“Quand j’étais à Boston, où j’ai passé un an, j’ai été surpris de voir que sur le campus, à peu près le tiers des étudiants qui étaient au bac avaient les yeux bridés.”
— André Boisclair, March 14, talking to students in Trois-Rivières about the increasing employment competition from the emerging Asian market.
It was the last two words “yeux bridés” that set off a storm of comment, questioning and condemnation from journalists, racism watchdogs and citizens alike, many demanding an apology. Others, particularly in the English media, accused Boisclair of everything from insensitivity to racism.
“Yeux bridés” or ‘slanting eyes’, depending on which side of the two solitudes you stand on, can be translated in many ways. But the most widely accepted is something along the lines of eyes that are slanted, slit or narrow depending in which dictionary you look.
The hubbub that ensued over Boisclair’s use of the term “yeux bridés” prompted many invocations of the famous “two solitudes” argument, particularly by francophones.
For the uninitiated, invoking the two solitudes in this case is tantamount to saying simply, “English Canadians are PC” and “There is nuance in the French language that anglos couldn’t possibly understand.”
So by that reasoning for French speakers, calling a group of Asian students ‘slant-eyed’ is a good thing.
Right, I get it, nuance.
But just one question. What is so nuanced about singling out the physical attributes of a particular ethnic group in order to name them?
Using the term “les yeux bridés” when speaking about people of Asian descent is about as nuanced as calling a Dalmatian “Spot.”
Boisclair has ardently defended his words stating “I regularly, frequently use this expression and have absolutely no intention of apologizing.”
In fact, many francophones who aren’t necessarily fans of Boisclair or the PQ have defended his use of the term.
When asked whether or not he thought the words could be construed as offensive, he replied “I’m doing politics not linguistics.” In other words, “the words I use don’t really matter.”
Words aren’t important to politicians? But aren’t words a politician’s prime commodity? That’s why you have debates, André. That’s why you have the pretty bus, so you can spread those words in all their wise (or in this case misjudged) glory.
But Boisclair can hardly be blamed for being self-righteous in this case. Francophone Quebec has stereotypes, prejudice and outright bigotry deeply woven into its language and culture.
A prime example of the depth of the problem is an anti-racism ad that ran under the PQ government a few years ago, proclaiming “Les Yeux Bridés le coeur Quebecois” or “Slanted eyes Quebecois Heart”.
Proving that even anti-racist propaganda in Quebec contains a certain measure of racism.
This is not surprising when you look at the complicated relationship Quebecers have with immigration and diversity. “Pur laine” Quebecers are on the decline. With this decline comes anxiety about losing one’s culture and fear of assimilation to something foreign.
When you fear assimilation, the need to distinguish yourself from the other intensifies, and differentiation can quickly lead to marginalization.
This fear means that it is common for instance to ridicule the accents of Haitian and African francophones in mainstream Quebec media.
For an example of this, listen to any Montreal radio morning show. For further proof one has only to consult the Qu