Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Two wongs...

[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.


Al B Here said...

Just a sidenote here, but I believe the fortune cookies were a thinly veiled reference to Jan Wong's father who, if I've heard correctly from some relatives, owns (or did own) a chinese restaurant in Montreal at one point. There's probably more to the story, but my mind is fuzzy at the moment.

Al B Here said...

Aha! I found it. Her father does, indeed, own a chinese restaurant in town. Check out a related link here

Buzby said...

It is not surprising that a Francophile society has an underlying tone of almost institutionalized racism. After all, look at the French who are some of the most racist people in the world.

Al B Here said...

The same can be said of those of asian descent, though. One of the most racist guys I've ever known was from Hong Kong. Racism isn't restricted to one ethnic background-it's found in all of them.

Anonymous said...

Your message appears to me to be quite valid; however, how is the representation of fortune cookies any different from the use of poutine in the picture you've posted?

I didn't see the other cartoon you've referenced so I wouldn't comment on it. As for the one that is posted, should the caricature have been drawn with round eyes? At first glance, I think many would be confused as to why Jerry Lewis was sitting in front of a box of fortune cookies. What is the line between satire and racism? What would be an appropriate visual depiction? I think valid discussions on race and racism often get sidetracked thanks to microanalysis.

By the way...
thoughtful blog.

OlmanFeelyus said...

Thanks :-P Master. I wish I had more time to post these days, because living in Quebec (hell, living in Canada) gives one a lot to think about. :)

My poutine picture is not an ethnic reference, but a regional one. Poutine is a cultural element of Quebec, shared by all quebecois no matter what there racial background. Fortune cookies and certain facial features depicted in the cartoons are linked specifically to one ethnic group and often in a historically negative connotation.

You do have an argument to make. That picture in the Devoir is not as bad as the one in the Journal, which really made me do a double-take when I first saw it. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a copy of it anywhere.

Whether it is "political-correctness" masking an extant racism below the surface or whether it is a sign of greater sensitivity and culture awareness, I do not think a major newspaper in english speaking Canada would have used fortune cookies in an editorial cartoon which dealt with a celebrity of asian descent. I think most editors would immediately flag it as potentially offensive.

That it isn't flagged in the Devoir or the Journal and that many quebecers continue to defend it as just a caricature is further sign of a need for greater awareness. I can tell you that most Canadians of asian descent would find the fortune cookie reference insulting. And that is where you draw the line.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough.