It has been nearly two years since I wrote a guest column in this paper, expressing my concerns over a Maclean's article that controversially addressed the growing Asian population at Canadian universities. The piece predicted a dark future for postsecondary education based on racist portrayals of Asian students. I thought that particular maelstrom had passed.
I was wrong. Now the Bank of Canada is insisting that a female image on our $100 bill might once again be "too Asian" for Canadian society.
After using a prototype bill to gauge reactions from focus groups, the bank found that participant complaints regarding the designed scientist's perceived ethnicity warranted a revamp. The new bill now features a "neutral" female scientist "stripped of her 'Asian' features … Her light features appear to be Caucasian," according to a Canadian Press article.
Equating "neutral" to a white default is not new in Canada, a country known for being politically benign. One need only refer to the latest 2011 census questionnaire's ethnicity section to find a generic "White" category at the top followed by other prescribed racial categories.
Our 1995 Employment Equity Act that set out to protect visible minorities considers that group to be made up of all those other than aboriginal peoples and Caucasian in race or white in colour. If we look back to our 2006 census, 16.2 per cent of the Canadian population is composed of visible minorities, up 27.2 per cent from five years earlier. Statistics Canada has projected that by 2031, visible minorities will make up a third of the population. At what point in Canadian society will white no longer be the default, or considered ethnically "neutral"?
The 2006 census shows that the Asian population in Canada is at least at 11 per cent. If that number were, say 25 per cent in a population of 50 per cent visible minorities, would our prototypical scientist and contributor to Canadian innovation in the field of medicine be allowed to proudly enshrine her Asian identity on our currency?
Our currency tells a story. That story, unfortunately, remains a white one. Apparently, no other ethnicity need apply.
It's far more convenient to ignore the myriad contributions that Asian Canadians have made.
What is even more worrisome is that we have a bank that has until now apparently and explicitly avoided any other depictions of ethnic groups on banknotes. Instead, it has to fabricate an ethnicity that does not even exist. The Bank of Canada insists that after focus groups identified the scientist as coming from a particular ethnic group, she was modified into a neutral non-ethnic "composite." It appears there is no problem to portray white ethnicity, but any other "ethnic" would be crossing the line. Apparently, white is non-racial.
Canadian media has long been known to contribute to stereotyping and creating a divide between "us" and "them" through distorted coverage on race. However, having a public institution take steps to modify a face into what it considers a neutral ethnicity marks an alarming move in an age of supposed multiculturalism for a country of immigrants. On Monday, Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney apologized to those offended, promising to review the design process for bank notes. But what does this mean about Canadians and the focus groups that led to this controversy? Isn't it time to tell a more realistic and diverse account of our country's people? Or is having a non-white face on the back of a bill still too much for us to handle?
Minelle Mahtani is an associate professor of geography and journalism at the University of Toronto-Scarborough and a board member of CERIS – The Ontario Metropolis Centre.