Ismaili Muslims have periodically been referred to as a “model minority” in Canada because of their self-reliance, entrepreneurialism, and high levels of education. However, the playwright of a new Vancouver theatre production about the community—The Wrong Bashir—takes exception to this characterization.
“That’s something that we have kind of grown up with as Ismailis,” Zahida Rahemtulla acknowledges to Pancouver over Zoom.
But after working in the non-profit sector assisting Syrian refugees, she’s “really cautious” about using the term “model minority”.
According to her, it has potential to damage members of certain communities. That’s because different groups of refugees and immigrants have certain advantages over others.
For example, many of the Ismaili refugees who moved from East Africa in the 1970s attended outstanding English-language schools. Therefore, they grew up speaking the language and didn’t have to master it after arriving in Canada.
“The Aga Khan helped,” Rahemtulla says. “We have a good leader. He helped set up the schools. Because of that, they had a great education.”
Other refugees have not been fluent in English upon their arrival, making their transition more difficult.
Rahemtulla wrote The Wrong Bashir, a comedy about mistaken identity, which is at the Firehall Arts Centre until March 12. Touchstone Theatre is presenting the play in association with the Firehall Arts Centre and Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre.
The playwright doesn’t minimize the hardship that members of her community faced when Ugandan dictator expelled them and all other Asians from the country in 1972. Approximately 6,000 Ugandan Asians came to Canada that year, including 5,000 Ismailis.
“Although there was some violence before they left, it was nothing like the type of violence and trauma that a lot of groups that come to Canada experienced before,” Rahemtulla states.
UBC report decried Model Minority Myth
She notes the damage from using the term “model minority” comes when people expect one group of refugees one to achieve the same progress as another despite their differences.
Rahemtulla is far from the only person with concerns about the “model minority” term. It also received considerable attention in UBC’s 2021 Final Report of the National Forum on Anti-Asian Racism.
Convened by then UBC president Santa Ono, the forum facilitated conversations on what might be driving a growing tide of xenophobia, discrimination, and racism directed at people of Asian ancestry since the start of the pandemic.
“The perception of universal success among Asian Canadians is inaccurate,” the report noted. “Asians are more likely to live in poverty than white Canadians, and the Model Minority Myth leads to the erasure of both internal and external challenges these populations face.”
Moreover, this “Model Minority Myth” suggests that Asians in Western society “have overcome past discrimination through individual effort and hard work to become a disproportionately socioeconomically successful minority group”.
“This mythology has been used to argue that inequities of the past can be overcome through hard work alone,” the report added. “In addition, the Model Minority Myth serves to elevate Asians as a ‘model’ for overcoming racism, and thus justifies the ongoing exclusion of other racialized non-whites. In both Canada and the United States, the Model Minority Myth distorts ongoing realities of discrimination and systemic racism.”
Touchstone Theatre will present The Wrong Bashir in association with the Firehall Arts Centre and Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre at the Firehall Arts Centre from March 2 to 12. For more information and tickets, visit the Touchstone Theatre website. Follow Pancouver editor Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.