Friday, March 16, 2007

Quoi!? (les yeux bridés)

I have really not been motivated to add much to this blog for a while. I have kind of plateaued out with my cultural and language immersion. I'm getting by in French and starting to understand Quebec enough to the point where it seems to be exactly like everywhere else in the world: full of human beings! So I just had nothing really interesting to discuss. On top of that, I find politics, particularly provincial politics, profoundly boring. One of those things I hate talking and thinking about and yet often find myself doing just that and then feeling annoyed. I had sort of thought that provincial politics in Quebec would have a little more depth and substance than the media machines I was used to in B.C. I had hoped that the idea and history of sovereignity and Quebec's culture uniqueness would result in a more informed populace and candidates who would respect that.

Well I was wrong about that. This election is fully up-to-date, with every single move geared towards the party's relation with the media and how the spin will affect their ratings. The current analysis is that it is a three-way race because none of the candidates has come up with the single dominant videobyte that will define them and give them the lead. So that is what they are struggling for, the perfect television moment. One issue that seriously came up earlier in the week was whether or not Boisclair dressed in too fine of a style, alienating the working class base and perhaps reminding them of his homosexuality. Whoo, deep issues!

But I am motivated to post today in reaction to Boisclair's latest gaff, where he referred to students of Asian descent as "les yeux bridés" (the slanted eyes). I'm not kidding. I repeat, I am not joking. And you think that's bad, he said that in french it's okay to use that term. Um, mister havard-intellectual, it's not the person who is saying it who decides if it's okay or not. It's the one labeled who decides. Absolutely shocking. I thought I was dreaming when I heard this on the radio today.

Now Boisclair is a fumbling politician, that's obvious. To even think of saying something like that, even if it isn't offensive in french (that I'll get to later), shows an incredible lack of judgement. Was it a speech? Did nobody vet it? He's done.

But far more disturbing to me is that I think he is not making it up when he says it is okay to say "les yeux bridés" in french. I think that is probably true. I'm going to ask my friends about this one. And maybe there is a linguistic argument for why it doesn't sound as harsh in french as in english. But the fact of it is that you are labelling an ethnic group by a physical stereotype, one that has been used throughout history to caricature and ridicule (and make look evil) asians as a vast group, lumping Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, etc. in one vast group. That kind of language should be recognized as racist and people should be taught that it is offensive at best. That that has not happened in Quebec is extremely disturbing to me.

But it seems clear from Boisclair's reaction, that he expects the Quebec people to agree with him. The language he used was "we Quebeckers see nothing wrong with this language" and said it was a question for linguists, not politicians. In effect, he is belittling the people offended, saying their concerns don't count among "his" people. It could be a really sneaky strategy to try to appeal to the more xenophobic Quebeckers that populist Mario Dumont has been winning over. It could also be another example of Boisclair's misapplied pride (which almost always comes off as arrogance). But I think ultimately, he really believes his response is acceptable and there will be a lot of people in Quebec who will agree with him.

Since the big argument that went on here over Jan Wong's article, I have seen more and more small, but significant, examples of this kind of racism in Quebec, geared especially towards people of asian descent. It's rarely antagonistic, like you see in B.C., but it is alienating and weird. I can't figure out what is the Quebec weirdness with asian people, maybe some distant cultural strain inherited from the french and their colonial history in Southeast Asia? I'm grabbing at straws here, so if someone has some anthropological explanations, I would appreciate it. So I guess what I'm saying is that P.Lee, who seemed so virulent about racism here, may have a point.