourhood home.

I confess I participated in the erasure of this history when I was a student, writing a fluffy piece about Fraserhood. I chased the excitement that journalists do when spotlighting supposed “up-and-coming” places, interviewing a French bistro and an artisanal ice cream shop while ignoring diaspora settlement.

Real estate marketers and entrepreneurs who scout these territories all say the same things to journalists. The craft brewer in the Burnaby piece talks about how risky it was to move into “the middle of nowhere,” how their success was based off recognizing its “potential,” and how he wanted to be the “first in” and “really put our stake in the ground.”

Why is it when migrants move into and develop an area it’s called “boggy”? But when whiter business interests do so in the same places, they’re celebrated as pioneers bringing civilization through savvy conquest?

Race, ethnicity and culture have a spatial dimension.

A journalist with blind spots regarding race will also have blind spots regarding place. This is where the white gaze comes in, elevating some places while excluding or exoticizing others.

A place might be celebrated for recent Eurocentric foundations, while sidelining vaster Indigenous history or immigrant ones.

A place like Mountainview might be called a “no man’s land” by tourists because shops and services are specific to people of certain cultures. (There’s a class dimension, too. We are, after all, in a desirable city where capital sloshes around and can wipe out the working-class places that diasporas call home.)

A place like Surrey might be deemed “scary” because it’s the subject of an overwhelming number of stories related to crime and people of colour.

A place might not even be mentioned, because journalists and audiences know nothing about it.

The white gaze also expects racialized places to be accessible to them, and stories are often written in this frame.

Think of places scrutinized for being too ethnic for Canada. Residents of places like Richmond and Surrey, with their large Chinese and South Asian makeup respectively, have been questioned in the press for having “less loyalty to Canada" due to “choosing segregation” (as a CBC forum once put it), never mind the structural reasons that make it difficult for them to live elsewhere.

But hey, when Richmond and Surrey roll out a Dumpling Trail or Spice Trail curated for tourists with a velvet rope that guides them exactly where to go, the reception is great.

(If you want to dig deeper into this, Google “ontological expansiveness.”)

This is about more than representation. It’s about power.

Racialized people obviously don’t have fog over the places they’ve built up, and these places will have representation in their own media channels. But because the white gaze misses or misunderstands these racialized places, they get left out of public histories and decision-making.

For an article last year, I flipped through the neighbourhood plan for Vancouver’s Renfrew-Collingwood, where there is a rare hub of business, religion and community for the region’s many Filipino locals on Joyce Street.

The plan did not mention the word “Filipino” at all, and even called Joyce Street “weak.” This frustrated the advocates fighting gentrification in the area, and their efforts to make a case for the harms of displacement.

If we frame this story as about a “weak” area getting stronger, it paves over the reality of a community’s displacement — the home of a diaspora at that.

Ironically, oft-ignored racialized places like this tend to fulfil Vancouver civic goals.

Joyce Street as a mom-and-pop business hub? Check. Affordable food? Check. Cultural connections? Check. Newcomer support networks? Check.

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I shared this image on Twitter to poke fun at the neighbourhood plan’s description of Joyce Street as 'weak.' Photo by Christopher Cheung.

Because I’m always curious about coverage of place, I delved into what was written about Renfrew-Collingwood.

I regularly tally how often racialized neighbourhoods get reported on compared to the hipper, whiter ones. I use a tool called Canadian Newsstream, which contains articles from the country’s major print outlets.

Let’s compare Renfrew-Collingwood with Mount Pleasant, the seat of hipsterdom in Vancouver, with breweries and boutiques galore.

Since the pandemic began, Mount Pleasant, population 33,000, was mentioned 638 times. But Renfrew-Collingwood, with a larger population of 51,530, was mentioned a measly 19 times. (I even counted other common area names like Collingwood Village and Joyce-Collingwood.)

The bulk of those stories? Crime stories about church vandalism, which stemmed from police media releases.

What’s missing?

Stories about life in these places from the inside out, and how they relate to the region at large.

A long list of contacts is great for journalists, but so is a detailed map. And if we sense that readers have fog or so-called monsters in a place, it’s our job to investigate, as it is with any kind of reporting gap.

Interrogating the white gaze when it comes to racialized places helps reveal the many people who share this city, how they’re doing, whether public supports for them are adequate, how they’ve adapted to their city, and how they’re adapting the city itself.

Really, representation of place is about coverage that’s a reflection of reality. Isn’t that just called news?

If we have inequality of coverage, that’s going to further inequality, period.

I often think about a plaque in Vancouver’s New Brighton Park, with its postcard views of the inlet and the mountains.

It declares, “HERE VANCOUVER BEGAN, ALL WAS FOREST TOWERING TO THE SKIES.” Then goes on to brag about the location being home to the first road around, the first dock around and so on.

Talk about erasure and ethnocentrism. What about the fact that this was and still is unceded Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh homeland?

A narrative of place cast in bronze, to legitimize one power over another.

Discussion questions

Readers’ corner

Chris Yakimov: “I have grown up in Vancouver, and 'dragons' still exist in most non-white spaces for me. But I’ve never (until today, and your article) felt the way I’ve internalized a racist narrative of those spaces without question, and how I’ve foreclosed on the imaginary necessary to see them now, to explore, to respect.”

Adrian: “Parents and other white folks were afraid of downtowns or Chinatowns or words I won’t repeat for other 'majority-minority' neighbourhoods as I grew up here in Ottawa. But that dimension of privilege, or white supremacy, had never come through to me. How dare a community persist here in Canada, after all?!? If white people can’t walk in and understand and be understood by every store clerk, and have English on every sign or package (labelling laws quite aside!) it seems like an offense. When the reverse, having white spaces that are so exclusionary, is either treated as normal or simply never even consciously realized.”

Valerie Sing Turner: “You also rightly made note about how the mainstream media has unfairly characterized racialized residents of places with disproportionately high ethnic percentages as 'choosing segregation,' and therefore suspect of other unfavourable qualities. I often find it helpful to point out the double standard: it is actually white people who have historically (and continue to) self-segregate, primarily choosing to live among other white people, and moving out of neighbourhoods/cities when they become 'too ethnic' — preferring to live in spaces that centre whiteness and don’t challenge their colonial comforts.”  [Tyee]

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