“Why don’t you show them something Japanese?” the teacher suggested.
Each week at the private school, a parent comes into class to talk about what they do. There is a wide variety of professions to expose the kids to. There is the dad who is a musician. One mom taught the kids some yoga. Then there is my friend: a businesswoman who happens to be Japanese.
The school is predominantly white, well-to-do, and teaches an alternative pedagogy to the public school where my kids go (mixed race mingling with a blend of ethnic and economic heritages all lumped together). My friend is probably the only Asian in that school of privilege. She stands out. When it comes to her turn to talk to the children about what she does, she is stripped of her years of experience and skills and reduced to what she is.
“Why don’t you show them something Japanese?”
Upon hearing this I snarked, “You should tell the teacher you are gonna teach the kids how to make maple syrup! Or, teach them the rules of hockey! Show them white people what for!”
Her experience is another example of what I have labelled “casual racism” but is actually called microaggression. Defined as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership” Microagression Theory has been around since 1970. You might have heard the term recently as it has been invoked often in high-minded intellectual magazines, rolled into critiques about universities and the infantilizing effects of safe spaces. For people not at college, it is easy to ignore the arguments over campus politics. Wider society should not be ignoring the discussion around microaggressions, especially in Canada which is 80% white. This is the context that so many visible minorities in Canada face. Microggressions are the most common form of racism today. We need to recognize it, learn about it, and stop it.
Cultural performance and the racial hierarchy
Immigrants are constantly asked to perform their culture for the amusement of the dominant culture. I expect Canada to rank up there with the worst perpetrators of this, thanks entirely to its constant, self-congratulatory multicultural rhetoric. But Canadians are not equal opportunity racists. There is a spectrum of cultural acceptance.
In order to protect the identity of my friend and the school, I have been purposefully vague and have changed some details. I would like to further abstract this parable into a thought experiment:
Imagine you are the only visible Muslim at a school full of white people. What is the likelihood that a teacher will ask you to culturally perform for the class?
My judgement is a low likelihood for two reasons: 1) the current demonstrable bias against Muslims in North American society today, and 2) my previous experience of Japanese people’s acceptance among white people.
Canadians like Japanese people. Saying “I love sushi!” is the Asian equivalent of saying “I’m not racist, I’ve got a Black friend!” The Japanese are considered the whitest of the Asians, and it has been that way since Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere (despite that little hiccup during the Pacific War). Yet they have not been completely invited into whiteness like the Irish or the Italians. White North America is not ready for that. Thus, the Japanese sit at the top of the bottom of the racial hierarchy — a hierarchy we really need to destroy altogether.