An emerging controversy in Canada is a good example of just how difficult it is to be racially-neutral when the context is racially-charged. The country recently redesigned its money. On the back of the $100 dollar bill celebrating medical innovation they sketched an Asian-appearing woman looking into a microscope. In a focus group in Quebec, people complained that the bill reproduced the stereotype that Asians pursue careers in science and medicine. The Vancouver Sun reports:
“Some have concerns that the researcher appears to be Asian,” says a 2009 report commissioned by the bank from The Strategic Counsel… “Some believe that it presents a stereotype of Asians excelling in technology and/or the sciences. Others feel that an Asian should not be the only ethnicity represented on the banknotes. Other ethnicities should also be shown.”
A few even said the yellow-brown colour of the $100 banknote reinforced the perception the woman was Asian, and “racialized” the note.
They were then accused of being prejudiced again. Mu-Qing Huang, a Chinese-Canadian interviewed for the story, objected to the deletion of the figure’s Asian features:
If Canada is truly multicultural and thinks that all cultural groups are equal, then any visible minority should be good enough to represent a country, including (someone with) Asian features.
This is a tricky problem. By including racial or ethnic minorities on their bills, Canada risks reproducing a stereotype. Including all “neutral” figures can be seen as exclusionary because neutral looks suspiciously like White people in a country dominated by White people. The third option is to deliberately break stereotypes by putting, say, an Asian woman running the hurdles and a Black woman looking through a microscope, but this can seem overly contrived (as many attempts at diversity do).
The truth is that all of Canada’s options can be read in racially-charged ways. This isn’t because people are unfairly reading into the sketches, it’s because life in Canada is, in fact, racially-charged. When race matters, it matters, all claims to colorblindness aside.
Thanks to Craig G., Tom Megginson, Jesse, Helen, and Alex, an MLIS from McGill, for the submission!Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.