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Immigration, Neighbourhood Change, and Racism:

Immigrant Reception in Richmond, B.C.

John Rose

May 1999


Research on Immigration and Integration in the Metropolis

The Vancouver Centre is funded by grants from the Social Sciences and

Humanities Research Council of Canada, Citizenship & Immigration Canada,

Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria. We also wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Metropolis

partner agencies:

• Health Canada

• Human Resources Development Canada

• Department of Canadian Heritage

• Department of the Solicitor General of Canada

• Status of Women Canada

• Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation

• Correctional Service of Canada

• Immigration & Refugee Board Views expressed in this manuscript are those of the author(s) alone. For more information contact the Co-Directors of the Centre, Dr. Don DeVoretz, Department of Economics, SFU (e-mail: devoretz@sfu.ca) or Dr. David Ley, Department of Geography, UBC (e-mail: davidley@unixg.ubc.ca).

Immigration, Neighbourhood Change, and Racism:

Immigrant Reception in Richmond, B.C.

John Rose Department of Geography University of British Columbia Vancouver, B.C.

V6T 1Z2 e-mail: jsrose@interchange.ubc.ca Abstract: This paper examines the responses of long-term residents to physical and cultural changes in Richmond, B.C. since 1986. Over the course of the past twelve years, Richmond has received considerable numbers of Asian-origin immigrants, and as a result, the ethnic Chinese population as a proportion of Richmond’s total population has increased nearly five-fold since 1986. During this same period of time, Richmond has experienced an absolute population increase, dramatic rises in housing prices, and economic diversification, transforming from a suburban bedroom community of Vancouver to a city and employment centre in its own right. Popular and academic attention in the Greater Vancouver context has focused on critical responses to community change by ‘white’ residents, interpreting such responses as reinvented and often subtly expressed racist expressions against Chinese immigrants. Drawing from extended interviews with fifty-four established Richmond residents, this paper attempts to provide a more nuanced account of immigrant reception, challenging the empirically reduced representation of residents in analyses of host-community ‘racism.’ Moreover, the paper questions the analytical and political meaning of ‘racism,’ and the practice of closing this term off from rigorous scrutiny and debate.

Key words: immigration, racism, social constructionism, whiteness, Richmond, Vancouver Introduction Of all the issues that are bound up with the movement of immigrants to Canada, it is perhaps the question of their integration with the receiving society that provokes the highest degree of public, academic, and government interest. Typically, such analyses have centered on immigrant characteristics, be they cultural, linguistic, economic or otherwise, how they impact on integration, and the appropriate policy responses. Much of the research conducted under the aegis of the Metropolis Project has also been concerned with examining the experiences of immigrants and obstacles to their full participation in Canadian society. So too, the most significant immigration-related policy development of the last year has been the formulation and proposal of new guidelines for immigrant selection, which have placed greater emphasis on the ability of immigrants to integrate with Canadian society.

Such studies of immigrant characteristics and policy responses represent significant lines of inquiry, and the information generated is crucial in understanding the process of immigrant integration in Canada. Yet, as important as understanding immigrant experiences may be, there is another constituency that plays a significant role in determining the course of immigrant integration: members of the ‘host society.’ Unfortunately, comparatively little research has examined the way in which immigrants, and immigration-related changes are being interpreted by existing residents in immigrantreception areas. Analyses that do exist in the Canadian context have tended to be guided by a strong theoretical position and limited in their empirical breadth. The small body of research on contemporary host-community responses to immigration in Greater Vancouver, for example, has been characterized by its focus on published critical responses to neighbourhood change by Caucasian residents in areas of non-white immigrant settlement, interpreting these responses—even those not making explicit reference to any racial or ethnic group—as reinvented and often subtly articulated racist expressions (Stanbury et al. 1990; Li 1994; Ray et al. 1997).1 Immigration, Racism and Social Constructionism This emphasis on critical responses to neighbourhood change in examinations of immigrant settlement, and the definition of these expressions as racism, can be understood as the product of a variety of factors including the rise in the number of non-white immigrants to Canada over the last twenty-five years, the ability of many of these immigrants to reside in middle and upper-middle class neighbourhoods not traditionally considered to be areas of immigrant settlement, social justice concerns about barriers to their successful integration to Canada, and the substantial moral weight attached to the term racism itself. However, as the authors of these analyses themselves suggest, local case studies of immigration and racism also signify a broader subjective turn within the social sciences and humanities: the emergence of social constructionism as a major theoretical alignment.2 Exemplified in ethnic and racial studies by Edward Said’s seminal treatise on the representational practices of Orientalism (1978), Kay Anderson’s examination of Vancouver’s Chinatown (1991), and the work of social geographer Peter Jackson (Jackson 1985; Jackson and Penrose 1993), social constructionist research examines the processes by which categories are created and invoked, rather than the characteristics of the categories themselves. In making this analytical transition, social constructionists have argued that conventional treatments of racial and ethnic groupings as objective ‘things’ have failed to acknowledge the highly subjective character of their A further example of this argument as it applies more generally to the reception of immigrants to Canada is Peter Li’s (1995) linkage of racial supremacist ideology to more ‘moderate,’ mainstream, concerns about immigration and social problems. While examinations of non-white immigrant settlement in Greater Vancouver have been powerfully shaped by this line of theoretical and empirical examination, important exceptions are Katharyne Mitchell’s (1993) and David Ley’s (1995) multi-dimensional analyses of Hong Kong Chinese immigration to the city’s Westside.

See Bonnett (1996a) for a useful mapping of historical perspectives on race and racism within geographic practice, and the emergence of social constructionism as a new, powerful mode of inquiry.

creation, neglected that they are produced by humans located in uneven power relationships, and tacitly accepted their power to legitimize exclusionary treatment.

The shift in perspective represented by social constructionism, from viewing ethnic or racial groups as primordial units of analysis to scrutinizing the discourses that are said to produce them, developed, in part, out of concerns that conventional research which accorded agency to race and ethnicity was complicit in the reproduction of ‘racist’ ideology (Bourne and Sivandan 1981; Prager 1982) even if people in these fields were motivated by the best of intentions and had eschewed biological for culturalist interpretations of social behaviour. Drawing from this critique, and applying an antiessentialist framework to the concept of racism, those working from a social constructionist perspective have subsequently linked together the various modes, such as phenotypical appearance, biological type, religion, culture, and nation, through which exclusionary othering can take place. While debate continues among social constructionists as to the kinds of discourses and practices that should be drawn together under the term racism—in other words, how to reconcile their anti-essentialist position with the perceived need for a conceptually unified definition of racism (see, for example, Miles 1989; Goldberg 1993; Rattansi 1994; Wieviorka 1994, 1995)—the general consensus appears to be that racism is a fluid phenomenon that cannot be relegated to the past, nor restricted solely to the scientific racisms of the nineteenth century, which hinged on notions of biological type.

It is hard to argue with the proposition that categorizations are not natural but humanly produced, and there is much to the social constructionist perspective, in my opinion, that merits respect. In highlighting the subjective, contingent character of category formation, social constructionism represents a necessary challenge to the notion of discrete, objective ethnic and racial groups, opening the process of their creation to critical scrutiny and ideological analysis. Furthermore, in de-essentializing racism of a static meaning embedded in the particular historical context of the nineteenth century, the social constructionist perspective on racism enjoys a sweeping historical breadth in its ability to gather seemingly disparate phenomena underneath one theoretical umbrella.

Given these attributes, it is not surprising that social constructionism has attained dominant, if not hegemonic, status in racial and ethnic studies (Bonnett 1996a).

While the anti-essentialist ethos of social constructionism holds out considerable promise for interpretive debate (though at the same time, however, complicating the conditions of its resolution), in practice such perspectives on racism have been marked by two significant, problematic, and essentialized categories, highlighted in two sympathetic critiques by Alastair Bonnett, categories which have been reproduced in contemporary understandings of immigrant reception and racism in Greater Vancouver. As Bonnett (1996b) has argued, and as previously noted, one of the reasons that social constructionism is predicated on the examination of processes of boundary formation is to challenge the objectification and reification of such categories. This sensibility, coupled with the political imperatives of many social constructionists, has led to deconstructionist interventions to destabilize homogenizing racial classifications. Yet Bonnett (1996b, 98points out that this move to interrupt ethnic and racial categorization has been highly selective; namely, that while the categories of ‘blackness’ are being “disembedded from the monoliths of orthodox anti-racism,” their corollary, ‘whiteness’ has been left unscathed, a static, ahistorical, aspatial ‘thing,’ set outside social change, something that defines the other but is not itself subject to others’ definitions.3 Local examinations of immigrant settlement and racism, I contend, have exhibited this same failure of social constructionism to come to grips with the demographic category at their centre: thus, we see the extensive and casual use of categories such as ‘white’ and ‘dominant population’—and the elision of both of these with the ‘host’ population—but little evidence, however, of any substantial questioning of the salience of these categorizations, or engagement with their constituent members that might affirm or unsettle such groupings.

In a review of Kay Anderson’s impressive work on the formation of Vancouver’s Chinatown, Katharyne Mitchell (1994) makes a similar point about Anderson’s depiction of white Vancouverites, commenting that her analysis “treads perilously close to homogenizing the ‘European’ attitudes as a type; there is only a fairly rudimentary background sketch of key Canadian politicians and bureaucrats, many of whom come off as little more than mouthpieces for a seemingly universal if disembodied political rhetoric” (p. 254).

While whiteness has been relatively unexamined in social constructionist anti-racist accounts, this has not prevented researchers and activists from ascribing meaning to it. As Bonnett notes, the experience of ‘whiteness’ has become typified with particular and distinct moral attributes, often including: being racist; not experiencing racism; being an oppressor; not experiencing oppression; silencing; not being silenced (1996b, 100). That whiteness might obtain this mythical, essentialist connotation within the context of a social constructionist agenda that seeks to challenge taken-for-granted meanings seems astonishing, yet in local examinations of immigration and racism, accounts of ‘whiteness’ have consisted almost exclusively of ‘racist’ responses, while descriptions of ‘racism’ have focused only on the attitudes and responses of white residents. Furthermore, Bonnett (1996a) persuasively contends that while the social constructionist position in race and ethnic studies has sought to avoid racial categories and challenge their foundational premises, such scrutiny has not been similarly applied to the concept of racism itself.

Although the existence of debates over the meaning of racism suggests an acknowledgment of the subjectivity of its meaning, social constructionists have failed to take this contingency to heart; not fully challenging essentialism, but displacing it from

race to racism. Bonnett observes:

The intellectual strain between constructionist theory and politics encourages the paradigm’s adherents to ‘ring fence’ or ‘bracket off’ categories deemed to be ‘egalitarian’ and ‘progressive’ from rigorous critique. Thus, for example, notions of ‘equality,’ ‘racism,’ and ‘antiracism’ tend to appear in constructionist work, not as objects for scrutiny, or as explicitly strategic essences, but as taken-for-granted foundations...

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