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Why is that Asian woman on our banknotes? (She isn’t anymore)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012
posted by Rita Handrich

This story isn’t actually about money. We’ve written a fair amount about American bias against Asians. And we’re not alone. Friendly and liberal Canada appears to have the same issues with Asian Canadians.

Apparently, the Bank of Canada was using focus groups to “test” their new $100 banknotes prior to release. The image on the banknote was an “Asian-looking woman scientist”. And much like our mock jurors, the focus group participants went down a rabbit trail. This particular rabbit trail was ethnicity-based. Multiculturalism hit a wall.

Here are some of the comments from the focus group participants. The comments are characterized in the report, rather than quoted, and appear to have been “sanitized” for presentation to the Bank of Canada.

“Some believe that it presents a stereotype of Asians excelling in technology and/or the sciences. Others feel that an Asian should not be the only ethnicity represented on the banknotes. Other ethnicities should also be shown.”

A few even said the yellow-brown color of the $100 banknote reinforced the perception that the woman was Asian, and “racialized” the note. 

“The person on it appears to be of Asian descent which doesn’t rep(resent) Canada. It is fairly ugly.”

Apparently there were also concerns that the Asian woman was on such a large denomination of banknote ($100) rather than on a smaller and less valuable banknote. Wow. So. The Bank of Canada went back to the drawing board and “neutralized” the woman’s ethnicity. In other words, they made her look Caucasian.

Asian Canadians are insulted and hurt. There are comments that the Bank of Canada’s decision to “neutralize her ethnicity” amounts to an overly sensitive reaction to racist comments and the Bank is being criticized for not standing by the original design. Not surprisingly, the bank isn’t commenting on the controversy.

Ethnocentrism is everywhere. It’s all of us. This real-life tale serves as further evidence that when we see people “different” than us, we unconsciously reject the person by finding excuses to reject them for reasons unrelated to any salient issue before us. It’s a powerful lesson we often learn about (and often in very disturbing detail) in pretrial research.

It doesn’t really matter if the issue is gender, age, ethnicity, religious predilection, sexual orientation, disability status or whatever difference. Differences tend to divide. Our task is to identify how the specific case “divides” and figure out how to refocus attention on similarities despite differences and thereby reduce bias. Ultimately, the “different” person needs to become familiar for us to be comfortable.

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