Reflecting on the Yee Clun case

There are a couple of things from yesterday morning’s post that I think bear further examination and reflection.

One of the good ones

Yee Clun was lucky, in a sense, that he was able to muster support from well-regarded white Reginans. What Backhouse found extraordinary is that, with only a couple of notable exceptions, the bulk of Yee’s defenders protested that he was clearly not the kind of person who the law was supposed to discriminate against. He was one of the good ‘Chinamen’, who would never drug and subsequently rape a white woman in his employ.

Members of minority communities know this kind of ‘defence’ quite well. Many ostensible allies confide to their friends of colour that they (the friend) is different. Unless the desire for flattery overpowers the frontal lobe of the friend’s brain, this ‘difference’ suggests quite clearly that the so-called ally thinks that the stereotype is true, just not universally so. I am not in a position to judge other people and their reaction to such a statement, but I don’t consider a person who thinks that I am intelligent and worthwhile despite my blackness to be much preferable to someone who hates me because of it.

The other thing worth noting is that such defences do not matter. It doesn’t matter how ‘exceptional’ you are, people who judge people based on their race are going to judge you on the same basis, no matter how exceptional you try to be. They might claim to make exceptions for you, but as soon as you do something that makes you lose their favour (or in Yee’s case, when you’re up against someone whose favour you’ve never had), you will immediately be lumped in with the hated group. “One of the good ones” is code for “you’ll be the last one we come for”.


One of the other aspects of this story that really cements something that I’ve had kicking around in my brain for a few days is how impossible it would be to understand this story unless you understood how sexism, classism, racism, and religion all fit and work together. The women’s labour groups opposed Yee Clun’s application, but were only able to organize through the edifice of the church because it was the only way they could exercise political power. Understanding gender dynamics, or understanding race dynamics, or understanding religious dynamics alone would leave you hopelessly underinformed in appreciating relevant aspects of the story.

Had the women’s groups, for example, been able to recognize the existence of white privilege, they would have seen immediately that the chief arguments they were making were fueled by racist stereotypes rather than reality. They would have seen that their own discrimination had robbed them of the ability to make a number of choices for themselves, and may have found themselves making feminist critiques in support of Yee (and, in fact, some did). The insertion of religion adds a layer of supernaturalism to the patriarchy, which in turn is reflected in the class struggle. It cannot be properly understood except as an interconnected system, and any attempt to critique only one aspect will neglect crucial analytical lenses.

Why don’t I know about this stuff?

I find it remarkable that such a profound and fascinating story isn’t part of the narrative of our country. This seems like the kind of thing that should be well-known due to its infamy. And yet, the vast majority of Google searches for both the name ‘Yee Clun’ and the name of the act in question (as well as its reference number) take me either to references to Backhouse’s book, or articles that have nothing to do with this case. I can’t actually re-create the search string that led me to the text of the act in the first place. I find that troubling.

So does Rachel Décoste at Huffington Post:

It is oft-implied that the United States had segregation while Canada was above this racial retardment. Hollywood movies dramatize the plight of African-American soldiers who, after defeating the Nazis in WWII, returned home to burned crosses, institutionalised bigotry, and all the vestiges of southern stereotypes. But, here in Canada, we were so much better than that.

Or were we?


When people stand up against injustice, they deserve to be remembered. While the selective sweeping under the rug of historical happenings has shielded Canada of its checkered past, it has also robbed heroes of their merited acknowledgement and due rewardsSome things never change.

But this flagrant omission doesn’t have to follow the trend.

It behooves our history museums, our governments, and our countrymen to rid themselves of selective amnesia and give credit and where credit is due. While Hugh Barnett never lived to see the plaque that was installed in Dresden near the very restaurant which refused to serve him, Ruth Lor and Bromley Armstrong are still with us. There is no CBC TV movie, no public statue, no grand boulevard, no commemorative stamp, no Order of Canada dedicated to any of these genuine Canadian heroes.

Rachel too sees the similarities between racial equality struggles in Canada and the United States. A group of determined voices have made sure that the USA hasn’t been allowed to completely forget its own history. Perhaps a similar effort is needed in Canada.

Once again I’d like to express my profound disappointment that the traffic for the Black History Month posts drops noticeably below average. This is a consistent pattern year-to-year. While I find it surprising that the audience for this blog is less interested in the topic, it does give me a bit of insight into the challenge educators face in getting people to realize the importance of this stuff.

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  1. says

    Once again I’d like to express my profound disappointment that the traffic for the Black History Month posts drops noticeably below average.

    I find myself less inclined to comment on issues regarding privilege because (since a friend of mine opened my eyes to a bunch of the issues, a couple years ago) I’m still pretty embarrassed about my low clue-level on the topic. I’m still trying to listen and learn.

    Your blog postings are fascinating and I really appreciate them.

  2. says

    It’s not the lack of comments, it’s the overall traffic to these posts that is lower. I’m not bothered as much if people are reading but not responding – it’s the fact that people are (as far as I can tell) choosing not to read in the first place that I find disappointing.

  3. medivh says

    I’d like to think the lower traffic to your black history month posts is simply an artifact of them being a different style to your other writings. I have a harder time getting through Brian’s posts on here, for instance, because he lacks your easy-reading style that makes this one of my favourite blogs. And I’ll admit that I’ve found this year’s (I can’t remember my reaction to last year’s) BHM posts slightly less purely entertaining than other of your posts, but have kept reading for the entertainment of education and for the interest of speculating exactly how much my own education has been elided for privilege’s sake.

    Unfortunately I’ve got a background thought process on the topic of why your BHM posts get less traffic. It’s whispering cynical things into my ears that I can’t come up with the evidence to deny…

  4. PatrickG says

    I hadn’t found FTB (and your blog) by last February, but I will say that this month I find myself not casually checking for new posts because the content this month is so dense. Of course, you write mini-dissertations on various topics in the time I’ve been reading you; I’m just noting the frequency of such definitely jumped this month.

    These issues aren’t something I’ve been well educated in (by self or others), and it’s all too easy for me to read without reflection and then pat myself on the back for “educating” myself. That is, it’s not something I can dive into with morning coffee… instead I have to carve out some time and be able to read, re-read, follow the links (then follow the links in the links), absorb, and think. So I find myself visiting less, and staying longer.

    I also confess to some US-centrism on my part. Reading about Canada’s woes w.r.t. First Nations and Canada’s “checkered past” is informative and obviously gives insight into more local examples of the processes that reinforce institutional privilege, but it doesn’t quite grab me viscerally like information about my own backyard. That’s on me, obviously.*

    Though, I have to say… this sentence

    A group of determined voices have made sure that the USA hasn’t been allowed to completely forget its own history.

    seems to be rather an optimistic view of the US ability to come to grips with its own history, even with the rather large caveat. Manifest destiny was a GOOD THING (so was smallpox!) and we don’t need the Voting Rights Act anymore because shut up that’s why. Oh, and that WW2 internment thing was something we can learn from because those Muslims in Dearborne are looking at me funny. /snark

    If you have the inclination… how big is the decline in traffic? I am also curious as to how you’re measuring the traffic decline here. Is it raw page visits? Visit lengths? Referred traffic (search engine hits, other blogs/sources not linking to these pieces)? Etc.

    * Though seriously, I’m beginning to wonder about the Canadian invasion of FTB. Is this the invasion from the north we’re all supposed to fret about? 🙂

  5. Sivi says

    I’m curious – do you get hits from RSS feeds? I’ve been following along pretty closely this month, and might even go find a copy of the book, but I almost exclusively read my 2-3 FTB blogs via Google Reader.

  6. Holms says

    Once again I’d like to express my profound disappointment that the traffic for the Black History Month posts drops noticeably below average. This is a consistent pattern year-to-year.

    To be honest, I’m not entirely surprised to hear this. Usually, you write bite-sized chunks of commentary on current developments mixed with various musings – very much in keeping with the general non-technical ‘blog’ feel – whereas your Black History Month specific posts are considerably different in character to your Every Other Month posts. They are a large step up in terms of length and verbosity, and thus shed the usual communicative feel, in favour of something entirely more ‘science-journal-esque’.

    I tried reading the first two or three, but honestly felt it was heavy going and ended up only skimming the blurbs of the rest. I guess it is inevitable, that if you drastically changeyour writing for certain posts, you change their appeal and hence their readership.

  7. says

    Every Monday I write posts of a similar length and style. The BHM posts are maybe 20% longer on average. I’m not sure that’s it, but maybe it is.

  8. smrnda says

    I need to look it up, but there’s a term in social psychology for the phenomenon of a person maintaining prejudice by pointing out some *exception* (the ‘good Chinese’ as opposed to most of the bad ones) – which enables a person to disbelieve they are prejudiced. Of course, if more and more ‘exceptions’ are found it calls into question the legitimacy of prejudice, but I think many people are comfortable finding one Token and then stopping, since it satisfies their own need to ‘prove’ they aren’t racist.

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