Wednesday, November 01, 2006
[excuse the bad pun]
I should have posted this a month ago, when the editorial cartoons first came out. P. Lee's comment to my post on Jan Wong spurred me to respond. My position still holds on the Jan Wong and her editorial. After hearing her interviewed, where she said that her editor pushed her to add a thesis, and after seeing the Globe and Mail's lame response to the criticism of the article, my opinion of that publication only sinks deeper.
However, the editorial cartoons that showed up in Le Devoir and Le Journal were just as bad and completely substantiated Wong's later explanations of what she wrote. The link between language laws and Quebec culture to the alienation of those psychos is preposterous. But there is a level of racial ignorance and insensitivity in Quebec. With the growth (and encouragement) of immigration and some efforts in the media and government, it is getting slightly better. But for someone from western Canada, I am sometimes quite shocked by the things that pass as acceptable here.
The editorial cartoons depicted a caricatured Jan Wong going through fortune cookies to learn about Quebec (in the Le Devoir version) or reading aphorisms about good journalism (in the Le Journal version). The one in the tabloid Le Journal was the first one I saw and the portrayal of Jan Wong was frankly offensive. Buck teeth, super slanty eyes. The one in Le Devoir (pictured above) is not as extreme. Their defense was that it is a caricature and that the point is to exaggerate features. They have absolutely no sense that honing in on the stereotypical ethnic differences (the fortune cookies) is racist. I am pretty sure an image like that would not fly in english Canada.
Now I am not saying that somehow english and western Canada is any less racist than Quebec. I have seen some of the ugliest incidents of racism in my life in Vancouver. Growing up in Nanaimo, chink and paki were the standard way for many people to refer to the few Vietnamese or Sikh students in our school. But I think there is an ignorance in Quebec based on the homogeneity of the population. Outside of Montreal, there just aren't many people who aren't french-speaking and white. And they cling to an older world where those kinds of distinctions are important. At my french school, one of the teachers was referred to as "the Belgian". He had moved to Quebec from Belgium when he was 9 in the '50s!
I can relate to numerous instances of that kind of classification and ignorance that I have seen happen here. My girlfriend is of chinese descent and she is constantly remarking on how white it seems here. A security guard said "konichiwa" to her when taking our tickets at a museum. When I was in the lineup for Fantasia tickets, I got in a conversation with a guy. We talked for quite a while and when my girlfriend showed up he seemed visibly embarrassed. After she left, he got all weird and asked me all these questions about where she was from. I had a realtor who was recommending me a banker say, "I should tell you he is asiatic". One of my friends thought it was acceptable in english to say "Red Indian". Whenever Le Journal reports upon crime, it always mentions the race of the criminals if they are black, but doesn't if they are white.
All of these incidents are awkward and disturbing, but they are marked by a naiveté rather than any malice. I touched upon this in an earlier post and someone pointed out that this is a society that only opened its doors a generation ago. It is a beat behind the rest of Canada in the assimilation of immigrants and other cultures. So it is understandable, especially at the individual level. But when the major newspapers stoop to ethnic stereotyping to respond to insults against their culture, then we are moving from ignorance into outright racism. And it does nothing to address the problem.
This is what is so frustrating about this whole incident. Instead of using this as an opportunity to accept a bit of criticism and find ways to improve, both parties just got defensive and dug in. The Globe and Mail refuses to admit there is anything wrong with running an exploitative, badly-researched and judgemental article on their front page. Jan Wong acts all wounded and innocent. The Quebecois media reacts to criticisms of their culture by throwing out racist cartoons and then saying they are just caricatures. Come on, Canada. We can do a lot better.