Everything you were never taught about Canada’s prison systems

A primer on Canada’s urgent human rights crisis

Written by Jody Chan, Lorraine Chuen, and Marsha McLeod

Graphics designed by Lorraine Chuen

Image: Aerial View of Edmonton Remand Centre – Canada’s largest prison at an equivalent of 10 CFL-sized football fields (Google Maps)

Image: Aerial View of Edmonton Remand Centre – Canada’s largest prison at an equivalent of 10 CFL-sized football fields (Google Maps)

When we talk about mass incarceration as a crisis, we often think of the U.S. as the benchmark for disturbing trends in imprisonment. And it is: Black men are six times more likely to be imprisoned than white men in the States. The U.S. is the world’s leader in incarceration rates per capita, with a total of 2.2 million people in prisons and jails in 2015—a 500 percent increase since 1975.

In Canada, where prisons have been heralded by criminologists as the ‘new residential schools’, where the Toronto South Detention Centre has been called a ‘$1-billion hellhole’, and where Indigenous people are incarcerated ten times more often than non-Indigenous people, the crisis is also present. But here, it has been happening more quietly.

In Ontario, there are eight national correctional facilities for convicted inmates sentenced to two years or more (administered by the Correctional Service of Canada); as well as nine provincial detention centres, nine provincial jails, and nine provincial correctional centres for people awaiting trial or who are serving a sentence up to two years less a day (administered by provincial/territorial ministries, such as the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services in Ontario).

In 2016, Canada’s crime rates hit a 45-year low. At the same time, paradoxically and with resounding silence from the public, incarceration rates hit an all time high.

How many of us even know how many prisons and jails there are within 100 kilometres of where we live? 50 kilometres? 15? For example, for those living in southern Ontario—if you’ve ever been to the Ikea in Etobicoke, you’ve been just two kilometres, or a four minute drive, from the Toronto South Detention Centre.

Map of federal and provincial correctional institutions in Ontario

We have collectively subscribed to an out of sight, out of mind policy for the nearly 40 000 people incarcerated at the provincial/territorial and federal levels in Canada—over 1 out of every 1000 adults—leading to a lack of public knowledge about the inhumane conditions in federal and provincial prisons.

In this infographic series, we try to make Canada’s incarceration problem more visible by offering a snapshot of its many injustices and human rights violations.

The majority of people incarcerated in Canada are on remand—denied bail and incarcerated in advance of their trial—and therefore, are legally innocent.

Remand, sometimes called pre-trial detention, is on the rise in Canada—particularly in Ontario and Manitoba. In Ontario, the percentage of remanded prisoners (in comparison to prisoners serving a sentence) climbed 15 percent since 2000/2001 to reach 65 percent in 2014/2015. Black and Indigenous people, as well as those who were homeless or unemployed at the time of their arrest, are disproportionately not granted bail and incarcerated on remand. In 1995, the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System came to the “inescapable conclusion” that some Black people who were detained pre-trial would not have been detained if they were white. This reality remains true in 2017, as do the consequences. People who are incarcerated on remand and subsequently plead not guilty at trial are less likely to be acquitted than those who were not detained pre-trial. Also, because remand is seen as temporary—despite the fact that it can stretch up to several years—prisoners on remand rarely have access to educational programming or vocational training. Prisons with a high number of prisoners on remand (usually called detention centres) are maximum security, and are often overcrowded and understaffed.

The overrepresentation of racialized communities in Canada’s prisons reflects the country’s racial profiling and over-policing of Black and Indigenous people.

Indigenous and Black people are grossly overrepresented in the Canadian prison system. Out of an average of 14 615 prisoners in Canadian federal institutions on a given day in 2015-2016, 26 percent are Indigenous and nine percent are Black—and between 2005 and 2016, the federal incarceration rate of Black people in Canada increased by 70 percent. Compare this to the breakdown of the general population: Indigenous people only make up 4.3 percent of the population, and Black people only 2.8 percent. Currently, Indigenous women are the fastest growing prison population, representing more than 35 percent of the federal population of women prisoners.

Such overrepresentation reflects how Black and Indigenous people are consistently targeted and over-policed in Canada. Data collected by the Toronto Star between 2009 and 2010 indicated that Black people were, on average, 3.2 times more likely to be carded in Toronto than white people––stopped by the police on the street, asked for identification, and having their personal information catalogued in a database—despite not being suspected of a crime. This police data was obtained by the Star through a Freedom of Information request, but most Canadian police departments don’t collect racial data on police interactions, or even actively suppress it. 

This issue of overrepresentation is further compounded for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Two-Spirit (LGBTQ2S) prisoners of colour. This was particularly evident in the U.S. in the case of the "New Jersey Four." In the U.S., LGBT and gender nonconforming (GNC) youth are represented in the incarcerated population at a rate of three times the general population, and adult lesbian or bisexual women are represented in the incarcerated population at a rate of about 8 to 10 times the general population. Similar demographic data has not been collected in Canada.

**Methodological note: the demographic categories cited in the graphic are those defined in the 2015-2016 Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator. These differ from the Canadian 2011 National Household Survey (NHS) categories. In order to compare the two datasets, subgroups from the NHS visible minority and Aboriginal Population Profile data sets were re-coded to fit the Canadian federal inmate demographic categories. The breakdown can be accessed here.

Access to education and vocational training is both cheaper and more effective at keeping people from returning to prison than longer sentences or punishments like intensive surveillance or electronic monitoring.

A 2004 study by the UCLA School of Public Policy and Research found that a $1 million investment in incarceration would prevent 350 crimes, while a $1 million investment in prison education would prevent more than 600 crimes. Similarly, a 2013 report found that formerly incarcerated people who participated in education programs had 43 percent lower rates of being rearrested for similar offenses (sometimes called recidivism), and that each dollar spent on prison education translated to four dollars of cost savings in the first three years post-release. Compare these findings with the fact that it costs Correctional Service Canada an average of $111,202 annually to incarcerate one man (and twice as much to incarcerate one woman), with only $2950 of that money spent on education per prisoner. But even “re-entry” programs can fall short of eliminating the systemic barriers to accessing education and employment that target working class communities and communities of colour for incarceration in the first place.

Incarcerated people have an internationally recognized right to education; yet people incarcerated on remand are often left entirely without access.

Though the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services (MCSCS) states on their website, that educational opportunities are available “through a variety of partnerships,” in Ontario, it is not legally mandated that correctional institutions provide educational programming for prisoners. Unsurprisingly, prisoners on remand in Ontario often experience a particularly acute lack of access to educational programming, argues a 2014 research paper from academics at Ryerson University—one of very few publicly available documents on access to education for remanded prisoners. The authors cite research noting that religion and addiction support  programs are the only consistently implemented programs in Ontario’s detention centres. The authors also note that the only formal educational program they are aware of in Ontario’s detention centres—Amadeusz’ The Look at My Life Project—has a long waiting list and is unable to meet demand for their services. We could not locate any publicly available data on the number of people incarcerated in Ontario without access to educational programming. We also could not locate any data MCSCS’ educational spending.

At the federal level, the CSC is doing little better in addressing the educational needs of prisoners (75 percent of whom are without a high school diploma)—despite a legal mandate to provide education. For example, the CSC itself has noted that they must better address the needs of prisoners with learning disabilities, and improve and adequately staff correctional libraries. Compounding the problem, in 2015-2016, the Correctional Service of Canada cut their educational spending by 10 percent. Furthermore, to our knowledge, there are no grants in Canada similar to the Pell Grants in the U.S., which provide assistance to prisoners who wish to enrol in an educational program upon release.

Federally sentenced inmates’ maximum daily payment of $6.90 was set more than 30 years ago.

If you’ve been to a federal government office, chances are you’ve used a piece of furniture made by a federal prisoner through the CORCAN program, which produces goods and services for the government and private clients. Prisoners are paid a daily maximum of $6.90 to work within a CORCAN program, or run various parts of the federal institutions where they are incarcerated, including in kitchen, library, and general maintenance roles. By comparison, Matt Torigian, the Ontario Deputy Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services made $620.79 in the first day of 2016. It would take a prisoner at least 318 days to make the same amount. And, while the Deputy Minister got an 11.6 percent raise between 2015 and 2016, and a whopping 87.2 percent raise between 2014 and 2015, prisoners’ wages haven’t increased in 36 years, despite recent raises to Ontario’s minimum wage.

This meagre salary has been frozen since 1981—when it was set as 15 percent of the federal minimum wage. The federal government began automatically deducting 30 percent from that amount in 2013, in addition to removing incentive pay for working with CORCAN, in a move to save costs. Less than nine percent of prisoners even make the maximum amount of $6.90. Thirty-seven percent make $5.80 a day before deductions, and 30 percent make only $2.50. The average before deductions is just $3 per day. Prisoners can reach the maximum amount only after at least a year of working with no absences, no late arrivals, and having “exceeded expectations for interpersonal relationships, attitude, motivation, behaviour, effort, productivity and responsibility.”

Unnecessary and excessive force is used frequently against Canadian prisoners by correctional staff—and disproportionately against racialized inmates and those who suffer from mental health issues.

The use of force against inmates—who are already in a vulnerable position with respect to correctional staff—in Canadian prisons is alarming. Use of force primarily refers to use of inflammatory agents (e.g. pepper spray), but also includes physical handling, use of restraint equipment, use of batons or weapons, or display and/or use of firearms. In 2015-2016 there were 1800 use of force incidents in federal institutions—a 22 percent increase from 2014-2015. Of these incidents, 30 percent involved Indigenous inmates and 18 percent involved Black inmates. Additionally, 36.6 percent of incidents involved inmates with an identified mental health issue. A 2013 investigation revealed a similar trend in Ontario of correctional officers using excessive violence against inmates with a history of mental illness. This investigation also revealed that many correctional staff colluded with coworkers to hide their abusive behaviour against inmates.

In November 2016, there were 22 prisoners in Ontario who had been locked in solitary confinement continuously for more than a year—five of whom had been in solitary for more than three years.

Referred to as “segregation” in Canadian policy, segregation is just another name for solitary confinement. The most commonly used definition of solitary confinement is “the physical and social isolation of an individual for 22 to 24 hours a day." On any given day in Ontario in 2016, 575 people were being held in segregation, with 70 percent of that number on remand. However, as Howard Sapers noted in a March 2017 report titled “Segregation in Ontario,” due to a lack of a precise definition of what segregation is, this number does not encompass how many people are being held in conditions of solitary confinement across Ontario. For example, at Toronto South, there are units called Behaviour Management Units, where–despite not being officially labelled as a segregation unit–prisoners are only allowed out of their cells for 1.5 hours per day, leaving people confined to their cells for the other 22.5 hours. For Adam Capay, an Indigenous man from Lac Seul First Nation who was incarcerated in jails in Thunder Bay and Kenora, 'segregation' meant “being detained in a Plexiglas-lined cell within a windowless segregation unit, illuminated by artificial light 24 hours per day.”

In February 2017, Paul Dubé, the Ombudsman of Ontario, called on the Government of Ontario to create a clear definition of segregation based on the conditions of the unit, rather than the name of the unit, which are selected by institutions themselves. Several months earlier, in December 2016, Koskie Minsky LLP, on behalf of current and former prisoners, launched a class action lawsuit against the Attorney General of Canada for “systemic over-reliance on solitary confinement and failure to provide adequate health care to mentally ill prisoners incarcerated in the Federal penitentiary system.”

Last month, following public outcry and an inquest into the death of Ashley Smith in a segregated cell at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in 2007, the federal government announced a new 15-day cap for solitary confinement for federal prisoners. This will be put in place by Correctional Service Canada after an 18-month transition period (where the cap will be set at 21 days), but as prisoners’ justice advocates are demanding, this should be only the first step towards a total ban on solitary confinement.

In Ontario, excessive lockdowns—or, the practice of confining general population inmates to their cells for up to 24 hours a day—have led to the filing of a class action lawsuit against the Government of Ontario.

Like the class action on solitary confinement, Koskie Minsky LLP is also the firm behind this class action. One of the case’s plaintiffs, Raymond Lapple—who was incarcerated at Maplehurst Correctional Complex from 2009-2013—believes that his  post-release diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety were caused “in part by lockdowns at Maplehurst.” Another plaintiff in the case, Jerome Campbell–who was incarcerated at Toronto South for seven months in 2016—provided affidavit stating that lockdowns could last from “one day to two weeks,” and that the institution was locked down approximately 75 percent of the time. Staffing-related lockdowns have been an issue at Toronto South since it first opened in January 2014, with prisoners often being confined to double-bunked cells for four or more days per week, according to lawyers familiar with the institution. In February 2016, a Toronto South security official testified in court that, as far as he was aware, there are no provincial policies that limit the use of lockdowns. Frequent lockdowns at Toronto South have led to prisoner protests in the form of hunger strikes.

Of the incarcerated population, 27.6 percent have an identified mental health need, a rate much higher than in the general population (about 10 percent in 2012). Suicide accounts for about 20 percent of all deaths in custody each year.

Prisoners with a history of self harm are far more likely to be placed in solitary confinement than other inmates (86.6 percent of those with a history of self harm also have a history of being placed in segregation, compared to 48.1 percent in the general population), where they have less access to programming and education, and are subject to increased surveillance. Known as a “prison within a prison,” segregation is harsh, punitive, and a long-identified risk factor in suicide. A Three Year Review of Federal Inmate Suicides (2011-2014) reveals that in 2011, under the Harper government, Correctional Service Canada stopped producing the Annual Inmate Suicide Reports on suicides occurring each year within their facilities. The United Nations Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council has declared the use of segregation in excess of 15 days and the practice of solitary confinement of any duration of mentally ill prisoners a violation of international human rights law.

Information about prisons in Canada is extremely difficult to access

Although the data presented in this piece was entirely taken from public reports, academic research, and news articles, the information was often buried in tables, long documents, and technical terminology. In even more cases, the data simply wasn’t available: where was the data on race, gender, and class disparities in sentencing? Where was the reliable data on how long prisoners are being kept on lockdown or solitary confinement? What we encountered, again and again, was that the information did not exist–in public data sets or in the media.

This lack of public data does not mean that prison staff and administrators are ignorant to the issues within their institutions. In fact, many of the key issues raised in this piece have been examined repeatedly by independent bodies like the federal Office of the Correctional Investigator and Ontario’s provincial Community Advisory Boards. The Toronto South Detention Centre’s Community Advisory Board, for example, reported in 2015 and again in 2016 that prisoners were being subjected to too many lockdowns, inappropriate use of segregation and force, and a lack of adequate mental health care.

The lethal apathy displayed by Canada’s criminal justice systems is not new. Over 40 years ago, on August 10th, 1976, prisoners from Millhaven Institution, a maximum-security prison in Bath, Ontario, staged a one-day hunger strike in remembrance of two prisoners, Edward Nalon and Robert Landers, who had recently died in solitary confinement at Millhaven. The strikers also recognized all prisoners who had “died in the hands of an apathetic prison system” and called on “all concerned peoples of Canada” to support their resistance and lend their voices to the struggle for justice. With International Prisoners’ Justice Day approaching on August 10th, will we become the concerned people that the prisoners of Millhaven called on us to be?

Ways you can support prisoners and prisoner-led initiatives in Canada:

  1. Donate. Fund organizations that support incarcerated and over-policed people in Canada. Some to consider are: Amadeusz, Literal Change*, PASAN, The John Howard Society, Black Lives Matter - Toronto, HALCO, Elizabeth Fry Toronto, and Book Clubs for Inmates. Consider creating a scholarship fund or a specific granting stream for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people in Canada, such as is available in the U.S. through federally funded Pell Grants.

  2. Advocate. Write, tweet, email, or call your local MPs and MPPs about prisoners’ justice issues. Call for educational programs to be implemented for remanded prisoners across the country. Show your support for Howard Sapers’ proposed reforms to solitary confinement in Ontario. Call on the Toronto Police Service to destroy data collected from carding. Support Soleiman Faqiri’s family in calling for the Ontario government to establish clear accountability in Faqiri’s death at the Lindsay Correctional Centre, and signing the family’s petition.

  3. Show your support. Develop a pen-pal relationship with an incarcerated person through organizations like the Prisoner Correspondence Project, or learn how to send books to prisoners.

  4. Learn more. Delve deeper into issues of incarceration in Canada, through resources like these: The Peak’s Dispatches from Prison issue; Toronto Life’s recent feature on Toronto South; Maclean’s deep dive into the over-incarceration of Indigenous people; this article about the late prisoners’ rights and harm reduction activist Peter Collins; striking prisoners at Toronto South; this look into the rampant growth in the number of Black prisoners in recent years; or this article that reveals how Indigenous women have come to form the fastest growing incarcerated group in Canada.

  5. Support prisoners’ legal battles. Follow the two on-going class action cases brought by prisoners against the Government of Ontario for over-reliance on solitary confinement and lockdowns. Help fund an inquest into Errol Greene's death. Consider starting a bail fund or campaign in your community, similar to the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, or Black Lives Matter’s National Mama’s Bail Out Day campaign.

  6. Whenever you hear someone say, “I think incarceration is just a problem in the U.S.,” say something.

About the authors: 

Jody Chan is an environmental justice organizer and writer based in Toronto. You can find Jody on Twitter @Jody__Chan. See more of her work at www.jodychan.com.

Lorraine Chuen is a writer, graphic designer, and organizer based in Toronto with an interest in making information about social issues accessible to a wider range of audiences. You can find Lorraine on Twitter @lorrainechu3n.

Marsha McLeod is a journalist focused on sexual violence and non-carceral forms of justice. Marsha is a graduate student at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University. You can find Marsha on Twitter @marshamcleod_to

* Marsha was formerly a volunteer for Literal Change. No information used in this piece was taken from the author’s experience in this role, as per her volunteer contract. 

Correction: This post has been updated to note that Adam Capay is from Lac Seul First Nation, not Thunder Bay.

150 Years of Colonialism, Violence, and Erasure in Canada

This Canada Day, many people across the country will be celebrating "Canada 150".  But settler Canadians need to understand that when they're watching fireworks and waving their Canadian flags, they are celebrating a country founded on violence and abuse against Indigenous people. To celebrate Canada 150 is to erase this history—and moreover, to turn a blind eye to the ongoing institutionalized marginalization of Indigenous communities.  This graphic timeline—by no means exhaustive—is meant to act as a starting point for people to familiarize themselves with Canada's colonialist, white supremacist history and present, ongoing discrimination against Indigenous communities.  To celebrate Canada 150 is to celebrate genocide, violence, and erasure.   

For more reading and resources, you can visit: 

Unsettling Canada 150’s Recommended Reading List

Decolonizing Together: Moving beyond a politics of solidarity toward a practice of decolonization, Briarpatch Magazine (2012)

Dear Canada: You Need A Statement Of Facts if You're Going To Address Indigenous Issues, Ryan McMahon (2016)

The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative, CBC Massey Lectures

STATEMENT: From Chief Scott McLeod on Canada150

Below is also a list of sources for the infographic (which can also be used for further reading!):

Indigenous Foundations, UBC

Key dates for Canada’s dealings with First Nations, Toronto Star

Trudeau Liberals take Human Rights Tribunal to court over First Nation children ruling, APTN News.

21 things you may not know about the Indian Act, CBC News

The White Paper, 1969, rabble.ca

Truth and Reconciliation Commission: By the Numbers, CBC News

Violence against indigenous women is woven into Canada’s history, The Guardian

Office of the Correctional Investigator: Aboriginal Issues

Indigenous issues within the bail system, the Law Times News

Background on the inquiry, National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Government of Canada.

The Day Some Women Achieved Equality in Canada, Huffington Post

You can also follow the hashtags #Resist150, #Colonialism150, #UnsettlingCanada150 on social media. 

This graphic was designed by Lorraine Chuen.

(Thanks to Jasmine Gui and Asad Chishti for copy editing!)

Data visualization resources for beginners

by Lorraine Chuen

Over the last few months, I've gotten a handful of emails asking how I collect and visualize data for the posts on Intersectional Analyst!  Through these emails, I learned that a lot of folks felt data visualization was outside of their skill set because they didn't have a coding background.  Luckily, there are a number of user-friendly resources for visualizing data sets, which aren't too tricky to figure out as long as you have a handle on how basic spreadsheets work!  Many of these tools do not require experience in coding. I wanted to share some of the resources I've used and/or come across in the last few years here. 

Scraping Data

Data scraping is the process a computer takes when it's taking data from one place and making it readable in another format/location (e.g. taking data off a table on a website, and converting it into a .csv file that you can read in Excel or a stats program like R) 

Tabula useful for extracting table data from PDFs (Note to anyone sharing data publicly: avoid putting it in a PDF! Data in PDFs are not the most machine readable - opt for a spreadsheet or .csv file!) 

 Data Scraper for Google Chrome takes data from the web and puts in a downloadable table (.csv) - This may not work for all webpages. After extracting the data, you will also need to clean up the dataset manually after you import it to a program like Google Sheets.   This is the tool I used to scrape data from the NYT online recipes database for the Food, Race, and Power piece. 

Visualizing Data & Information:

During my grad school days, I mostly used R to plot my data.  R is a free and powerful program, but does require writing some code.   For data sets that don't need that much computational processing, it's possible to create aesthetically pleasing and interactive charts with a number of free, user friendly platforms.   In fact, most of the interactive plots on this blog are made using Google Sheets. 

Google Sheets: free, online spreadsheet program that allows you to create interactive charts that you can embed on websites

Plot.ly: another spreadsheet program that allows you to create interactive graphics - can use with R and other data processing programs as well. I've never used this one before, but have heard good things about it! 

Cartouseful for plotting spatial/map data

Canva: has pre-made templates for creating different types of infographics and charts

Tableau: has a number of capabilities but features are limited for free users. 

Timeline.js: an open source tool developed by the Knight Lab at Northwestern University for making visually engaging, interactive timelines. I haven't used this resource yet but it looks awesome and I hope to soon!  

Places to Explore Examples of Data Journalism

Data Journalism Awards 2016 Shortlist - I first sifted through the data journalism awards in 2014, during my first (unhappy) year of grad school.  I was so inspired by how data visualization and analysis could be used in such a socially impactful way, and how I could blend my quantitative interests with storytelling! The data journalism awards are a great place to explore the different ways data can be used for reporting and exploring issues more deeply! 

Also check out ProPublica, which does high quality investigative reporting, often driven by data, FiveThirtyEight (if you're interested in following sports and politics, in particular), and The Pudding (from Polygraph)! 

Places to Explore Examples of Information Visualization

Flowing Data  and Information is Beautiful

Have you made something cool with these resources? I'd love to hear about it! 

Food, Race, and Power: Who gets to be an authority on 'ethnic' cuisines?

by Lorraine Chuen

Some of us will remember when Bon Appetit Magazine caused an uproar last September for publishing an article and video featuring Tyler Akin, a white chef, titled “PSA: This is How You Should Be Eating Pho”. The backlash, in my opinion, was justified: that a white chef should be considered an authority on how food from other cultures is consumed is both absurd and worthy of outrage. But the reality is, Akin is far from being the first chef to tell racialized folks how to eat their food.  

For instance, simply take a glance at a few critically acclaimed chefs/food writers and their online biographies, and you’ll learn that Fuchsia Dunlop, Nina Simonds, and Carolyn Phillips (among many others) have all made a career out of specializing in Chinese cuisine, despite their whiteness. You don’t need to read closely to quickly learn that they love calling themselves authorities on the food of others. According to her website, Nina Simonds is ‘one of the country’s top authorities on Asian cooking.’ Fuschia Dunlop tops Nina - her website includes a quote saying that she is a world authority on Chinese cooking’.

It’s not just Chinese food. Most foodies have likely heard of Rick Bayless. After spending four years travelling through Mexico to study their culinary traditions and ‘test recipes’, Bayless returned to America to build a culinary empire.  Bayless has since published several cookbooks, owns many critically acclaimed restaurants, and is on the eleventh season of his own television show (“Mexico: One Plate at a Time”), all focusing on traditional Mexican cuisine.  

I do not doubt that these people are talented chefs. But what irks me is that many will argue that they deserve the title of ‘authority’, and that despite their whiteness, they are hardly foreigners. After all, many of these chefs have years of classical training (or personal study) in the countries they specialize in. They’ve learned the language! They know the people! They’ve immersed themselves in the culture! They’ve studied the craft! How positively adventurous! How very admirable!  But here’s the thing: my parents—and every other immigrant—moved to a new country and learned the language, got to know the people, adopted their way of life, simply because they were forced to, and not because it was fun or exotic or interesting or something that they were curious or passionate about. How come we don’t see swaths of immigrants being publicly lauded for culturally assimilating?

It’s only special when White people do it, I guess.

I also want to draw attention to the entrepreneurial food world, where we encounter Lee’s Ghee, the ghee business launched by former model Lee Dares. Ghee has always been used in Indian cooking, but when the white Dares packages it up in a jar and dresses it up in ‘used saris’, it becomes artisanal, something for foodies to enjoy, perhaps the next big thing to spread on bread, like avocado-toast. In one article, Dares briefly attributes her success to the wisdom and tutelage of ‘elderly Indian women’ whom she met on a seven week internship in India, but of course, they aren’t the stars or the ones profiting from her business. The ‘elderly Indian ladies’ are just name-dropped to make the product seem more ‘authentic’ (but not really name-dropped, even, since of course, they’re never given names).

At this point, it may seem like I am cherry-picking, merely basing my observations off a few anecdotes. Anticipating this, I wondered if it would be possible to quantify the extent to which white chefs consider themselves authority figures on the cuisines of other cultures. To do so, I scraped recipes from the New York Times Cooking online recipes collection, which is a searchable database containing over 17,000 recipes with an enormously wide reach - the NYTFood Twitter account has over 1.25 million followers. Each recipe from the database is given a number of tags to make it searchable; and many of these recipes have tags that flag the ‘ethnicity’ of the cuisine.  If you filter your search results to Chinese cuisine, for example, you’ll get a compilation of over 260 recipes.

I wanted to know: just how many of these Chinese recipes were authored by Chinese chefs or food writers? Indian recipes by Indian chefs? Caribbean recipes by Caribbean food writers? Who is getting paid to write these recipes, and who is given a platform to share them? Ultimately, who is given the opportunity to write about how these dishes should be cooked? 

If we have learned anything from Lee Dares, Fuschia Dunlop, and Rick Bayless, the answer is somehow both outlandish and wildly predictable: overwhelmingly, white people.

(Update: To clarify, note that the variable for "author" here was taken as the author listed under the by-line. Sometimes the recipe is taken from a different source - i.e. not originally by the by-line author, who is writing about the dish more generally. See the methodological notes section for more details**)

Of the 263 entries under the “Chinese” recipe filter, almost 90% have White people listed as author in the byline. For instance, ‘Vegetarian Mapo Tofu’ is by David Tanis, a professional chef who doesn’t appear to specialize in any ethnic cuisine but authors several of the recipes in this category.  Only 10% of the recipes are authored by Chinese writers (and these recipes are authored by the same 5 Chinese people: Gish Jen, Ken Hom, Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, Elaine Louie, and Joyce Howe).

Dishes listed as “Indian” on the website (of which there are 216) are no better.  Less than 5% of the recipes are authored by Indian writers, and 90% are by White people.

There are 86 dishes listed as “Vietnamese” (11 of which are some interpretation of pho, including: vegan pho, vegetarian pho, turkey pho). 95% of these dishes are catalogued as authored by White people. 

While Asian cuisines are broken down into individual countries, Africa is treated as a monolith, with all 73 recipes affiliated with the continent listed under one filter in the database. The authors are overwhelmingly (84%) White - although some recipes are authored by Frances Lam, who is Chinese. Only one author has East African roots and only one other is Black. 

Caribbean countries are also all lumped into one category, with only one of the recipe authors from Puerto Rico.  On the contrary, fifteen of the 102 recipes listed are authored by Daisann Mclane, a white woman whose website homepage banner features a photograph of her in the middle of a crowd of black folks, paired with a tagline that describes her as someone who likes to  dive "deep into cultures, music, food and places".

There are many more types of cuisines listed on the database, but looking at the handful surveyed, the trend is obvious: it's White people, not racialized folks, who are considered the experts on how to cook non-Western dishes. 

The amount of power that White people hold continues to both amaze and disturb me. White folks have the power to tease, torment, and mock (this food smells like poo, they’ll tell you, or perhaps: your lunch looks like worms, or maybe, simply: that’s disgusting, with a pinch of their nose). I spent an entire childhood lying about my favorite foods and being embarrassed about bringing noodles to school for lunch because of the casual racism that White folks learn apparently as early as middle school. White adults are no better: I recently had a coworker tell me, over dim sum, that chopsticks were the laziest eating utensil ever invented (whatever that even means).

White folks have the power to torment, often without consequence; but the special thing about White people is that they also have the power to make a trip to your home country for a month or maybe twelve, get inspired, and dictate when your previously unpalatable dishes suddenly become socially acceptable, trendy, and profitable in the Western world. And inevitably, with the popularization of certain ethnic dishes, comes erasure. I can’t help but wonder, what becomes of dishes when they are prepared for the white gaze - or in this case, white palate? What remains of food, after it’s been decontextualized? What are flavours without stories? What are recipes without histories? Why are people of colour forgotten, over and over again, while their food (also: vocabulary, music, art, hair, clothing) are consumed and adopted?

For me, a savoury tea egg will always remind me of my yai yai, who used to cook them in batches when my family visited his and my grandma’s apartment in Scarborough. Congee will always remind me of Sunday morning breakfasts with my dad. Pork chops with tomato sauce smothered on a bed of fried rice will always remind me of my mom’s recreation of a Hong Kong style cafe classic. Though I’ve only been to Hong Kong once and grew up in one of the whitest and smallest towns in Southern Ontario, my family’s home cooking was always a way for me to feel closer to ‘home’—a forever nebulous concept for many diaspora kids. I may be the furthest thing from being an expert on Chinese cuisine by the standards of Dunlop or Simonds, but food has been entrenched in my identity for as long as I can remember.

When I look at the repertoire of work that White chefs and restaurateurs have built on ethnic cuisine, it feels in a way, dehumanizing. White people are able to establish outrageously successful careers for being experts and authorities on the stuff that racialized folks do every day simply by existing. But of course, people of colour will rarely, if ever, be called experts on how to simply be themselves. It’s as if racialized folks and their ways of life are objects to be observed—study material, of sorts—rather than entire countries, cultures, and individual complex lives.

So I hope that any ‘foodies’ reading this can start giving credit where credit is due. I hope that any foodies reading this can stop erasing people of colour. I hope any foodies reading this will support food blogs and cookbooks written by POCs. I hope they’ll make a conscious effort to give their business to family-owned or POC-owned restaurants, rather than the newest trendy White-owned joint specializing in ethnic fare. And I hope the Cooking section of the New York Times starts publishing more people of colour.

Follow Intersectional Analyst on Facebook or Twitter

*Methodological Notes: Data on race and ethnicity was interpreted and coded manually and is therefore subject to human error.  Although race and ethnicity are related but separate characteristics, for the purpose of this investigation they are grouped under one variable. When specific information was offered online about the writer’s ethnicity (e.g. Chinese), that was coded in the data, but in most cases, the variable is coded under race (e.g. White). I recognize that the subjective nature of these methods is an inherent limitation of this sort of work, but the data set is publicly available at this link, and I encourage others to notify me at lorrainechuen[at]gmail[dot]com if they find errors in coding. I will happily update the dataset and visualizations. Thanks! 

**Methodological Notes, Part 2 (update to original post): I should clarify that the recipe author variable was taken as the author listed under the by-line of the recipe.  In some cases, the original author of the recipe is not the author listed under the by-line.  For example, the Chicken Congee entry is "written by" Sara Bonisteel, but the recipe is taken from a cookbook by Fuschia Dunlop. When this occurs, it's usually because the by-line author is writing an introduction to the recipe. This alters how the results could be interpreted: in some cases the by-line author is a different ethnicity than the author of the original recipe, and I hope to work on a second round of analyses that takes this into consideration.

Nevertheless, the by-line author is the name a reader/user sees when browsing the recipes collection, is the name we tend to attribute the recipe to, and ultimately, they are still the ones writing about the dish for the New York Times.  All in all, this raises interesting questions around ownership (if not authority), as well as a conversation around copyright and food. If you'd like to collaborate further on this or have any thoughts on the issue - please drop me a note! 

Restrictive Research: Psychology’s ivory tower mentality

The first pages of an introductory psychology textbook will usually begin with something like ‘psychology is the qualitative and quantitative study of human cognition and behaviour’ - suggesting that information within its pages can be universally applied.

But upon learning about countless research papers and experiments, it quickly becomes apparent that psychology is study of Western cognition and behaviour. After all, the most groundbreaking discoveries seem to be conducted by North American researchers on North American subjects (e.g. the Stanford Prison experiment, the Milgram experiments, or the case study of “Little Albert").

Students learn that the study of “other” cultures is the exception, rather than the norm. 

Anyone who takes an undergraduate psychology class will notice that non-Western experiments and case studies fall under a short textbook chapter titled “cross-cultural psychology”. In that chapter, any notable conclusions are assumed to only apply to that specific group - they are seen as the exception to the norm, rather than something we can all learn from.

Cultural differences are only noteworthy when a specific group is being studied (e.g. the effects of television on rural Samoan populations). Otherwise, attempts to research other cultures mostly revolve around Asian communities and limits the societies to a ‘collective’ vs ‘individualistic’ lens - ignoring the nuances that are afforded to the West. Huge swaths of the population go un-researched, yet conclusions are drawn, published and circulated, often as ‘pop science’, to a public that doesn’t understand that aspects of the scientific process can be flawed.

Educated, relatively privileged, and (mostly) White kids are the basis of a “groundbreaking” research

Experimental psychologists stress the importance of sound scientific methodology, and in theory, researchers are careful to select a ‘random sample’ of subjects that are presumably representative of the human species. But more often than not, participants are selected simply from populations that are most available and most willing to participate in experiments, which means undergraduate psychology students.

Data suggests that a randomly selected American undergraduate is more than 4,000 times more likely to be a research participant than is a randomly selected person from outside of the West. So, forget the study of Western cognition and behaviour - one might as well define psychology as the study of Western youth - Western youth who can afford post-secondary education and who are available to participate in research studies.

The West is markedly different from other areas of the world - especially for post-secondary students who are in the midst of a very unique time in their lives. These are educated, relatively privileged, and (mostly) White kids from psychology lecture halls, yet findings from their surveys, questionnaires and computer simulations are assumed to apply to the world at large.

Since it’s been a few years since we, the bloggers of Intersectional Analyst, have finished our own undergraduate psychology degrees, we wondered if diversity in psychology research had improved since we last sat in a lecture hall.

Even the most prestigious journals have a sampling blindspot

We collected information about research participants in papers coming from prestigious journals in the field, focusing on general psychology, as well as developmental and social psychology - subfields where we would naturally expect behaviour to differ across cultures. We looked at papers from the most recent three issues (January, February, and March 2016) of each chosen journal and collected data on which countries participants were taken from for experiments*.

We started by looking at Psychological Science, one of the most well-regarded and 'prestigious' (i.e. high impact factor) journals among psychologists. Over its last three issues - roughly, 40 studies - almost 70% of participants came from North America - and these North American participants were drawn exclusively from the United States.  Less than 13% of participants were from somewhere other than North America or Europe.

The Journal of Experimental Psychology, another top journal in the field, did not fare much better. Almost 60% of participants over the last three issues come from North America - although they were not exclusively from the US (as was the case with Psychological Science).

In the journal Developmental Psychology, which focuses on the study of psychological processes across the lifespanwe found that there was slightly more variation in the location of the research participants compared to other journals. One study was conducted on a population in Mauritius, and two studies were conducted on populations in the Middle East.  Notably, however, these studies on non-Western populations were mostly conducted by Western researchers, and these populations were chosen specifically for particular research questions of interest to Western researchers.  

The Mauritian population was chosen to look at the 'impact of malnutrition on intelligence' in children, while the Iranian population was chosen to investigate the effects of religious exposure on children's ability to distinguish between fantastical and realistic characters.  Studies such as these reinforce the idea in psychological research that non-Western cultures are not to be considered the norm for human behaviour, but rather as 'different' behaviours that can help Western researchers contextualize 'normal' Western behaviour. 

Finally, we looked at social psychology - a subfield that lends itself to the study of different groups and group behaviour.   As with the other journals we examined, the studies in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology primarily comprised of North American research participants (65%), although they did have a number of multi-national and comparative cross-cultural studies in this journal.  Again, here the comparative cross-cultural studies were conducted with specific research questions in mind that aimed to draw comparisons between Western and non-Western behaviour. 

The lack of diversity is a symptom of a larger problem

So unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, not much has changed since we last sat in our introductory psychology classes. In all the journals we looked at - some of the most respected in the field - Western (and particularly, North American) people made up the majority of research samples.   It is clearly problematic to generalize theories about human behaviour with data drawn primarily from the West, but our observations call to attention another important question: who is conducting academic research?  

The bulk of studies here were led by Western researchers - including many of the studies on non-Western populations - suggesting that the lack of diversity in psychology research may be accounted for by a lack of inclusivity of the scholarly communication system.  There are serious barriers to participating in academic research: even being able to simply read the work of other scientists is too expensive for many researchers in non-Western institutions. One thing is certain: addressing the problem of diversity in psychology will require a critical examination of inclusivity in scientific research, more broadly. 

This post was co-written by TK and Lorraine. 

---

*Additional notes on Methodology: Meta-analyses were excluded and online-only articles were excluded. We considered participants drawn from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website as American, given that data indicates that the majority of workers on Mechanical Turk come from the United States (about 80%). If the participant source was not specified explicitly, when possible, the source was inferred by looking at the Acknowledgements section and the author institutional affiliations.

Intersectional Analyst stands with #BLMTOtentcity

#BLMTOtentcity has been a peaceful protest against anti-Black racism and police brutality built by the Black Lives Matter Toronto Coalition (BLMTO) in response to the Ontario Special Investigation Unit's announcement that the officer(s) who killed Andrew Loku, a 45 year old man from South Sudan, will not face criminal charges. To support BLMTO in the fight against police brutality and anti-Black racism, we recently worked with them to create an infographic detailing Andrew Loku's case.  

 We encourage you to share the infographic, learn more about the movement, and learn how to support the movement through their Twitter and Facebook.

The Year of Trans “Visibility”? Media Coverage on Caitlyn Jenner vs. the Murder of Trans Women

Some have claimed that 2015 has been a landmark year for trans visibility. Think ‘Transparent’, think Caitlyn Jenner, think Laverne Cox and Janet Mock. 2015 also marked the greatest number of murders of trans women in the United States: there were at least 22 documented cases in 2015.

While the mainstream media covered the experiences - and physical transformation - of affluent white trans women like Caitlyn Jenner, or the fictional familial melodrama of Maura Pfefferman, there was next to no coverage on the horrific and tragic murders of trans women this last year. These women were also disproportionately women of colour.

This, we think, begs the question: what kind of visibility is meaningful visibility?

A report by the Human Rights Campaign details the homicides of 21 trans women in the US in 2015 (the report was released before the end of the year, in November). This is more victims recorded than in any previous year. Although the result of transphobic violence, none of these homicides have been reported as hate crimes; hate crime law in most states do not include gender identity.

This, we think, begs the question: what kind of visibility is meaningful visibility? There has been some coverage on the murder of transgender women, but many media outlets focus on the violent details of the death - often mis-gendering and highlighting the sexual history of the victim - without bringing attention to the common factors of prejudice and lack of opportunity that permeate through these women’s lives.

If we compare mainstream media coverage of Caitlyn Jenner against mentions of murdered trans women, a pretty stark, but unsurprising picture is painted. Below is our headline analysis* of Google News search results, over the course of 2015.

Although Caitlyn Jenner made headlines frequently in the New York Times, the Globe and Mail, and especially the Washington Post, these same publications make little mention of the murder of trans women, despite being the historically highest rate of transphobic homicides in the US. That being said, it could be worse - The New York Times and Washington Post each published an article discussing the rise in transphobic homicides last summer. Nevertheless, there remains a salient disparity in coverage. 

What exactly does this unbalanced coverage of transgender issues mean? It means that transgender women like 30-year-old Lamia Beard - who died January 17, 2015 after being found on the sidewalk suffering from a gunshot wound, or 24-year-old Ty Underwood - who was also fatally shot on January 26, 2015 do not get the same sympathy as successful, celebrity trans women. It means that the stories of murdered trans women are ignored and erased while their senseless deaths are justified, through accusations of sexual promiscuity. Again, we are reminded that in the eyes of the mainstream media, some lives simply matter more than others.

Major outlets are eager to detail Caitlyn’s celebrity interviews, magazine photo-shoots, and documentary TV series. But no mainstream media details Ty Underwood as a down to earth friend and family member, or a dedicated nursing assistant who was planning on returning to school to further her career. No mainstream media reports that Lamia was fluent in french, sang at community funerals, and earned a full scholarship to a Floridian college but chose to attend a school closer to home because she valued family. If these and countless other transgender women are even mentioned, it is often a plot point - stripping away their remaining humanity.

The stories of trans women are ignored and erased while their senseless deaths are justified, through accusations of sexual promiscuity.

Although alternative and specialized media outlets like The Advocate and Alternet a do a better job at humanizing transgender women by reporting on their lives, the lives of their families and the aftermath of their murders, unfortunately their reach pales in comparison to major media.

For many trans people, being themselves is a dangerous, political, and even fatal act that locks them out of many personal and professional opportunities. Unbalanced coverage can lead to misinformed assumptions about what it means to be trans and the challenges trans people face daily while erasing the diverse of experiences and lives of people within the community. So, although it is important to celebrate the visibility and success of trans people like Caitlyn Jenner, Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, Andreja Pejic and Chaz Bono, next time you read an article about them, be sure to also acknowledge that their stories are far from the norm.

*Our headline analysis searched for any articles that contained a mention of (1) Caitlyn Jenner, or (2) the words murder/manslaughter/killing/death, and trans/transgender in the same headline.  Some articles which fit the search parameters but were unrelated to the topic of interest were excluded (e.g. article about trans fats, article about a Transgender Bangladeshi who catches murder suspects).

This is Part 2 of a series investigating media coverage of ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ victims in 2015. You can read Part 1 here.

A Visualized History of Racism and Reproductive Rights in America

Introducing Book Summary Infographics, a new post category we are bringing to our blog to compliment our investigative data-driven pieces.  Each post aims to summarize a book or book chapter; the goal is to make academic writing accessible to a wider audience through design-friendly information display.  Our first infographic is taken from Chapter 12 of Women, Race, & Class by Angela Davis.  

The reproductive rights movement is often framed as a big step forward in the history of the women's rights: birth control was a pathway to post-secondary education and careers for women in the upper class. However, poor women and racially oppressed women were largely absent from the birth control movement, as without material wealth, these goals were out of reach. And while birth control was perceived as a step toward liberation for wealthy (and primarily white) women, for poor women and women of colour, many proponents framed birth control as a moral obligation for restricting family size, to prevent putting strain on taxes and charities. 

Angela Davis writes that, in considering the absence of women of colour in the birth control movement, it is crucial to acknowledge the dark influence of eugenics on the movement, and America's rampant history of sterilization abuse.  See our summary of her chapter below: 

Read more about the forced sterilization of Native Americans here, and more general reading about eugenics in the United States here and here

'Worthy' & 'Unworthy' Victims in the Digital Age: Visualizing Media Coverage in 2015

When ISIS attacked Paris this past November, killing over 100 people, it felt like the world was collectively grieving. The social media sphere filled with #PrayForParis, major world landmarks lit up with the French flag colours, and I watched as my newsfeed filled itself with blue-white-and-red profile pictures, with Facebook facilitating the option for displaying solidarity for Parisian victims. 

The previous day, ISIS had also attacked a urban district in Beirut, killing over 40. But there was no option for changing your profile picture to the colours of the Lebanese flag, no flooding of grievances on my social media. It didn’t take long for people to notice the “empathy gap” between the victims of Paris and Beirut.  Lebanese doctor and blogger Elie Fares wrote about the world's apparent lack of empathy for Arab lives: "When my people died, they did not send the world in mourning. Their death was but an irrelevant fleck along the international news cycle, something that happens in those parts of the world."

A few articles, such as this one by Emma Kelly and  this one by Max Fisher in Vox, argued that this discrepancy in sympathy stemmed not from disproportionate media coverage, but from the readers themselves: after all, major media outlets like The Washington Post and the New York Times did publish articles about Beirut the day of the attack. However, such an argument doesn't consider the big picture discrepancy. Aside from the initial coverage the day of the attack, there was little follow up coverage from major new publications on Beirut, especially compared to the coverage of the Paris attacks.  This is demonstrated in our headline analysis of Google News search results, in the month following the attacks*:   

Kelly and Fisher's claims that readers simply feel more empathy for Parisian victims simply because, independent of any media influence, is bizarre.  The fact that the opinions of readers are shaped by the content they consume is the most basic principle of how propaganda operates.  The Washington Post had over over 100 times more headlines covering the Paris attacks than the Beirut attacks.  If that's not the media selectively attending to some tragedies over others, then I don't know what is.   This is not to say that the pain and suffering of the Parisian people is not real, and is not worth grieving for - we simply want to highlight that the media's selective attention can be a powerful influence on how people think about global issues.


The idea that some human lives are more worthy to the media than others is not a new one. 


The idea that some human lives are more worthy to the media than others is not a new one. In their 1988 book about propaganda and the mass media, Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky argue that the interests of dominant, wealthy groups with political and economic power both shape and control what topics are covered, which stories are given special emphasis, and how issues are framed. One pointed result of such forces is the strikingly differential treatment between “worthy” and “unworthy” victims in the mainstream media.

The book highlights that this differential treatment rests not only in the quantity of coverage, but also reflected in the depth and quality of coverage: stories about worthy victims make a more explicit effort to humanize victims, and consequently garner more empathy from the readership than stories about “unworthy” victims.  This is all too reminiscent of popular media coverage on many events from this past year. From the disparity in coverage between the Paris and Beirut attacks last month, to the disproportionate amount of attention devoted to Caitlin Jenner over the lives of murdered trans women, dichotomies in media-worthiness are bound by a number of factors.  While Herman and Chomsky primarily argue that it is victims of enemy states who are deemed worthy of media attention (atrocities committed or funded by the USA are given minimal, if any, coverage), these disparities also seem to stem from the race, geopolitical, and class status of victims.

To kick off the new year, we decided to conduct a series of quantitative comparisons of “worthy” and “unworthy” victim coverage over the course of 2015 by three major North American news publications: The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Globe and Mail. To do so, we looked for keywords in the headlines of (online versions of) these publications, and compared the number of stories covering worthy versus unworthy victims. We tried to limit our comparisons to stories that occurred in a roughly similar time period, and when appropriate, bounded the analysis to the same time window (and if events did not occur concurrently, to the same length of time window).  

Over the next month, we will be releasing a new comparison of mainstream media coverage on a range of issues each week. What we found was striking, but not surprising: in the eyes of the media, some lives simply matter more than others.

What are your thoughts on relevancy, propaganda and the empathy gap? Are there any comparisons that you would like to see covered? Let us know in the comments! 

*Our headline analysis of the Paris and Beirut attacks searched for any articles that contained a mention of the city name in conjunction with the words "attack", "bombing", or "ISIS" in the same headline. 

This was written by Lorraine Chuen, and is Part 1 of a series on visualizing media coverage in the digital age. 

Visualizing the model minority myth

The ‘model minority’ construct is one that suggests specific groups - like the Asian diaspora - experience a greater degree of success (e.g. higher incomes, lower poverty rates, higher graduation rates...etc) compared to the population at large. Although the model minority construct may cloud perceived disadvantage for some Asians, it remains a destructive force on an individual and communal level.

It is a tool that validates anti-blackness, while simultaneously protecting the systems of white supremacy. 

The model minority myth is harmful because it:

  • Fosters racism within Asian communities towards other groups of colour - often dividing and pitting POCs against one another. 
  • Creates the idea of “good immigrants” and “bad immigrants” while upholding the notion of meritocracy and the “American Dream”. 
  • Leaves the voices of many Asian groups out of discussions of racism, gender inequality, representation, ableism, sexual orientation and sexuality. 
  • Wipes out a whole history of oppression and solidarity in conjunction with other minority communities. 
The model minority myth often erases the history of oppression that many Asian communities faced in North America. The Chinese Immigration Act (1885) placed a $50 head tax on all Chinese immigrants to Canada. The head tax's intention was to dissuade Chinese people from entering Canada after the Canadian Pacific Railway was built. Chinese labourers who worked on the railway were paid a fraction of what their fellow labourers were paid. (Image source: Wikipedia)

The model minority myth often erases the history of oppression that many Asian communities faced in North America. The Chinese Immigration Act (1885) placed a $50 head tax on all Chinese immigrants to Canada. The head tax's intention was to dissuade Chinese people from entering Canada after the Canadian Pacific Railway was built. Chinese labourers who worked on the railway were paid a fraction of what their fellow labourers were paid. (Image source: Wikipedia)

 

Not only does the myth of the model minority obscure a history of oppression against Asian communities, but it also serves to erase the ongoing racial injustices within the Asian diaspora by only highlighting the successes of the community.  Racism against Asian communities is alive in various forms in the present day.  For instance, a 2012 study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that Asian Americans face significant housing discrimination: when it comes to renting, Asians are, on average, shown 6.6% less units compared to Whites, and told about 9.8% less units.  These rates are comparable to the housing discrimination faced by Black and Hispanic communities. 

Finally, the model minority myth is dangerous because it dismisses the various Asian identities that exist by homogenizing communities with radically different experiences, histories, traditions and values. So, what exactly does the present-day experience of the “model minority” look like? By visualizing existing data from the 2007-2009 American Community Survey 3-Year Estimates, here we show that the experiences of the Asian diaspora are vastly different when it comes to income, poverty, education, and health insurance coverage.

Income Levels 

When it comes to income levels, while some Asian communities thrive in relation to White, Black and Hispanic identifying groups, many clearly fall below White median family incomes.

Poverty Rates

Comparable to the statistics on income levels, although many Asian communities have a lower percentage of families living in poverty than Native-American, Black and Hispanic-identifying groups, many of these same groups are still at an economic disadvantage compared to White families.  Some groups (e.g. Bangladeshi, Cambodian) experience poverty rates comparable to Native-American, Black and Hispanic-identifying groups, and the Hmong community experiences poverty rates greater than all other minority groups. 

Health Insurance Coverage

The high cost of health insurance is one of the primary reasons people lack coverage.  A large number of Asian American groups are uninsured at rates greater than the White population, and many groups have greater or comparable rates of uninsurance to the Black population. 

Education

One of the most prevalent stereotypes perpetuated by the model minority myth is that Asian Americans exceed other groups on academic outcomes. The overall academic success (e.g. high rates of post-secondary education attainment, not shown here) of some Asian groups often obfuscates the low educational attainment of others. It is certainly true that some groups (Filipino, Indian, Indonesian, Japanese, among others) have the greatest high school graduation rates compared to all other groups.  However, at the same time, many Asian communities (e.g. Chinese, Bangladeshi, Vietnamese, Laotian) have a percentage without a high school diploma comparable, or greater than Native American and Black communities.  Cambodian and Hmong groups in America are comparable to the Hispanic population, with close to 40% of the population lacking a high school diploma in these groups.   

Just as with any other minority group, the Asian community is complex with a variety of experiences and struggles that go far beyond the accepted stereotypes. Parsing apart the monolith that is presented through mainstream media, microagressions and blatant discriminatory acts reveals an assortment of vibrant cultures - each with their own challenges and triumphs. To ignore these stories is to dismiss identity - to strip away humanity. It is crucial to question ideas like the model minority myth and ask who truly benefits from such a divisive narrative.

This post was co-written by TK Matunda and Lorraine Chuen, and is a follow-up to our previous piece, The Model Minority Myth and Me.

The model minority myth and me - a preface.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my identity as a Cantonese-Canadian, as a child of immigrants, and as a woman of colour. As a product of my identity, I have experienced my share of systemic racism in various forms. However, I am also acutely aware that as a person of East Asian descent, these forms are often mild and disguised, that I am able to occupy space in a way that my black counterparts cannot, and that I do not experience the blatant brutality that my black counterparts do, among a long list of other privileges. So, as my self awareness has grown exponentially over the last half year, I have been finding it increasingly difficult to situate myself in explicit discussions about race. I strive to be an ally but often don’t know the extent to which I should have a voice in the struggle against white supremacy. I feel between worlds and irrelevant, with neither the traumas of black POCs rooted in my lived experience nor the privileges of my white colleagues.

A 7 year-old-me in my small & very white hometown of Trenton, ON.

In heated discussions about race, I often feel uncomfortable in my silence; I worry I am being complicit in the face of injustice. This is largely rooted in a fear of my own ignorance; after all, I grew up in a tiny, conservative, and predominantly white town, and my family rarely spoke of race. I acknowledge that, as a result, I am still in the early stages of a long process of unlearning decades of internalized whiteness. I have assumed the role of active listener and of frantic learner, eliminating white male authors from my reading list, and filling my bookshelves instead with Junot Diaz, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ta-Nehesi Coates and Zadie Smith. I bought books at a rate faster than I could read them, and it slowly became clear that in my frantic attempt to better understand black-white identity politics, I was neglecting to acquaint myself with my own racial context and cultural history. I was neglecting it because, to me, it felt secondary and somehow less valid, somehow less urgent— after all, I knew that I enjoyed an abundance of privileges, and that I was part of what most believed to be a “model minority”.

I spoke to TK about this cognitive dissonance a few weeks ago, and we decided that to more deeply explore my personal issues with identity, we should work together to deconstruct the myth of the model minority, backed of course by statistics, on the blog. So in this month’s post, we explore the idea that although the experience across different POCs is not monolithic in nature, the concept of the model minority is nevertheless a myth — and it is a dangerous one.

Stay tuned for our upcoming data-post.

- Lorraine

Nicki didn't lie: MTV has a race problem, and we have the numbers to show it.

As you all probably remember, in late July, Nicki Minaj took to twitter about the 2015 Video Music Awards (VMA) nominations and her snub for Video of the Year.
This tweet, which had the potential to start an actual conversation about the imbalance of recognition for black female artists, turned into a “twitter feud” after Taylor Swift responded to the message, thinking it was directed at her.

This ignited an exchange of tweets between Nicki and Taylor, in which Nicki and her following raised very real and very valid points about racism in the music industry, the disregarding of white privilege, and the non-inclusive/toxic nature of white feminism.  Unsurprisingly, the media (and a handful of celebrities) failed to see any of these actual points.  

Although in the end Taylor did apologize for misspeaking (not really adding anything else to the conversation), the whole fiasco showed that a lot of people are either ignorant, ambivalent or dismissive to issues of racism within the music industry.

Which brings us to this project: instead of just telling you about the racial discrepancies, we decided it might be more effective to show you MTV's racial bias -- one that dates back to the very beginning of the VMAs -- through hard numbers.  To do this, we explored race-related data about VMA nominees from the first awards show in 1984 up to this year's show, which will happen on Sunday night. 

  First, a bit about the VMAs: 

The MTV Video Music Awards are an annual ceremony that honours the best in the music video medium. For many North American teens and 20-somethings, it's a cultural touchstone for what’s hot in music pop culture. Think: Madonna and Britney's kiss,  Lady Gaga's meat dress, Fiona Apple's iconic speech, and where the future Rihanna, Nicki and Beyonce will debut their first single off of their collaborative album. (...We can dream, right?)

How the VMAs are selected is a complete mystery. MTV is very secretive about their selection process and their voting committee that decides the winners of the 6 "Professional categories" (Best Direction, Best Art Direction, Best Choreography, Best Editing, Best Visual Effects).  For the "Major Categories", MTV picks the nominees and open voting decides the winners - these include: Video of the Year, Artist to Watch, Best Male Video, Best Female Video, among a slew of other genre-specific categories (Best Rock Video, Best Hip-Hop Video, etc...). 

It’s important to note that although these categories are opening voting, MTV has final say over who actually wins - no matter what. So essentially MTV picks, MTV decides, MTV awards. Everyone else is just along for the ride. 

  What kinds of artists does MTV decide to recognize at the VMAs? 

To answer this question, we looked at the nominated artists for the Major Categories, coded for the race of each nominated artist, and then compared the overall number of nominations for black artists to white artists through the last three decades.  What we found was striking: except for a brief period between 2003 and 2007-ish, where the ratio of black-white nominations is roughly equal, more nominations consistently go out to white artists than black artists.


Skeptics might be tempted to argue that perhaps the fact that there are more nominations for white artists simply reflects the quantity, or popularity of music by black artists being produced and consumed in popular culture. In other words, one possibility is that black artists aren’t being under represented at the VMAs - just that there is just less music by them out there being enjoyed.

To see if this was the case, we decided to look for an approximate index of popularity of music that was being consumed by the American masses each year. We used the Billboard Hot 100 list, because the rankings take into account many factors of a particular song: specifically - sales, airtime on the radio, and how often it’s streamed online.  This makes it a pretty good index of popularity and success of an artist in the American music industry.

To narrow the data set down to a manageable size, we looked at the #1 single for each week from 1984-2014. We then coded for the race of the artist, and then looked at the total number of weeks a black artist was at #1 for each year, and the total number of weeks a white artist was at #1 for each year.
Although white music was more popular in the late 1980's, black artists generally dominated radio stations and record sales from the early 1990's to the late 2000's. Take a look at 2004, which was apparently the year that the world really loved listening to Usher, 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg & Pharrell, and Ciara.

In any case, this graph really doesn't seem to suggest that music by black artists wasn't consumed by the American public for a large portion of the last few decades.  So while music by black artists was way more popular, way more successful, and way more highly consumed than music by white artists for most of the time period between 1992 and 2008, fewer VMA nominations were still going out to black artists during these same years.

The next thing we asked ourselves was: what happens if we pit popularity (indexed by percentage of Billboard #1 spots) directly against formal recognition by music industry giants like MTV (as indexed by percentage of VMA nominations)?  How does the pattern differ between black and white artists?

If we look at the data for black artists:



This would suggest that for the larger part of the last thirty years, black artists are almost consistently more popular in the music industry than they are recognized by MTV (the light blue line is almost always greater than the dark blue line). Even during years where almost exclusively black artists are dominating the #1 spots on the billboard charts, they less than half of the VMA nominations go to black artists.

If we do the same comparison for white artists:


This suggests that white artists are consistently more recognized by MTV than they are popular. (The light pink line is almost always underneath the starred, maroon line).

Before we draw grand conclusions, however, we do need to stress that the VMAs are not necessarily a popularity contest - for either white or black artists.  While there is overlap between radio hits and VMA recognition, a close comparison between the Billboard and VMA data sets indicated that there is often little correlation between popular success and award nominations for individual artists. Take 'The Power of Love' by Celine Dion, for example; this was #1 for 4 consecutive weeks, but received zero nominations (except in our hearts).

Nevertheless, what we can conclude is that the VMAs have a history for under-representing black artists; even during epochs where music by black artists is heavily consumed and enjoyed by the general public.

So why was Nicki demonized by multiple media outlets for shining a light on what is clearly a long-standing issue?  Even with her platform and status, she is still being held to a stricter standard than her white counterparts. Good thing she's a BOSS and handling everything like a class act.

All this being said, if and when you tune in to watch the VMAs this Sunday night, consider what factors are really at play when MTV decides which artists deserve recognition and which artists do not.

  Methodological details: 

VMA Data: We included only categories that had to do with the artist “in front of the camera” (Major Category Awards), and excluded “behind the scenes” categories like art direction and cinematography that generally belonged to the "Professional Categories". 

Coding for Race: We manually coded for the race of artist for each VMA nomination and Billboard Hot 100 song. We gauged racial category from Google and Wikipedia descriptors.  Biracial Black/White artists were categorized as black. Non-Black artists of colour and groups with a mixture of people from different racial backgrounds were categorized as Other.  Collaborations done by black and white artists together were also categorized as Other. To simplify the data visualization, we only compare Black and White artists (and not Other) within the scope of this blog-post.

Notes:
  • Access our Billboard Hot 100 data set  here.
  • Access our MTV VMA data set  here.
  • We're new to this data journalism thing. So, please feel free to suggest additional visualizations, or point out anything we may have missed or improperly coded!
This post was co-written by TK  Matunda and Lorraine Chuen.