Racial lines drawn elsewhere too »« Invisible minorities

Racial lines drawn in post-secondary schools

Many of you know that I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Waterloo. A good friend who I met in my program there sent me this article from Macleans magazine:

To quell the influx of Jewish students, Ivy League schools abandoned their meritocratic admissions processes in favour of one that focused on the details of an applicant’s private life—questions about race, religion, even about the maiden name of an applicant’s mother. Schools also began looking at such intangibles as character, personality and leadership potential. Canadian universities, apart from highly competitive professional programs and faculties, don’t quiz applicants the same way, and rely entirely on transcripts. Likely that is a good thing. And yet, that meritocratic process results, especially in Canada’s elite university programs, in a concentration of Asian students.

Waterloo, for those of you who don’t know, is a school with large engineering and mathematics faculties. It is, non-coincidentally, a school with a very large east-Asian and south-Asian students, many of whom are born in China, India or Pakistan. The culture in which these students were raised puts education at a premium, particularly in fields like engineering. Waterloo was sometimes referred to, by white and Asian students alike, as “Water-Woo”, referring to the Chinese population (as opposed to a particular propensity for homeopathy). My high school in Brampton had a large population of Indian and Pakistani students who were expected to study business or accounting or a related field in university. It really didn’t matter what the kids wanted – the parents called the shots.

Once at Waterloo, it was common (though not exclusively true by any stretch) to see Chinese students associating in groups, rather than as part of multicultural groups. Part of that, I’m sure, has to do with familiarity, particularly of language. Whenever someone complained, I pointed out that nobody thought it was odd to see a group of all-white students congregating together. However, the Macleans article suggests another, perhaps more familiar to readers here, reason why this is happening:

“I do have traditional Asian parents. I feel the pressure of finding a good job and raising a good family.” That pressure helps shape more than just the way [UBC student Susie] Su handles study and school assignments; it shapes the way she interacts with her colleagues. “If I feel like it’s going to be an event where it’s all white people, I probably wouldn’t want to go,” she says. “There’s a lot of just drinking. It’s not that I don’t like white people. But you tend to hang out with people of the same race.”

Catherine Costigan, a psychology assistant prof at the University of Victoria, says it’s unsurprising that Asian students are segregated from “mainstream” campus life. She cites studies that show Chinese youth are bullied more than their non-Asian peers. As a so-called “model minority,” they are more frequently targeted because of being “too smart” and “teachers’ pets.” To counter peer ostracism and resentment, Costigan says Chinese students reaffirm their ethnicity.

Imagine you went to a school where your peers were predominantly conservative Muslims – no pub nights, regular interruptions for prayer, constant discussion of religion, and a feeling of disquiet every time you wear shorts or leave your head uncovered. Of course you’d cling to a group of people who share your more liberal, non-religious values. You’d be less likely to get involved in the community at large, and your friends would tend to come from the group that is most like you – not out of any particular aversion to Muslim students, but because you don’t feel comfortable surrounded by a culture that you don’t share.

Such is the case for the population of Chinese students who come to universities in Canada. To be sure, there are many who eschew the traditional background – or whose parents aren’t particularly traditional – and feel comfortable in mixed-race groups. This is particularly true of Canadian-born people of Chinese descent who feel a greater allegiance to other Canadian-born students than they do to the country of their parents’ birth. But because of the difference in attitudes towards school, white students are starting to feel the effects of this voluntary segregation as well:

“Too Asian” is not about racism, say students like Alexandra: many white students simply believe that competing with Asians—both Asian Canadians and international students—requires a sacrifice of time and freedom they’re not willing to make. They complain that they can’t compete for spots in the best schools and can’t party as much as they’d like (too bad for them, most will say).

I am not so quick to dismiss the disincentivization of social interaction as Macleans is though. Many of the social skills I picked up while “partying” during undergrad have been instrumental in getting me where I am today, far more than my marks have. When the degree is the only goal, we risk losing many of the other experiences that make the undergraduate degree useful, including network development and teamwork skills. Funneling students into disciplines like engineering and math (or pre-med and business) means that Asian students are less likely to study language, history, philosophy, psychology, any of the fields that are helpful in developing into a well-rounded human being. It also disincentivizes critical thinking, which will ultimately come back to bite us in the ass as a society. This has nothing, however, to do with being “too Asian” or any such nonsense – it has more to do with what we consider an ‘education’, and how we measure merit.

The sad thing is that white students are choosing to migrate further afield to schools that are more monochromatic, like Queen’s and Western. This segregation will, over time, become more deeply entrenched as people’s networks become more insular and less multicultural. This represents a challenge for Canada – do we abandon merit-based education based on marks, or do we only admit students who adhere to our nebulous definition of “Canadian culture”? Is this perhaps just a facet of privilege, as we move away from a “traditional” view of what a student is, or does this represent the actual loss of something valuable? For once, I can’t even offer an idea of an answer. Maybe one of you can.

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