‘The latest chapter’: A history of Asian racism at UBC

The story of Asian discrimination is a history that finds itself to be deeply interlinked with the story of the last century on this campus.

Content warning: This article contains descriptions of racism and physical violence against Asian and Pacific Islander community members that may be distressing to some readers.

On March 16, eight were killed in Atlanta, Georgia, six of whom were Asian American women. The attack was harrowing for Asian and Pacific Islander communities on both sides of the border.

The attack sparked renewed attention on the Asian community across the globe, who have as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the virus’s origins within China experienced an amplification of anti-Asian sentiments.

Responding to the events in Atlanta, in a statement to the university, UBC President Santa Ono called the recent wave of anti-Asian violence “the latest chapter in a long and tortured history.”

While this may be the latest chapter, the story of Asian discrimination is a history that finds itself to be deeply interlinked with the story of the last century on this campus — in which, as a result of racism, Asian community members have experienced expulsion, exclusion and mockery.

Last week, The Ubyssey reported that an attack had occurred on our very own campus. On March 27, a Korean UBC student was allegedly attacked by a man after he called her a “racial term” in University Village while she took out the trash.

While at this time the investigation is still in its early stages, the incident aligns with a disturbing trend both within the city and on our campus.

A year-end report presented to the Vancouver Police Board last February showed a 717 per cent increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in the city. In 2019, there were 12 reported crimes, whereas, in 2020, this surged to 98 publicly reported instances, including an attack on an elderly man.

In response, BC Premier John Horgan posted that the surge of crimes was “deeply troubling.”

Tweeting from his account, Horgan wrote, “There’s more for all of us to do in our stand against racism and hate in all its forms.”

Over the past year, The Ubyssey has also documented the impacts of anti-Asian sentiments amidst the pandemic.

For example, last fall a second-year Japanese international student was accosted by an unmasked white man, who told her and her friends to return to China.

Similarly, last summer, Asian Canadian UBC Okanagan nursing student Mona Wang sued the RCMP after surveillance footage released in June 2020 showed a police officer dragging Wang out of the bathroom, out of the apartment and to the elevator.

All of these individual experiences echo findings in the AMS’s 2020 Academic Experience Survey, in which 51 per cent of all Chinese students had reported instances of discrimination on campus, showing evidence of a larger, more systemic problem.

However, looking to the past can tell us about the hard-fought journey that has brought us to where we are today.

Righting the wrongs

At the start of World War II, the attack on Pearl Harbour catalyzed the detention of Japanese Canadians.

The detention of Japanese people meant that 90 per cent of Japanese Canadians, approximately 21,000 individuals, were removed from the Lower Mainland and into detention camps in BC’s interior and across Canada for seasonal farm labour. As a result, 76 UBC students of Japanese descent were forced to give up their studies to endure confinement and hard labour.

Unfortunately, after detention, many of the students had to abandon their education and had no possessions or financial support. Prime Minister Mackenzie King gave many Japanese Canadians a choice to either move to Japan or Eastern Canada, and many Japanese Canadians ended up settling outside of Western Canada without the personal or professional connections needed to rebuild their lives.

Many years later, the conversation around Japanese detention found its way into the voices of student activists and academics demanding reconciliatory action for the Japanese Canadian community. Although the university initially said the forced removal wasn’t its fault, eventually the university acknowledged its past wrongdoings.

UBC awarded honourary degrees to all the students who had been forced to leave in 1942.
UBC awarded honourary degrees to all the students who had been forced to leave in 1942. Courtesy Martin Dee/UBC Archives Photo Collection

In honour of the 76 Japanese Canadian students who were sent to internment camps, the UBC Senate approved the creation of a degree program studying anti-Asian racism and the preservation of Asian cultural heritage in 2011, known as the Asian Canadian and Asian Migration Studies program (ACAM).

In addition, in 2012, UBC awarded honorary degrees to all the students who had been forced to leave in 1942 and started the 1942 Japanese Canadian UBC Students Fund as a tribute to the removed Canadians.

The notorious C.L.A.U.S.E.: The “Non-Caucasian” clause

The Greek system played an important role in the evolution of discrimination at UBC.

In the early 1950s, UBC fraternities were notorious for the aptly named “Non-Caucasian” clause, a racial and religious discriminatory clause that restricted fraternity membership to white Christians.

To quash this racist policy, the UBC Student Council passed a motion that required all fraternities to remove racial and religious discriminatory clauses from their constitutions in 1952.

In 1961, The Ubyssey reported on non-caucasian clauses in fraternities.
In 1961, The Ubyssey reported on non-caucasian clauses in fraternities. Courtesy Ubyssey/UBC Archives

The discriminatory clauses were removed in the 1960s, but not without some hidden resistance. To avoid any further backlash, fraternities began holding “gentleman’s agreements” to maintain these practices under the radar, allowing them to preserve racist traditions while also appeasing the Council.

However, the growing publicity of the controversy made students question the integrity of the Interfraternity Council members altogether — mainly in the student government’s political affairs.

In UBC sororities, discrimination was less blatant. To restrict their intake of women of colour, many sororities didn’t mail them their application forms and claimed they simply “forgot.”

“The sororities proudly announced that they had no such ‘Non-Caucasian’ discriminatory clauses in their constitutions. And yet they too had no Asians,” says Sheldon Goldfarb, AMS archivist and author of The Hundred-Year Trek: A History of Student Life at UBC.

Although sororities weren’t as explicit in their discrimination policies, their actions hurt just as much. The actions were justified by UBC Dean of Women Helen Mawdsley in 1955 who stated that “Asian girls weren’t interested in sororities, so why bother wasting perfectly good application forms?”

The decade also saw the inauguration of the AMS’s first South Asian president, Raghbir Basi, which polarized student culture.

Asian vs. Asian

A CVC video featured an Asian man confusing the words 'variety' with 'viagra'.
A CVC video featured an Asian man confusing the words 'variety' with 'viagra'. Jasmine Foong

In 2009, the Chinese Varsity Club (CVC) found itself embroiled in controversy after posting a video ridiculing the English skills of members of newer Chinese clubs.

The video was created to mimic a Mac vs. PC ad and featured an Asian woman next to an Asian man.

The woman was shown to be fluent in English while the man was filmed struggling to pronounce the word “multicultural,” confusing the word “variety” with “viagra,” and when asked where the people from his club come from, he says “Richmond.”

“The material represented a campus group as being unwelcome in a derogatory way,” said 2009 AMS VP Administration Tristan Markle in an interview at the time.

“Their video was based on stereotypes that were offensive and that was the key part.”

As punishment, the university made the club forfeit its table for the first part of Clubs Days, complete a mandatory year of probation and deliver letters of apology to the clubs that filed official complaints: The Chinese Students Association, the Association of Chinese Graduates, the Chinese Collegiate Society and YOURS Student Association.

“There are numerous ways in which our experiences and identities are ignored, dismissed or excluded.”

— Dr. Chris Lee, director of the Asian Canadian and Asian Migration Studies program

Although the controversy mainly focused on the racist stereotypes in the video, it also showed a divergence in what it means to be Asian and the idea of Asianness altogether. Since both characters were Asian, specifically Chinese, the idea of racism separated itself from race and attached itself to different categories of distinction, like cultural belonging.

“Even though Vancouver, where I’ve spent most of my life, is one of the most diverse cities in North America, I’ve learned not to take belonging for granted. There are numerous ways in which our experiences and identities are ignored, dismissed or excluded,” said Dr. Chris Lee, director of the ACAM program.

“There’s an upholding of norms to what it means to be ‘fully’ Asian. The idea of ‘Asian’ is constantly in flux. We often mobilize the term Asian in a way that reproduces a continental imagination of what Asia is,” said Dr. JP Catungal, assistant professor of critical racial and ethnic studies at the Social Justice Institute.

“But, if we only refer to continental definitions of Asia, we lose the diversity and a lot of the Asian community’s history.”

Too Asian: A modern remix

In 2010, Maclean’s published an article titled “Too Asian: Some frosh don’t want to study at an Asian university.”

The article was heavily criticized for its demeaning anti-Asian sentiments toward university admissions.
The article was heavily criticized for its demeaning anti-Asian sentiments toward university admissions. Maclean’s

The piece focused on how students chose not to go to schools that had larger Asian populations as they were worried that the environment would be “so academically focused that some students feel they can no longer compete or have fun.”

The article lists UBC, alongside other universities such as the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo, and heavily relies on anti-Asian and antisemitic tropes.

Sparking a huge racial controversy, the article discussed a high school student named Alexandria factoring in a university’s racial demographic as an indication of the school’s student life and academic culture.

Explaining how a school can be “too Asian,” Alexandria points to the stereotypically competitive academic nature many Asians bring to a good-natured university campus that should focus on “having fun.”

At the time, many university admissions officers and high school guidance counsellors were limiting the number of Asian applicants and keeping the number of Caucasian students “artificially high” to avoid gaining a reputation for being overly populated with Asian students.

“Universities mobilize multiculturalism as a means of acquiring more money from international students.”

— Dr. JP Catungal, assistant professor at the Social Justice Institute

Originally published in Maclean’s 2010 edition of its Guide to Canadian Universities, the article was heavily criticized for its demeaning anti-Asian sentiments toward university admissions and exposed an insulting remix of Canada’s yellow peril.

Marking the tenth anniversary of the Maclean’s article, the enrolment controversy pedestals one of the many ways Asian communities are scapegoated. Whether it’s increasing gentrification or importing diseases, the Asian community constantly finds itself ostracized and criticized for its existence.

Today, many universities, UBC included, pride themselves on promoting a sense of appreciation for a diverse student population.

However, as evidenced by the Chinese students who reported experiencing discrimination, there is still work to be done to make sure that every group feels equally respected and valued on this campus.

“Universities can sell themselves as a good school through promoting their multiculturalism, which turns multiculturalism [into] an asset or amenity for attracting students,” says Catungal.

“But what is the relationship between aggressive internationalization and business? Universities mobilize multiculturalism as a means of acquiring more money from international students.”

The current situation: ‘You can’t separate UBC from the world around it.’

Racism towards the Asian community remains an ongoing event.

With the current political situation, many of those within the Asian and Pacific Islander communities have felt a significant increase in anxiety given the proliferation of anti-Asian sentiments.

“The ongoing crisis of anti-Asian racism during the pandemic makes me realize that I can be stereotyped, targeted and attacked simply on the basis of appearance,” says Lee.

UBC’s history still continues to be a product of the cultural influences around it.
UBC’s history still continues to be a product of the cultural influences around it. Jasmine Foong

Dr. Benjamin Cheung, a lecturer in the department of psychology, told The Ubyssey in 2020 about the ways that these sentiments manifest themselves in violent acts of racism.

“When non-geographic alternatives like ‘COVID-19’ and ‘coronavirus’ exist, calling the bug the ‘Wuhan’ or ‘China virus’ associates Chinese people and those who look like them with the disease, leaving them vulnerable to discrimination based on appearance,” he says.

“It spreads from just calling it the place of origin, to generalizing it, to everyone who has any sort of perceived attachment to that term. So it no longer becomes the China virus as a virus that happened in China, but rather it’s a virus that comes from China and Chinese-looking people.”

Throughout its history, UBC has repeatedly stated its commitment to challenging ‘all forms of racism and discrimination. But as part of a larger global network, UBC’s history still continues to be a product of the cultural influences around it.

“As to what role Asian culture has played in UBC history, that’s a huge question which I probably can’t answer except to say it’s been an increasingly significant one. You can’t [really] separate UBC from the world around it; it reflects the world around it, or in this case, was affected by it,” said Goldfarb.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly indicated the existence of a Non-Caucasian Clause in a specific fraternity's constitution, despite no evidence of such policy existing in that particular fraternity's history. The Ubyssey regrets this error.