The Toronto Star by Rakhi Ruparelia 23 August 2012

When does a $100 bill resemble a burger? When the Bank of Canada decides to “neutralize” the image of a woman that seemed to focus group participants to be Asian. Apparently, the new bill, like a Canadian burger, has no recognizable ties to ethnicity. They’re just “regular,” neutral, ethnicity-free entities — in essence, the default category for everything not found in the lone “ethnic food” aisle in my grocery store.

The original image on the bill, an “Asian-looking” woman peering through a microscope, was unsettling to many in the focus groups. One participant from Fredericton suggested: “The person on it appears to be of Asian descent which doesn’t rep(resent) Canada. It is fairly ugly.” Others took issue with the depiction of only one ethnicity. A few suggested that the yellow-brown colouring of the banknote “racialized” the bill and enhanced the perception that the woman was Asian.

Rather than viewing these comments for what they are — racist and illegitimate — the Bank of Canada gave them credence by stripping the contentious image of its “Asian” features. Not surprisingly, the new “neutral” woman appears to be white. In an earlier statement about the issue, a bank spokesperson indicated that in accordance with its policy, “The original image was not designed or intended to be a person of a particular ethnic origin,” which is why it was modified.

There’s no question that the bank messed up. But to his credit, Mark Carney issued an official apology on Monday, noting that the new image “appears to represent only one ethnic group.” While I have trouble envisioning a potentially “all-inclusive” image, I applaud the bank governor’s recognition that white people have ethnicities, too. Just like my burger.

This acknowledgement is critical given the belief by some white Canadians that ethnicity is something “other” people have, a belief reinforced by the bank’s attempt to make the image neutral. The power to deem something “neutral,” “regular” or “other” is the power to set the dominant standard against which we are all compared.

Disturbing remarks about the bill weren’t limited to focus group participants; online news stories generated thousands of comments and many anonymous posters seized on the opportunity to launch into lengthy racist (and sexist) rants about everything from the way Asian women drive and how white men are responsible for every major historical achievement, to how “our” country is being taken over by immigrants. Some contributors sexualized Asian women, commenting on their physical attractiveness or making snide remarks about their involvement with prostitution. Some posts were so foul that moderators removed them.

Even more common were the endless tirades about “political correctness” as a toxin that is polluting the country. People were angry that the bank had even considered using an Asian-looking woman, that others criticized the reversal, and that the news media had bothered to report the story. Now, Carney’s apology has incited a new storm of attacks. It’s disheartening that efforts to be inclusive or anti-racist so often become pejoratively labelled as “politically correct,” as if such initiatives were bad things.

This controversy has brought to the surface some very unattractive truths. It has confirmed the experiences of many racialized people born and raised here and elsewhere: Canada is a society of “regular,” ethnicity-free, white Canadians, and the rest of us — the ethnic “Canadians” — are guests in our own home, tolerated (sort of), but at perpetual risk of overstaying our welcome.

The Bank of Canada’s decision was offensive, but Carney did the right thing by taking responsibility. Now it’s our turn.

As a country, we’re at an important political and social crossroads. The choices that we make moving forward — during the upcoming Quebec election, in response to anti-Muslim racism in reasonable accommodation debates, or in defining the “us” and “them” in Canadian narratives — will reflect our aspirations and commitment as a nation. Such issues demand a cogent, unwavering, unapologetic, anti-racist response.

Are we up for the challenge?

Rakhi Ruparelia is a law professor at the University of Ottawa specializing in issues of racism.