Friday, March 16, 2007

The eyes have it

Parti Québécois leader André Boisclair is in hot water, if I can be forgiven the use of an undoubtedly racist metaphor. Referring to students at Harvard, where he was pursuing a master's degree, he said:

I was surprised to see that on campus, about a third of the undergraduate students had slanted eyes [
yeux bridés]. They're not going to work in sweatshops. They're people who will later work as engineers, managers, and will create wealth. They're people who will innovate in their countries. There is ferocious competition in the world today.

Fo Niemi, speaking for the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations in Montreal, found the comment "derogatory" and "racially offensive." The Chinese Canadian National Council has now entered the fray, calling the reference to slanted eyes disrespectful and trading on caricature. In a stroke, Boisclair has levelled the electoral playing field, it seems, placing himself right up there (or down there) with Mario Dumont's sleazy defence of hérouxvillisme and Jean Charest's opportunistic opposition to khumur in girls' soccer. But Boisclair has adamantly refused to apologize for any of this, and his electoral rivals, who live in their own glass houses, have wisely declined to throw stones.

Could this be simply a matter of translation? A little over a month ago, well before this controversy broke out, a francophone inquired
on an on-line forum:

How would you describe Asian people's eyes? In French we say they have "les yeux bridés". I've looked it up in different dictionaries and have found different adjectives: slant / slanting / slit eyes but don't know which one is really correct- I mean not offensive. Can anyone help?

Some other round-eyes made suggestions, but I think the answer to his last question is a clear No. And his first question unwittingly sets a trap.

"Asian" has come into political vogue to replace the Eurocentric "Oriental." But there are Asians and Asians, and not all of them possess the epicanthic fold. (That sounds reassuringly medical, doesn't it?) It is fair to say, though, that the overwhelming majority of, say, the Chinese and Japanese populations, possess this physical characteristic.

M. Boisclair apparently fell into a similar trap in subsequent comments: upon being asked why he was referring to Chinese students one day and Japanese students the next, he responded that he meant students from various Asian countries, presumably those inhabited by people with the aforementioned epicanthic fold.

I've been struggling with a few thought-experiments. Suppose M. Boisclair, returning to a university campus after several decades,was struck by the fact that half of the students in the engineering faculty were women, whereas the latter were scarce on the ground in relatively recent memory. Pleased at this turn of events, the PQ leader stated that he was "agreeably surprised to see so many students in skirts." It would be a little cack-handed, given that not all women students wear skirts, but would it be sexist? Given this imaginary context, I'd probably respond in the negative. Would he come under attack for sexism? I'm afraid I may know the answer to that one.

Imagine M. Boisclair visiting a medical faculty that used to have a quota system for Jews (McGill comes to mind). He notes, scanning the audience, that a fairly healthy proportion of people in attendance appear to be Jewish. He makes some comment to this effect, perhaps regarding yarmulkes, and is accused of anti-Semitism. Is he guilty of it?

Finally, our intrepid PQ chief is invited to a third campus, where he notes a very high proportion of students in the law faculty are Black. He refers to his delight at seeing so many dark-skinned people in the audience. Racist?

I've been checking my own feelings as I have been writing this, and I admit to some discomfort in each of these hypothetical cases. Why? Because, in our own culture (anglophone Canadian), it is impolite to make what my mother used to call "personal remarks." You don't draw attention to people's physical attributes or clothing if doing so is gratuitous. Certainly you don't, as Nancy Reagan once did, refer to "the beautiful white people" in an audience. But even leaving race out of it, you don't talk about "bodacious babes," or "fat people," or whatever physical category has attracted your attention, when you address a public meeting. This has nothing to do with any of the pernicious "isms." It's just, as my father used to say, "not done."

I suggest that it was breaking that rule that has made so many of us shift in our seats. Our discomfort, in other words, may be largely, if not entirely, unrelated to racism.
(I confess that I don't know if such a social rule exists in Québécois culture to the same degree, which may be the nub of the controversy here, given that most of the journalists asking questions about this event were anglophone.)

A University of Toronto sociologist does take the opposite view. George Dei, noting that "all Asians don't look alike," states:

Any time you use a physical attribute to label or describe a people you run the risk of racializing groups. The context in this case is, why does he have to say this to get his meaning across? If he wants to get across the fact that 30 per cent of students were Asian, couldn't he have come out and said it without referring to how they look?

I think he does have a point--group physical descriptors can obviously have that racializing effect--even if he undercuts his point at the same time. Boisclair was not simply referring to "Asians," as we know. He was using a physical characteristic as shorthand for more specific groups. He was not making the implicit assumption that all Asians look alike: but he was settling upon a physical element that the groups to which he was referring have in common.

The unease that we feel about publicly mentioning people's physical characteristics at all may certainly be compounded by the explicit use of physical references by racists. Within that doubly charged context, an entirely innocent remark will almost inevitably receive a colouration that I cannot believe was intended by M. Boisclair, given the rest of the paragraph quoted, in which he actually seeks to dispel a common stereotype about "Asians." So he won't apologize, and other people will demand that he does, and we'll see how all this plays out.

In the meantime, what wide-ranging debates, what expansion of horizons we all miss out on when such inflated controversies are an ever-present possibility. While we are all watching our mouths, not to mention those of others, this sort of thing, and this, find odd corners and niches in which to flourish. Don't you wish--come on now, fellow progressives, admit it--that the whole world would afford us such wild and crazy freedom?

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