When a white person makes casual but hurtful expressions in front of a person of a minority group, these expressions, whether verbal or non-verbal, define the term “microaggressions”. The assumption is that the white person belongs to the majority or the group with the authority or power. It does not matter if the white person expressing a microaggression is aware of it or not. It only matters if the person receiving such expression feels hurt. In this essay, I first share some of my own personal experience with microaggressions, in order to demonstrate the accumulation of put downs, however slight, do lead to emotional pain and possible psychological damage. Of greater concern is the application of human rights legislation to curb the use of microaggression opens up a greater danger–the loss of a crucial principle of our modern civilization in the West, the loss of the freedom of speech.
First, I share my own experience with microaggression, and then discuss the current scene after the passing into law Bill C-16 and the havoc wrecked by way of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. I present two recent examples of the muzzling of free speech, one in Olympia, Washington on the US Westcoast and the second in Toronto, Ontario in the Eastern Canada.
Children wield name-calling as a vicious weapon in the schoolyard. As a Chinese born in Canada, I have experienced its sharp edge while growing up in a little town on the Canadian prairies, where I was usually the only Chinese kid in my class. Quite often, kids spewed at me invective like “Ching Chong Chinaman” or “Chink”. Grownups were somewhat politer but still thrust “foreignness” on me. “What race are you, Japanese, Chinese?” The more cosmopolitan ones might correct themselves, “Oh, I’m sorry. I meant what nationality are you?” Grownups could still be hurtful when they actually name-called, “Rice Burner!”
Blatant racist name-calling has receded over the years. Instead, a subtler and nuanced discrimination replaces blatant racism. Just this past summer, a young man, all smiles, wearing a man-bun and a vest with the words “Greenpeace”, clipboard in hand, approached me and asked, “Did anyone tell you that you look like David Suzuki?” I said, “No, I don’t like the guy”. My remarks confused the Greenpeace canvasser who then quietly turned away. Fact is, Prof. Suzuki, the environmentalist, is ethnic Japanese, and I am ethnic Chinese. Unlike the good professor, I am one of the skeptics when it comes to climate change as the harbinger of the apocalypse.
When liberals invoke inclusiveness with the line, “We’re all immigrants after all”, I silently shout for someone, preferably with long fingernails, to scratch a blackboard. Now let me say slowly, I am not an immigrant. I was born on Canadian soil, and proud of it.
Over the long run, harsh racial slurs did not bother me as much as the well-intended speech of progressives and liberals. In graduate school, the dean of students spotted me for the first time during a barbecue and readily introduced himself to me. He presented himself as very friendly, and indeed he was sincere, no doubt about it. He was soft-spoken and pleasant. Then came the question I dread. He asked me, “Are you Japanese?” You may substitute “Chinese” or “Korean” for “Japanese”, and I would still feel the same, disappointed and angry. Here we go again, another confirmation that I may never truly be Canadian despite being born on Canadian soil. I do get it that this particular graduate school marketed itself to and attracted international students, but the majority of students still were either Americans or Canadians from other parts of Anglophone North America. What bothered me was that while the good dean was a Swede born in Europe and I was born in Canada, most people would see him as the Canadian or American and I as the foreigner.
What irritates me even more is when other liberally minded folks come along and attribute such mistaken identity phenomenon to the recent flux of new immigrants from Asia. I remind them our country’s history had a significant Chinese presence before Confederation. Why the default: You are Canadian, and I am Chinese? I do not understand why. Even with the onset of the ideology of diversity, white people usually assume that I am a foreigner who they treat with greater respect than they give the average Canadian.
On the other hand, in the case of overt racism, I can tolerate a garden-variety racist. I write off this sort of blatant racism as simple ignorance. If the cause stems from pure hatred against somebody who looks different, I can endure such a racist. It is with the self-proclaimed liberal that in the course of normal every day discourse, e.g., “By the way I use chop sticks”. These casual comments remind me that I look like an immigrant receiving the graciousness of the liberal heart attuned to diversity. Puke. I just want to puke.
It gets even messier when I take a more rational perspective. You might think it is obvious that people can tell I am a Canadian by my accent. If only people listen before they jump to the wrong conclusions about my nationality, would all be well on the identity front? The fact is I do have an accent that is not mainstream Canadian. The best parallel example I can think of is the Jewish community in New York. American Jews from that area do speak with an accent descended from European Jews who very likely spoke Yiddish. Anyone listening to someone like Woody Allen, probably would conclude he speaks in the English dialect of a Jew from Brooklyn. No one listening to him speak English would assume he is a European immigrant or someone foreign to America. The automatic assumption is that Woody Allen is an American Jew. In contrast, when I slip in speech or pause longer than I should, the automatic assumption is that I speak good English for a Chinese, and Canadians would ask where I learned English. The liberal minded at this point is surely impressed with himself or herself: what magnanimity to compliment a newly arrived immigrant’s English skills. Unlike in the case of the American Jew, there is a continuation of the theme of the immigrant: “How long have you been in Canada?” “Where are you from?” “Are you Chinese?” The monotony of gentle reminders of me as foreign is ad nauseam. Some of us Canadian born Chinese do speak with an accent when we speak English but it is a Canadian accent, although it is not Peter Mansbridge or Peter Jennings’s dialect, it nonetheless is an accent peculiar to a specific group born and raised in Canada, not some foreign immigrant group.
I want my fellow Canadians to speak to me as though I am a fellow Canadian. Simply, I want recognition as Canadian, without hyphen, without qualification. In my mother’s opinion, Canadians do not see me as Canadian, plain and simple. People will always see me as Chinese first despite how strongly I want to be simply Canadian. She says I can never change people’s perception. I have yellow skin. Therefore, I am Chinese, no matter how hard I try to change that perception. In in recent years, I conclude she is right. This crisis in identity was probably one of the reasons I ended up seeing a psychiatrist and then entered group therapy for seven weeks during my sophomore year in university.
What I have described so far are my emotional reactions to casual slights alluding to me as Chinese immigrant despite my strong feelings as Canadian. To my surprise, psychiatrists and psychologists have a term for the cause of my emotional responses: “microaggressions”. Dr. Charles Pierce first coined this term in 1973 while he was professor of psychiatry at Harvard University where he noticed the effects of non-blacks making casual but disparaging remarks on blacks. Later Columbia psychology professor Dr. Derald Wing Sue picked up the term and expanded its usage: “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership“. Group membership obviously refer to minority groups. Who are the minorities? They would include but not limited to minorities by race, sexual orientation, disability and religion. More recently, the definition of a minority includes transgender people who identify themselves by how they experience gender in their personal lives and how they sense of being a female, a male, somewhere in between or something not defined in society. They do not fit neatly into the usual binary, female and male.
The transgender person is someone who identifies oneself not by biological sexual gender assigned at birth but by one’s interior experience of how the gender identity presents itself in society. For example, society may perceive a person as male biologically at birth, but this person later chooses to present as a female in society. The person may express gender in dress, activities and outward appearance such as hairstyles. This person may or may be sexually attracted to the opposite sex. Sex orientation is not always identical to gender according to theories defining gender as a social construct. The Ontario Human Rights Commission hold the above mentioned definitions of gender and transgender, despite there being no scientific consensus on biological research that may affect gender studies.
Although I am a heterosexual male, I think I do know how the transgender (trans) folks feel, because I lived the experience of a marginalized racial minority during my younger years. I do feel the alienation and the slow but continual caustic effect of words have on the psyche. I believe my experience is very similar to that experienced in the LGBTQIE community  when it comes to language usage. Some LGBTQIE community members advocate the use of certain specific pronouns. These pronouns are in addition to the traditional binary, male and female pronouns, when describing specific members of the LGBTQIE community. That, I believe, is perfectly acceptable and I appreciate their attempt to identify themselves the way they want. I do differ though with those within the LGBTQIE community who advocate the use of certain specific pronouns by force of law. That I could be punished or labelled a criminal in the eyes of a court who interprets the Criminal Code in light of federal and provincial human rights codes for not using the approved pronoun when I address transgender people.
I would like everyone to recognize me as Canadian, but that will never consistently happen. I feel hurt, but should there be a law passed in Parliament forcing my fellow Canadians to call me Canadian? If they mistake me for Asian, should they pay a fine? Should their names go on a registry of language offenders? Maybe even do jail time? Of course, this is not an acceptable course of action. Force, whether by bare knuckles or by Parliament, cannot change a person’s heart. (Corrosive puritan aspects of the Protestant Reformation prove that morality ought not to be legislated.) The most destructive kind of censorship though is self-censorship. It gradually eats away at the soul whenever one is forced to say something but do not believe it is true. This was what happened in Stalinist Russia. Imagine parents fearing their children might report their spoken words back to some bureaucrat who ruled with an iron fist. That was Russia ruled by Stalin. The same atmosphere of fear is rising too on Canadian soil.
What evidence is there that the ghost of Stalin is making itself felt in the second largest country in the world, which is my home Canada?
Something happened in the 1990s in how white folks respond to minority groups. An example will suffice. It was in a writing class while we were commenting on each other’s manuscripts; I fell into a half daze. Do not recall why the stupor, but I was out of it. The class was commenting on the draft script of a pretty, young Spanish-English woman. Someone commented about the name of one of the female characters in her play script. There was a buzz about how the character’s name rhymed with the word “tofu”. Being half-awake, I missed most of the discussion but suddenly woke up at the word “tofu”. Someone asked the class if everybody got it. I raised my hand, thinking that asking a question is as good as participating in a class discussion. I said sincerely, “I don’t get it.” A hush descended in the classroom. There was something not quite like fear, but only a notch or two below terror, appeared in her face as she looked at me. I remarked once again that I simply did not get it. The whole class was quiet and hesitant, staring at me. This is the other side of words, the fearful pansy. Only many years later did I realize that everyone was afraid of being labelled a racist. In so avoiding the label “racist”, everybody got uptight and remained silent. This was an early warning that free speech was dying in Canada.
Within the recent past year or two, events rush ahead and catch many people by surprise, especially the older folks who still remember news coverage of Martin Luther King and the beginning of Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, California. During those heady days of the 1960s and 1970s, a Canadian newspaper in Vancouver called The Georgia Straight made headlines showing photos of naked male bodies, underscoring that free speech is fundamental to a democratic society. In contrast, today students call professors “Nazis” or “white supremacists” for open discussion on ideas and research that simply differ from the opinion of certain members of minority groups.
A professor of evolutionary biology, Bret Weinstein commented that the students went too far in their demand for all white students to be absent from an annual event called Day of Absence at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He sent comments in a polite letter to Rashida Love, the school’s Director of First Peoples Multicultural Advising Services. She had introduced a new wrinkle to the college’s Day of Absence. It is a tradition in which, until this year, minority students of colour would be absent from the college as a re-enactment based on a stage play in which black college students were absent from campus for a day in order to discuss race issues–a gesture of protest in the original event. The new wrinkle to this year’s Day of Absence is the requirement that white students, instead of the colour students, be absent from campus, and that all white professors cancel their classes. Weinstein remarked that unlike the traditional event when the black students voluntarily left campus as a gesture of protest, the request this year that white students be absent by administrative fiat are not comparable. He refused to comply with the demands of the students for him to cancel his classes. The professor argued that the students’ demand for whites to be absent, when such request is forced and coerced, is against free speech. For the exercise of his freedom of speech, students vilified and labelled him as a “white supremacist”. The irony is that he is Jewish and an advocate of leftist movements such as Occupy Wall Street.
A mob of students confronted Weinstein first in his classroom and then spread throughout the college. The college administration ordered the police to stand down and allow 200 students to harass Weinstein and staff into hiding in a section of the library and administration block. He had to continue his class off campus. The police warned Weinstein that they could not guarantee his safety. Of course, they could not because the college president had asked the police to stand down. The fear of reprisal by the student mob was so palpable that the college president George Bridges pandered to their wishes. When a student asked him to drop his hands to his side because he showed acts of microaggression in his hand movements, he meekly complied. Then the students all jeered and laughed.
Weinstein and his wife Heather Heying both eventually resigned from their faculty positions at Evergreen College. They sued the college as they feared for their physical and psychological well-being since the college administration did not ensure a safe teaching environment for them. The two parties settled for $450,000 in Weinstein and Heying’s favour plus the professors’ legal cost of $50,000.
Closer to home in Toronto, Canada, Dr. Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto, became the focal point of harassment by students claiming him to be a white supremacist for a series of three videos entitled “Professor against political correctness” released on Youtube in September 2016 about his concerns of political correctness suppressing free speech. His concerns find their basis in the federal Bill C-16 (now law) introducing the new categories of gender identity and expression, along with the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s interpretation of pronoun usage, the evolution of human resources departments as enforcer of political correctness, and the new Marxism creeping into the classroom and workplace by way of post-modernist ideology.
Students reacted vehemently to Peterson’s politically incorrect videos. Trans students accused him of being a bigot or racist, and alleged him of creating an atmosphere of fear on campus. Some alleged Peterson inspired followers to threaten them. The door of his office was glued shut. A group of non-binary gender students held a protest rally. A counter rally of his supporters ensued in which a trans person was charged for assault. Some of his faculty colleagues condemned him on TV and social media. Heads from the arts and science faculty, and the department of psychology sent him letters, asking him to stop repeating his politically incorrect views and comply with human rights legislation. Unfortunately, his publicity also attracted red-blooded white supremacists and neo-Nazis, whom Peterson deplored.
His biggest controversy might very well be his refusal to use trans pronouns compelled under legislation in Ontario, as he interprets it. In a debate at a University of Toronto forum, law professor Brenda Crossman said that the standard for hate speech as a criminal act is set at so high a bar that merely refusing the use of trans pronouns would not put him against the law unless he called for genocide. He would have no grounds for fear, she said. Peterson did not buy into that interpretation and felt current laws are the thin edge of the wedge that, if not checked, would someday outlaw free speech completely. The current legislation under the Ontario Human Rights Code and their interpretation by the Human Rights Commission were on unstable grounds. For example, who gets to define “hate speech”?
He did not back off from any debate, even taking on crowds outdoors on the campus grounds. Members of the LGBTQIE accused him of a being a Nazi despite decades of study on the subject and his complete repudiation of Nazi ideology. The number of his followers grew just as fast as his detractors grew. He obviously touched a raw nerve in many who viewed his videos, especially young men, who have been feeling that political correctness has gone too far. Joe Rogan, formerly host of the TV show The Fear Factor, arranged to meet him along with Dr. Bret Weinstein for a September 1, 2017 podcast to discuss the tyranny of political correctness.
A panel discussion “The Stifling of Free Speech on University Campuses” was scheduled at Ryerson University in Toronto for August 22, 2017. Speakers included Peterson. A young woman and another man created a Facebook page and rallied protesters to shut down the announced forum. Originally, the header showed an image of a crossed-out Nazi swastika, until presumably threats of legal action may have compelled her to replace the image. What intrigues me about this woman is that she does not seem well known in leftist activist circles until this event. At the time, she has a paltry number of followers on her Twitter account, less than 80. Her goal was to stop the panel discussion from happening. She managed to rally support from “her community” along with support from the student body. She drummed up clichés such “No Fascists in Our City”, or “We are here to celebrate our diversity.” She managed to have her people harass the university administration into submission via emails and phone calls. The Ryerson University administration capitulated and cancelled the panel discussion for fear of violence erupting, and free speech died at Ryerson University.
I see our society as a very fragile one, in which the hurt feelings of some imperil the freedom of speech of all. My feelings are hurt too over the years by racism, but the bigger threat is the loss of my right to speak freely.
 LGBTQIE stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual.
 On May 17, 2016, Liberal MP Jody Wilson-Raybould sponsored Bill C-16 to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code. The bill is a short one. It inserts the single phrase “gender identity or expression” into Section 2, The Purpose and Section 3(b) the prohibited grounds of discrimination of the Human Rights Act. Similarly, this phrase is inserted in the Criminal Code in Subsection 318(4), Definition of identifiable group and Section 4, Subparagraph 718.2(a)(i) regarding what is considered evidence of a hate crime in the matter of sentencing.
On June 19, 2017, Bill C-16 received Royal Assent and became law in Canada.
The Ontario Human Rights Code was modified even earlier to include “gender identity” and “gender expression”. It can be and has been interpreted the act of refusing to use a trans pronoun when a trans person insist on the speaker to use a trans pronoun as an act of discrimination.
How we came to the current state of affairs where white people, especially white men, are afraid of speaking their minds in case they might offend the sensibility of a minority, I am at a loss for words. Dr. Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto offers a probable cause in the majority of the liberal arts professors casting postmodernist ideas into a Marxist ideological framework and pursuing an agenda of identity politics. See his postings on Youtube.