Andre Boisclair's flawed vision

Jse-Che Lam

Québec 2007 - démagogie et populisme

When I first started teaching, the frequent and casual use of the N-word among students bothered me immensely.
Students had no misgivings about the word. They asserted that its usage demonstrated camaraderie and familiarity between friends.
I remained unconvinced. This word was born out of racial oppression, and I found it demeaning and ugly.
The word's pervasive use in hip-hop culture upped its cool factor. With Tupac using it, the phrase earned vast street credibility. Unappeased, I just wanted them to cease and desist.
Reclaiming language to neutralize hatred and racism sounds empowering, but the N-word's transformation still didn't make it acceptable for widespread usage. Only a few could use it without turning themselves into racially charged lightning rods.
A number of students remained committed to using the N-word. To underscore my point, I called out to an Asian student in the classroom.
"How comfortable would you be using the C-word? What if we both used it?" Turning to the rest of the class, I asked, "Not quite the same effect, but it still stirs discomfort. So is there any difference?"
Nervous laughter and a few furrowed brows later, everyone got it.
To this day, I still believe that the use of certain words can't cleanse them of their original intent. Someone should tell Andre Boisclair, leader of the Parti Quebecois, that "les yeux brides" (slanted eyes) remains offensive, regardless of his intentions.
The Boisclair controversy did not crack Page 1 of the Star but earned front-page status in Chinese language dailies nationwide.
Boisclair, who attended Harvard for one year, was addressing students in Trois-Rivieres. The politician discussed a perceived increase of young overseas Asians attending North American universities, noting that "les yeux brides" comprise one-third of Harvard's undergraduate program.
Boisclair's motives are uncertain, but using dated racial stereotypes of over-ambitious Asians taking up too much room cast a sinister shadow over Quebec's already shaky record on race relations.
If Boisclair had been a GTA-based politician, these words would have swiftly ended his political career.
In Quebec, opinion polls indicate a close race among the three major parties in next week's provincial election. Boisclair's choice of words is not perceived as a political misstep and is considered inconsequential to his political aspirations.
Political rivals Jean Charest and Mario Dumont, in their defence of Boisclair's reputation, assert that he is not a racist or a person who meant any ill intent.
Although Boisclair's conduct has enraged race relations groups, he remains unrepentant and says an apology will not be forthcoming. Why anyone would find his language upsetting seems to confound this Harvard-educated politician.
By all accounts, meaning can be lost in translation. One of my favourite French terms is "mon petit chou." At its most literal, it translates as "my little cabbage." At its most colloquial, this term of endearment means "my sweetheart."
I take no offence in being called a little cabbage. However, there is nothing charming when someone focuses on the genetic makeup of my eyes as a means to judge my identity and self-worth.
"Les yeux brides" indicates neither affection nor playfulness. There may be no racial intent behind Boisclair's words but his political judgment isn't the most astute. The term is antiquated and doesn't belong in today's world.
Eyes are as political to Asians as hair is to African Americans. In both cases, they become a statement of individual beauty and public acceptance. The eyes may be the window of the soul but, for an Asian, the eyes also make us vulnerable to racial insults.
When I attended an elementary school that had a predominantly Asian population, one kid in the schoolyard would taunt the Chinese kids by pushing his fingers against his temples until his eyes achieved the desired insult. After enduring an indefinite period of shunning, this kid learned how to play nice and we eventually forgave him for making fun of us.
Since I don't live in Quebec, I can't push Boisclair out of the political sandbox by refusing to vote for him. His actions are that of an aspiring politician, not those of a child.
The Boisclair situation stirs up dormant memories of one of the worst public relations blunders involving the Chinese Canadians. Almost 30 years ago, W5 ran a story about how "foreign students" dominated Canadian university campuses. To underscore its point, the show used footage of Chinese faces, proof that foreign interlopers were edging Canadian students out of spots in university. Those foreigners turned out to be homegrown Chinese Canadians.
A politician's reference to Asian dominance as part of his political arsenal still achieves the same effect it did three decades ago. What upset Chinese Canadians then still stirs up ill feelings today.
One could explain to Andre Boisclair why "les yeux brides" is both divisive and inappropriate. However, I'm afraid that unless he could experience the world through my eyes, he would never truly understand.
Jse-Che Lam is a former member of the Star's Community Editorial Board.

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