An absurd controversy today over a switcheroo the Bank of Canada pulled after focus groups complained about Asian Canadians taking all our jobs as models for the back of the $100 bill—as the Star has it:
The Bank of Canada purged the image of an Asian-looking woman from its new $100 banknotes after focus groups raised questions about her ethnicity. The original image intended for the reverse of the plastic polymer banknotes, which began circulating last November, showed an Asian-looking woman scientist peering into a microscope. The image, alongside a bottle of insulin, was meant to celebrate Canada’s medical innovations.
“Some have concerns that the researcher appears to be Asian,” says a 2009 report commissioned by the bank from The Strategic Counsel, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act. “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.
The bank immediately ordered the image redrawn, imposing a “neutral” ethnicity for the woman scientist who, now stripped of her “Asian” features, appears on the circulating note. Her light features appear to be Caucasian. “The original image was not designed or intended to be a person of a particular ethnic origin,” bank spokesman Jeremy Harrison said in an interview, citing policy that eschews depictions of ethnic groups on banknotes. “But obviously when we got into focus groups, there was some thought the image appeared to represent a particular ethnic group, so modifications were made.”
Modifications that make the short-haired woman depicted appear to represent a different ethnic group—I’m not an expert at detecting ethnic origins, but I suppose she now looks to be from one of the European, Caucasian ethnicities. Among people belonging to the Caucasian ethnicities that still make up the majority of the Canadian population, I suppose that appears like neutrality—a generic whiteness that signifies nothing. Except of course the switcheroo itself and the thinking it exposes signifies something indeed. It signifies that “standard Canadian” means white.
I’m not feeling particularly smug about the fact that Torontonians appeared more open-minded in the focus groups:
The Toronto groups were positive about the image of an Asian woman because “it is seen to represent diversity or multiculturalism.”
An ethnic Asian woman, standing at a microscope, does not represent diversity. She does not represent multiculturalism. She does not represent, even, equality of the sexes. She is a Canadian, doing her job, which is science. She represents Canadians doing their jobs. Or she should.
I can understand and empathize with the desire to avoid making a political statement with the depiction of an imaginary ordinary Canadian citizen on the money. But you see, you cannot avoid making a political statement. Because the definition of what constitutes “standard Canadian” or “average Canadian” is inherently political. Any choice you make when you set out to depict an “ordinary Canadian,” especially when you, as the BoC spokeperson says, use images that are ”‘composites’ rather than depicting any specific individual,” includes judgements of what constitutes ordinary. And that’s a political judgement.
That a simple, single image of an Asian person—or a black person, or a South Asian person, or whatever—is automatically assumed by people who view the image as representing either laudable multiculti good vibes, or stereotypes about Asian-Canadians, or “Too Asian” and therefore automatically unrepresentative and non-Canadian, tells you everything you need to know about the impossible idea of “ethnically neutral.” If we use the idea that any variation from whiteness is more political than affirming the standardness of whiteness, we’re really just engaging in white supremacy. I understand full well that many of us still have an idea of what the default “normal” person, or “normal” scientist, or “normal” Canadian looks like, and that any deviation from that will strike many people as somehow making a statement. Perhaps the statement it is and should be making is that “normal” actually takes a lot of different forms besides our default assumption, and the way to change the default assumptions is to get used to seeing a variety of different variations of normal Canadianess represented without them being intentionally representations of anything other than normality.
Anyhow, I’m not sure at all why the Bank of Canada isn’t depicting real identifiable people on the bills. Then, at least, we would be able to discuss who the person is and why they represent the concept (“scientific progress” or whatever) they are intended to represent. And it would take us away from making loaded decisions about what qualities of generic appearance are Canadian enough to meet our expectations.