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Review

Contesting White Supremacy: School Segregation, Anti-Racism, and the Making of Chinese Canadians

By Timothy J. Stanley

November 4, 2013

Review By Patricia Roy

In September 1922, the Victoria, B.C. school board ordered 155 Chinese children (97 were Canadian-born and many spoke only English) to leave its regular elementary schools and move to segregated schools which only they would attend. The Chinese community responded by boycotting the schools. Timothy Stanley has carefully documented this incident and its background to illustrate and analyse his argument that “by the 1920s in British Columbia, anti-Chinese racism shaped the lives of people racialized as Chinese and those of all others living in British Columbia” (17), or what Hannah Arendt called “a texture of life.” (5) His assertion that all [my emphasis] British Columbians were affected by “anti-Chinese racism” is rather sweeping although a superficial reading of the existing literature might suggest that conclusion. Stanley, however, goes beyond that literature in many respects.

Not only does he demonstrate that British Columbians were not the only Canadians to object to the presence of the Chinese but, as the reference to Arendt suggests, his work is informed by the theoretical literature on “race” and “racism” and by the extensive literature on Asian Americans. Except in the introduction, theory and external examples, while never forgotten, seldom intrude on the narrative, thus making the book very accessible save for Stanley’s insistence on repeatedly referring to “racialized Chinese.” In the context, the adjective is redundant.

Stanley has long promoted the concept of anti-racism education in which the “privileged group” is encouraged “to come to terms with the very different experiences of the excluded” (233) in the hope that it will permit an understanding of “the constructed nature of seemingly permanent categories.”(15) To examine the experiences of the “excluded,” he has drawn on Chinese language sources albeit, as he recognizes, somewhat limited and sometimes biased. He has also cautiously used English language records created by the Chinese including interviews conducted by Winifred Raushenbush for the University of Chicago’s 1924 Survey of Race Relations. Through such sources, he shows not only how the attempted school segregation of 1922 reflected the many disabilities imposed on the Chinese but also how the ensuing strike contributed to the formation of a Chinese Canadian identity. His focus on education, however, downplays Chinese agitation against the contemporaneous exclusionary Chinese Immigration Act.

Stanley credits the Chinese Canadian Club, a group of mainly Canadian-born and educated young adults, for initiating the strike and maintaining its solidarity, securing the support of the Chinese community and others, and challenging the school board and negotiating with it. The words “Chinese Canadian” seemed mutually incompatible as these young people were keenly aware of how they “were caught between their desire to participate in the dominant society and their exclusion from it” (152) while at the same time they were not really part of the society of the first generation immigrants.

Contrary to “white supremacist discourse,” Stanley points out that not all Chinese were alike. Political disputes in China crossed the Pacific. Moreover, the Chinese in British Columbia spoke a number of mutually unintelligible dialects and tended to identify themselves with their local place of origin or their clan or surname group rather than as Chinese. By the late nineteenth century, however, in response to discrimination in Canada, Victoria’s Chinese merchants developed a sense of Chinese nationalism even before it appeared in China. By 1899, they had established a school in Victoria primarily to teach Chinese language and culture, including nationalism. During the students’ strike, the Chinese Benevolent Association arranged to educate the striking children in a Chinese nationalist curriculum and in Chinese. If they could not be Canadian they would be Chinese.

That was a Chinese expression of anti-racism; but Stanley notes that, within the white community, some clergy, educators, and a few others protested segregation. So too did the fascinating and controversial Eurasian, Harry Hastings, who concluded that he was an internationalist, neither a Chinese nor a Briton.

The last word on the history of the racism in Canada is yet to be said. For example, as Stanley hints, more could be done to follow up, in a comparative way, how the First Nations were racialized. The historiography on the Chinese in Canada, however, is growing. Lisa Rose Mar’s recent book, Brokering Belonging: Chinese in Canada’s Exclusion Era, 1885-1945 covers some of the same territory; the subtle differences in their interpretations invite exploration. In the meantime, as Stanley intended, Contesting White Supremacy has made a valuable contribution to an understanding of the history of the Chinese in Canada and of “racialization.”

Timothy J. Stanley
Contesting White Supremacy: School Segregation, Anti-Racism, and the Making of Chinese Canadians
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011   pp. $34.95