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Rights + Justice

The Allegory that Blows 'Too Asian?' Apart

One many teachers may borrow for their class, from a new book on the controversial Maclean's article.

Henry Yu 15 Sep

Henry Yu is the director of the Initiative for Student Teaching and Research in Chinese Canadian Studies at the University of British Columbia and the project lead for the $1.18 million "Chinese Canadian Stories" project involving UBC, Simon Fraser University, and a wide spectrum of academic and community collaborators across Canada. He is working on a trio of books that aim to provide new perspectives on global history and migration history.

[Editor’s note: Excerpted below is the first chapter of "Too Asian?": Race, Privilege and Post-Secondary Education, a new collection of essays responding to "Too Asian?", an article published in Maclean's magazine in November 2010 on race in Canadian universities. The article was widely criticized by various parties, including government, for furthering racial stereotypes among other reasons. This chapter, called "The Parable of the Textbook," by UBC's Henry Yu, begins with an abridged introduction by book editor Jeet Heer.]

This book takes its impetus from the outpouring of anger and activism that emerged in the wake of the Maclean's article. In response to the dialogue that developed in December 2010 we issued a call for submissions to address the issues the article raised. We heard from all parts of the campus and sought to give space to as many diverse voices as possible. The authors are academics, graduate students, activists, journalists, and teachers who range across the disciplines from history, journalism, media studies, feminist and gender studies to law and social work.

The first three chapters engage and challenge the idea of meritocracy and affirmative action policies. Henry Yu examines the way meritocracy is used to deflect attention from past racism in "The Parable of the Textbook." Using a startlingly effective allegory that many teachers will want to borrow for their own classes, Yu demonstrates how historical legacies of white privilege come to the fore when people grapple with issues of who gets admitted to colleges and universities. He also addresses the Maclean's article's distorted picture of affirmative action debates in the United States.

'The Parable of the Textbook' by Henry Yu

Imagine that I am teaching a class. There is a textbook for the class, and according to my syllabus, at the end of each week I will give an examination that tests the students on that week's lectures and textbook readings. However, at the beginning of the first day of class, I decide to give only half of the students the textbook. I do this by arranging the class list alphabetically and reading out family names, starting with A and giving out textbooks until they run out, somewhere around those with last names beginning with L or M.

After several weeks of class, it becomes clear that those students who were given textbooks do much better on the weekly exams than those who were not given textbooks. Students whose names begin with P or T begin to complain, and eventually to protest their unfair treatment. They claim that there is an "alphabetism'' in the class that gives some people better treatment just because of the letters of their name. An "anti-alphabetist'' movement begins, complete with marches and letters to the administration and by the middle of the semester, the protests are so powerful that I am forced to change the system.

I publicly apologize for the mistakes of the past, and tell the class that a new day dawns, with a future together that has left behind forever the inequities of our history. From now on, we will only judge students by the content of their character, not by the letters of their name.

I gather back all of the textbooks and explain that instead of using the alphabet to distribute textbooks, I will immediately change the system so that it is fair and judges students only by merit. I have ranked the students of the class by their grades, I explain. Starting with the best student with the highest grade and working down the ranking list, I give out the new textbooks one after another to those who are the most deserving based upon their accomplishments.

I announce that from now on, our class is an "alphabet-blind" meritocracy, and those who complain need to shut up and start working hard instead of blaming their failures on "alphabetism." I point out several "model" students who did not receive textbooks at the beginning of class, but despite the stigma of having a name beginning with T or Z, were still able to get high marks in the class.

Indeed, the student with the highest grade in the class had a name beginning with W! Even without a textbook, she listened attentively to lectures and took detailed notes. Because I had felt pity for the students without textbooks, I had put one copy on reserve at the library, and she had woken up early every morning before the library opened so she could get to that copy first. Her example should shame those lazy students who spent their semester protesting and complaining instead of working hard. She made the most of her limited resources.

I point out another group of students — the brotherhood of those whose names begin with Q — who had banded together and bought a photocopy of the textbook that a student had secretly made. It had been expensive to buy this illegal copy, but together they shared the costs and also took turns using the textbook each night. What a wonderful example of working together! They well deserved the high marks they achieved, I lecture, proudly pointing out the Q students and asking them to stand.


Weeks later, as the final exam approaches, many students continue to grumble and complain that the system is unfair. They know that their ranking at the end of the class will determine the kinds of jobs they receive, and how many opportunities they will have for the rest of their lives. Many who are receiving low grades worry about how this class will affect their future.

Unfair? I exclaim. What could you mean? This is now a meritocratic system. If you cannot do well, then it must be your own fault. Look to yourself and take the example of student W, or the Brotherhood of the Q — hard work and ingenuity allowed them to succeed even when alphabetism was systemic — now that alphabetism is gone your failure must be your own responsibility. Why can't you just get over the past? Stop using history as an excuse.

The students accuse me of being an alphabetist. My anger boils. We are no longer using an alphabetist system. How dare you blame me for your own faults! We are an alphabet-blind meritocracy, and those who deserve more, receive more — those who deserve less, receive less. Do you want to return to a system where we care about a student's name? Just because your name is N or X, you are no longer treated differently. Work hard and ye shall be judged by your accomplishments. I do not see your name, but only how well you perform.

It is you who is an alphabetist, I explain. Are you accusing the students with names like B and G of being alphabetist? They studied hard both before and now. You should be ashamed of bringing up the past again when it has no relevance. Feeling defensive and emotional, I ask my students, "What is wrong with an alphabet-blind system that treats everyone fairly and equally?"

What is wrong, indeed? The new system is fair in concept. Being "alphabet-blind" is a worthy ideal to replace the unfairness of "alphabetism." But something is not quite right. Indeed, a new system that is fair in ideal has actually reinforced the unfairness of the past. By ranking the students by grades achieved during a period of inequality, and continuing to reward those who accomplished the most under that system, the "alphabet-blind" system actually extends and exacerbates the inequities of the past. Worse yet, being alphabet-blind hides the unfairness of the past. By claiming that the present and future is now fair and meritocratic, it erases the effects of the first half of the semester.

Students whose names begin with C or G can quite rightly say that they bear no responsibility for the past, and that they deserve what they have. Indeed, they can argue with complete sincerity that they have always worked hard for what they have. The new alphabet-blind system will confirm that the grades received before will mirror the grades they receive in the last half of the semester, since their hard work and study will likely have the same effect. They had textbooks then, and have textbooks now.

The privileges of alphabetism as a system did not mean that lazy students with textbooks did not have to study. If there were students with names starting with D or F who preferred to drink alcohol and never cracked open their textbooks, they would quite rightly be punished with a low grade and lessened opportunities if they ever managed to graduate. Indeed, everyone who achieved high grades had to work hard.

Rise of the 'model minority'

Now go back through the parable and replace the word "alphabet" with "colour" or "race." Think of the students with W last names as the "Asians," and the students whose names are at the beginning of the alphabet as "whites." The example of the students with names like "Wong" who overcame the lack of textbooks through harder work and ingenuity can be extolled as a model for all; treated unfairly in a system where alphabetical hierarchy considered them to be second-class students, they were nevertheless able to succeed. The accomplishments of these "model minority" students play an important role in supporting the ideal of a meritocracy. Through hard work, they have overcome inequality and their mastery of the measuring sticks of grading reinforces the idea that grades and merit are the basis of a fair system.

In the United States, the idealization of Asian Americans as a "model minority" began in the 1960s, when Japanese Americans began to be considered as a "success story" despite a long history of anti-Japanese racial discrimination and the devastating effects of internment during World War II.

Soon after, Chinese Americans and other Americans of East Asian descent were being celebrated for the same overcoming of adversity through "quiet" hard work. The rise of this narrative of "model minority" success at the height of the civil rights movement was no coincidence. Despite the fact that representations of Asians as "too hard-working" had been used to justify anti-Asian discrimination and exclusionary immigration legislation for over a century, this seemingly positive description of Asian Americans as a hard-working minority became widespread in discourses of race in the United States. The insidious effects of the way in which Asian Americans were being compared to African Americans were sometimes missed by Asian Americans themselves. Anti-racist coalitions built between Asian Americans and African Americans in response to years of white supremacy split over the issue.

At first glance, the moral of this parable is about the arbitrary nature of racism and prejudice. We talk constantly about having a colour-blind society where we no longer have racial prejudice. However, the crux of the "Too Asian?" parable is not about prejudice or race, but about the unequal distribution of resources (textbooks) and how this has lingering legacies.

Notice how a definition of "alphabetism" based upon prejudice of 10 obscures what is really important. If someone whose name begins with B were to say that "all people with X names are stupid," it would be considered bigoted and therefore discouraged. But the real issue is whether an alphabet-blind meritocracy erases the systematic legacies of past injustice.

Whenever I tell this parable, there are two lessons that I hope my students understand: 1) that history matters, and that those whose names are B and D, or Q and W — who did well under both the old and new systems — should be sympathetic to those who still struggle to overcome the legacies of the past, and 2) that the concepts of "merit" and "fairness" do not always help us to create a just society from an unjust history.

How immigration policy is implicated

In order to add another allegorical meaning to my parable, let me demonstrate how Canadian immigration policy has affected racial representations of "Asians" as both an idealized model minority and a racial threat.

Over the last four decades, since the immigration reform of 1967 removed racial preferences in Canadian immigration policy, the "points system" has been implemented to create selective immigration policies that cherry-pick educated professionals from other parts of the world. Increasingly, universities also target the recruitment of top "foreign students" from around the globe.

Imagine that during the semester of my alphabetism, I decide that in order to raise the grade point average of my class, I will go next door to my colleague's classroom and try to convince all of the best students from that class to transfer over to my class. Throughout the semester, I succeed in creating a continual influx of high-achieving students with top marks who quietly move into my classroom.

But the cost to them is that they have to pay more for the textbook — a lot more — in order to transfer. Why would they do it? Perhaps I have convinced them that I am a better teacher than theirs, or that graduates of my class will do better in the job market than their existing class.

When the university administration conducts its regular review of my teaching, I proudly point to these high-achieving students. I emphasize in particular the students whose names begin with Q or W. They have the same names as the overachieving students who overcame alphabetism through hard work in the first half of the semester, and I marvel that there must be some cultural secret for success that the Q and W students possess. "We have no problems with alphabetism, I proudly state to my superiors. Just look how well students of every name and background are doing! I point out that I must be an extremely effective teacher since my class is full of students with fantastic grades. I neglect to mention that I only entice the best students to come over to my class, and therefore my claim that their achievements are the result of what and how I teach is more than a little self-aggrandizing.

Last lesson

In thinking about how a highly selective immigration and foreign student policy has affected racial representations of "Asians" in Canada over the last half century, it is crucial to separate the historical effects of white supremacy from the more recent demographic transformations due to migration. Historically, white supremacist policies such as the Chinese Head Tax, the Indian Act and the creation of the reserve system and residential schools, Asian immigration exclusion, Japanese-Canadian internment, and the disenfranchisement of Asians and First Nations and Aboriginal peoples in Canada, created a society where the unequal distribution of resources and privileges by race systematically shaped every institution of Canadian society. For instance, Chinese and South Asians could not become Canadian citizens and could not vote until 1947, and First Nations and Aboriginals in Canada could not vote until 1960. This disenfranchisement meant that they could not become professionals such as doctors, engineers, or lawyers.

That many Asian Canadians and Indigenous peoples in Canada have overcome such adversity to lead successful and productive lives is a credit to their perseverance and hard work in the face of enormous historical obstacles. However, the accomplishments of more recent generations of Asian immigrants to Canada need to be understood as a separate phenomenon from the historical legacies of white supremacy and their effects on earlier generations. In particular, the adverse effects on First Nations and Aboriginals of decades of ethnic cleansing and systematic attempts at cultural genocide in the form of the reserve system and residential schools have left far-ranging consequences that have hardly begun to be addressed.

"Model minority" Asian Canadians who are doing well now should remember that once they were the targets of the same racism that still afflicts so many — Indigenous peoples, Muslim Canadians, and perhaps most insidiously those many "Asians" who are not held up as a "model minority." As always, there is a need for broad-based coalitions of Canadians who recognize that the historical legacies of white supremacy cannot be wished away merely by asserting that we now live in a colour–blind meritocracy. We have universities full of high-achieving, hardworking students of different backgrounds. But we also need to continually ask ourselves what a university education means, and what the role of universities is in creating a diverse range of students who will help build a better society. Grades are only one measure of a person, and in the end the most important determination of a student's potential to give back to society may be the resources we give to that student as an investment for our future.

My students often point out the most obvious lesson of the Parable of the Textbook — one that many miss if they believe that those who are deprived somehow deserve their deprivation — why not just give every student a textbook?  [Tyee]

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