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Indeed, constructionists, when not assuming the meaning of such terms to be obvious, will often attempt to communicate their ‘real’ and single essence by defining them... The implication is clear: the racialization process is historically and geographically contingent and contested but the meaning of ‘racism,’ ‘equality’ and ‘anti-racism’ is not (1996a, 878).
This tendency to treat the meaning of racism as an unproblematic essence is manifest in accounts of contemporary responses to immigrant settlement in Richmond and Vancouver, wherein the meaning of racism is assumed and granted foundational status.
To quote one group of researchers analyzing immigration and reception in Richmond:
“[understanding racism) demands a conceptualization of racism as a social construction, an ideology, and a fundamental part of culture” (Ray et al. 1997, 76).
In this paper I attempt to address these apparent shortcomings of social constructionist research on immigration and integration in the Greater Vancouver context, relating the summary results of a research project surveying the responses of longestablished community members to neighbourhood change and immigration in Richmond, B.C. Richmond, a suburban city of 150,000 people located on the Fraser River delta south of Vancouver, has developed into one of the major immigrant settlement areas in metropolitan Vancouver over the course of the past twenty-five years. In recent years, immigrant settlement has intensified, while at the same time the source countries of immigrants to Richmond have changed considerably. In 1986, for example, immigrants comprised some 31.5% of Richmond’s overall population, with the majority of them having arrived from the UK and other European countries between 1946 and 1976; by 1996 the immigrant population had risen to 48.3% of the total, with nearly half of these immigrants arriving between 1991 and 1996. During this time, and reflecting nation-wide immigration trends developing since the late-1960s, the majority of these recent immigrants arrived from Asian countries, notably Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan. As a result, Richmond’s ethno-cultural composition began to change significantly from 1986 onward. The number of ethnic-Chinese residents, 8.3% of Richmond’s population in 1986, rose to account for 33.7% of the total by 1996 (Statistics Canada, 1986; B.C. Statistics, 1998). During this same period, Richmond experienced rapid population growth (a trend dating back to Vancouver’s suburban expansion from the 1950s onward), economic development and diversification, changes in housing stock from single to multiple-family dwellings, considerable house-price increases, and the encroachment on farmland by urban land uses (Real Estate Board of Vancouver, 1983-1996; City of Richmond, 1997a, 1997b).
Within the contexts of these changes, and social constructionist interpretations of resident responses to community transformations in Vancouver and Richmond, this research project seeks to develop an understanding of the kinds and character of changes residents identified in their community both prior to and during the period in which Richmond began to receive considerable numbers of Asian immigrants. In this paper I will attempt to identify those changes considered by residents to be positive and negative, and to examine the role immigration, and immigrants, play in these responses by the host community. Since the topic of racism has served as the interpretive lens through which resident responses have been understood in Greater Vancouver, particular attention is paid to the way in which issues of race, ethnicity, and culture are addressed by the participants in their accounts.
Following from this focus on questions of race and racism, I will offer my interpretation of the articulation between seemingly non-racial criticisms of neighbourhood change and ones explicitly involving ethno-cultural categorizations, while examining the analytical and political category of racism itself.
The paper begins with a brief description of the research methodology and the respondents who participated in the project. The majority of the paper is dedicated to summarizing the findings of the research, and proceeds along the same itinerary as the interviews themselves, working from resident perceptions of their community from the 1970s and before through to the present day. In the conclusion I offer some tentative and qualified generalizations on host-community responses based on the interview material, and explore theoretical and policy issues associated with the definition of the term racism itself.
Methodology and Participants
Qualitative data were gathered through a series of semi-structured, extended interviews conducted with fifty-four long-term Richmond residents in 1997 and 1998. For the purposes of the research, the category of ‘long-term resident’ is defined as an individual who has lived in Richmond since before 1986, though residents need not have had uninterrupted residence in the municipality throughout this time period to participate in the study. The 1986 cut-off date was selected in order to provide a basis for comparison between resident perceptions of their community both before and during the major movement of Chinese immigrants into Richmond, which began in the late 1980s. Potential participants meeting these criteria were contacted through a network sampling strategy utilizing a variety of initial contacts in the community. Interviews were audio-taped, coded for confidentiality and transcribed, and ranged in duration from forty-five minutes to two and one-half hours depending on the number of participants present and the depth of conversation. With three exceptions, all interviews took place in residents’ homes, a site chosen to facilitate open discussion by maximizing the comfort and convenience of the participants.4 The interviews followed a series of questions that surveyed residents’ impressions of change in their community, proceeding chronologically from their first thoughts and experiences of Richmond in the pre-1986 period, through the mid-1980s and into the 1990s. While following this schedule of questions, residents were encouraged to expand on themes and issues if they wished to do so.
Of the fifty-four participants in the project, thirty-four were Caucasian in appearance with European ethno-cultural backgrounds.5 In terms of gender, twenty-two members of this group were female, twelve male; their ages ranging from the mid-twenties to the early sixties. The largest age cohort were in their fifties, with a total of twenty respondents. The next largest group were those in their forties, some five respondents, followed by four participants in their thirties and twenties respectively. One individual was aged in his sixties. Twenty-six of these thirty-four participants were born in Canada, while seven had immigrated to Canada from Europe (three from the Netherlands, three from Germany, and one from England) in the 1950s and 1960s. One resident, in neither the Canadian-born nor immigrant cohorts, was born in England in the 1970s by parents with Canadian citizenship. Occupations included self-employed, clerical and secretarial workers, educators (at the primary and secondary levels), university students, various Three interviews took place in private venues at the University of British Columbia, a site that proved more convenient for the participants involved.
It is important to note, however, that like the category ‘Asia,’ ‘Europe’ lumps together a diverse range of expressed ancestral homelands, from the British Isles (cited most frequently, by nineteen participants), the Netherlands and Germany, to the Ukraine, Rumania, Sweden and the former Yugoslavia. Furthermore, it is significant that the indication of familial ethnic origin by the participants in this study does not alone indicate the salience of such heritages—ethnic attachments could be experienced by the participants firsthand (as with immigrants to Canada), or one to four generations removed; maintained as the source of continued linguistic and cultural traditions, or relegated to the past as a personal or family history with little impact on participants’ identities or day-to-day lives. It is interesting to note that when asked to identify themselves using an ethnic or nationalistic category, the majority of participants, when given the choice, defined themselves as ‘Canadian.’ technical workers (such as medical lab technician, aviation mechanic, and computer technician), business managers, and homemakers. One participant indicated that he was retired.
In addition to the group of Caucasian long-term residents interviewed, two other participant groups were contacted as part of a deliberate strategy to diversify the racial and ethno-cultural composition of the host-community category and provide a basis for further comparison. Nine participants of Chinese ancestry were interviewed, six women and three men. On the whole, this sample of residents was younger than the Caucasian group: six people were aged in their twenties, two in their forties, and one in his fifties.
Two members of this group had emigrated from Hong Kong in the 1970s while the remainder were born in Canada, all in British Columbia. With respect to employment status, three members of this group worked as elementary or secondary school teachers, two were college or university students, one an occupational therapist, one a professional engineer, one was employed in a business management position, and one was retired.
Although a commonly used identifier by even the participants themselves, the category of ‘Chinese’ belies this group’s more complex family histories, with roots in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
Nine residents of Japanese ancestry were also interviewed, six men and three women. Generally speaking, the participants in this group were older than the sample of Chinese long-term residents, but younger than the Caucasian group. The largest number, some seven people, were aged in their forties. One participant was in his twenties, and another in the thirties age group. No member of the Japanese resident group was an immigrant to Canada: eight people were born in Canada and one in Japan, the latter not having immigrant status on account of his father having Canadian citizenship at that time.
Three people were employed as elementary or secondary school teachers, two were homemakers, one was employed in a business management position, and one participant was unemployed at the time of the interview.
Two other people were interviewed who did not fit into any of the aforementioned categories. One participant was a man in his twenties, self-employed in the computer industry, who emigrated from the Philippines to Canada with his family and moved to Richmond in 1983. The other participant was a woman in her twenties, a schoolteacher born and raised in Richmond in the early 1970s, by parents of Japanese and Chinese ethnic backgrounds, respectively.
Early Impressions: Richmond Prior to the Mid-1980s: Moving to the Community
Although Richmond’s changing ethno-cultural composition in the post-1986 period has been the focus of popular and academic attention, I think it is instructive to take a step back to examine residents’ expressed motives for moving to Richmond, and their perceptions of the community prior to the mid-1980s, as a means of providing further interpretive context.6 Of the sample of fifty-four long-term residents interviewed, nearly eighty percent, or forty-one people, made a decision to move to Richmond.7 Significantly, in contrast to an American literature which frequently imputes racial motivations underlying such decisions to move to the suburbs—most sensationally as ‘white flight’ from the racially heterogeneous core city—the incentive to move to Richmond cited most frequently by Caucasian respondents, by some sixteen of twenty-nine movers, was rather more prosaic: affordable housing. For many of the participants, such as this woman in her fifties who explained her and her husband’s decision to move to Richmond in the early 1970s, the redevelopment of Richmond’s farmland into residential use during this period
offered the opportunity to purchase their first home:
When we... well, we were looking for a house and it was just economics, really, because it was where, at the time, we could afford it. At that time the houses were reasonably priced in Richmond. We looked at North In presenting this information and comparing the responses of long-term residents I frequently use the shorthand ‘Caucasian,’ ‘Chinese,’ and ‘Japanese’ to define the different groups of participants. Given that these labels serve to homogenize a diverse array of people, and that residents may not even identify themselves in such terms(though many do), they are, perhaps, absurd. I use them primarily in the interest of economy, as an inroad to more meaningful analysis, and not to imply that there are rigid or natural distinctions between the groups, that behaviour is biologically-determined by phenotypical appearance, or that any of the residents are more or less ‘Canadian’ than the other.
The remainder of the participants, consisting almost exclusively of those who were in their twenties, had either lived in Richmond all their lives, or were not in a position to influence their move to Richmond.
Van—we really would have liked to have lived in North Van—and we looked around in Burnaby, but we only had so much money. We had a budget, and when we looked, Richmond was the place that fit that budget... and in Richmond, our house was new when we bought it. No, it wasn’t our first choice, but it seemed to be the place that could get us the house we wanted, reasonable, and it was close to everything and not far from town and so it seemed convenient.
Not very colourful motivations, perhaps, but common ones, not just among those Caucasian residents interviewed, but also for those of Japanese and Chinese descent. Of the four long-term Chinese residents who made the decision to move to Richmond, all mentioned the community’s comparatively low housing costs as the primary incentive drawing them there, though perhaps not as bluntly as this man in his fifties who moved
from Vancouver to Richmond in the early 1970s and explained the main reasons why: