Racial stereotypes don't die; they don't even fade away. Though Asian
Americans today have "achieved" model minority status in the eyes of the white
majority in America by "pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps" through
our supposedly quiet, dignified demeanor and gritty, "overachieving" work
ethic, the terms of the racial discrimination we face remain the same today
as they have since the first Asians began settling en masse in the United States
more than a century and a half ago. At the root of this discrimination is the
idea of a "Yellow Peril," which, in the words of John Dower is "the
core imagery of apes, lesser men, primitives, children, madmen, and beings
who possessed special powers" amidst a fear of invasion from the sleeping
giant of Asia. Since its inception in the late 19th century, the idea of the
Yellow Peril has colored the discourse regarding Asian Americans and has changed
back and forth from overt, "racist hate," to endearing terms of what
Frank Chin describes as "racist love." In times of war, competition
or economic strife, Asian Americans are the evil enemy; in times of ease, Asian
Americans are the model minority able to assimilate into American society.
What remains the same is that the discrimination, whether overt or not, is
The Yellow Peril first became a major issue in the United
States in California in the 1870s when white working-class laborers,
of losing their jobs
amidst an economic decline, discriminated against the "filthy yellow hordes" from
Asia, leading to the national Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which not only
prohibited immigration from China but forbade legal residents from becoming
citizens. According to the famed orator of the time, Horace Greeley, "The
Chinese are uncivilized, unclean, and filthy beyond all conception without
any of the higher domestic or social relations; lustful and sensual in their
dispositions; every female is a prostitute of the basest order."
This idea of an "Asian menace" was later applied to the Japanese,
particularly after Japan's victory over a Western power, Russia, in the Russo-Japanese
War of 1904-5 after it had faced more than a half-century of Western imperialism.
According to John Dower, "the vision of the menace from the East was always
more racial rather than national. It derived not from concern with any one
country or people in particular, but from a vague and ominous sense of the
vast, faceless, nameless yellow horde: the rising tide, indeed, of color." This
feeling of impending doom from the East led to the 1917 Immigration Restriction
Act and the National Origins Act of 1924-two acts that prevented nearly all
Asian immigrants from legally entering the United States and prohibited immigrants
already in the United States from attaining citizenship.
The height of a fear of the Yellow Peril happened immediately after Japan's
attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, leading the United States to
enter into the Pacific War. Popular imagery of the time, particularly through
political cartoons (some done even by our beloved Dr. Seuss) debased the Japanese
as subhuman apes and gorillas, treacherous in nature and though morally corrupt
and mentally and physically lesser to the Americans, possessing in superhuman
endurance, strength, sheer overwhelming numbers and mystical powers. This viewpoint
of the Japanese as subhuman and treacherous not only led to a race war with
Japan, allowing atrocities such as the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima
and Nagasaki to happen, but also fueled the movement towards herding Japanese
Americans into internment camps with Executive Order 9066, issued on February
While the Japanese and Japanese Americans faced the full
wrath of the racism of the Yellow Peril, the Chinese (and the Chinese
Americans by extension),
the allies of the United States in the Asian theater, felt "racist love." Even
though they still faced racial discrimination and were denied citizenship and
barred from immigrating into the United States until 1943, they were seen as
the good Asians compared to the Japanese. The problem for them, however, was
that it is hard to distinguish a Chinese from a Japanese-they suffered from
the stereotype that "all Asians look alike." Immediately after
Pearl Harbor, Time magazine printed this helpful guide on how to distinguish
Chinese and Japanese:
Virtually all Japanese are short. Japanese are likely to be stockier and broader-hipped
than short Chinese. Japanese are seldom fat; they often dry up and grow lean
as they age. Although both have the typical epicanthic fold of the upper eyelid,
Japanese eyes are usually set closer together. The Chinese expression is likely
to be more placid, kindly, open; the Japanese more positive, dogmatic, arrogant.
Japanese are hesitant, nervous in conversation, laugh out loud at the wrong
After World War II, however, the coming of the Cold War marked by
the fall of China to Mao Tse-dong in 1949 and the breakout of the Korean
War in 1950 made the Chinese and Chinese Americans enemies to American
society while making Japanese and Japanese Americans allies and friends,
respectively. The same stereotypes applied; what changed was that similar
to World War II, the international situation caused them to be applied
to different groups. With the American occupation in Japan, the Japanese
were now the good, subservient pupils that could learn from the wise,
brotherly whites of America. The Chinese and Chinese Americans were
now the evil, treacherous, indigent communists that were ready to strike
and destroy the fabric of American society. The times had changed but
the stereotypes did not.
Even today, after immigration restricts have been lifted
and almost forty years since the publication of William Petersen's
The New York Times, "Success Story, Japanese-American Style," and
of "Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S." in U.S.
News an World Report in 1966 that coined Asian Americans as a model
minority-a hardworking, intelligent and obedient minority that has
made full use of the "American dream"-the racial stereotypes
and the discrimination we face remain the same as they did throughout
our history in the United States. Some of the very reasons that originally
led to the discrimination against Asians in the past-namely the idea
that Asians who were willing to work hard and for low wages would steal
jobs from working class white Americans-now became reasons for praise.
Yet no matter what, we are still seen as foreigners and not completely
American. The more vicious forms of racism are simply waiting in the
wings to spring up in times of competition and crisis.
As Dower writes regarding U.S.-Japan racial relations, "That vicious
racial stereotypes were transformed, however, does not mean that they
were dispelled. They remain latent, capable of being revised by both
sides in times of crisis and tension." In the 1980s, racism against
Asian Americans erupted when the threat of Japanese economic imperialism
played into the psyche of Americas-particularly after Japanese interests
bought landmarks such as Pebble Beach and Rockefeller Center. The 1982
murder of Vincent Chin by two unemployed auto workers in Detroit who
had thought he was Japanese and blamed him for losing their jobs is
the most salient example of the racist hate during this time. In 2001,
the U.S.-China spy plane incident led some conservatives to argue for
Chinese internment and on a more personal level, induced my father
to tell me to avoid the rural areas of New Hampshire and to emphasize
to people that I was Taiwanese and not a communist.
As Frank Chin writes, "conflict with Asia makes Asian Americans
vulnerable, because there has been a history of anti-Asian moods leading
to anti-Asian American actions. If ordinary people were to act out
their aggressions toward Asia, they would hurt not Asians but Asian
Americans. They cannot reach Asia, but they can easily hit Asian Americans." Indeed,
the Yellow Peril remains alive and well today.
It is sobering and somewhat scary for me that racial discrimination
at its most basic level has not changed from the hysteria of the Yellow
Peril that first began in the United States almost a century and a
half ago. The idea that Asian Americans continue to face discrimination
despite our "achievements" and are still susceptible to outright
racist hate in times of competition and crisis in America is significant
because it shows that however much American society has become more
racially inclusive, in many ways, it remains the same closed society
that our grandparents' generation faced. Laws barring discrimination
are not enough; peoples' values still have to change.
The idea of racial stereotypes and hatred persisting from the Yellow
Peril is shocking because I have always believed that I would be able
to fit into American society. But after reading John Dower's War Without
Mercy, after experiencing racist hate for the first time during the
U.S.-China spy plane incident, and after attending the first few weeks
of this Asian American History class, I am having doubts about my identity
and I am questioning my beliefs. I doubt myself because I am a product
of the "racist love," that Frank Chin talks about-I am basically
the definition of a "model minority." I recognize how the
way in which I have lived my life has simply played into the hands
of white America. I definitely see how I am a banana-yellow on the
outside and white on the inside-and it makes me ashamed.
As a second generation Asian American born in the United States, I
grew up in an all-white suburb and have attended some of the most elite
educational institutions in the United States-Phillips Exeter and now
Dartmouth. As a result, my lifestyle and viewpoints have been those
of white, suburban, northeast America: my friends have mostly always
been white, I have almost always dated white girls and my heroes growing
up were two white hockey players, Mark Messier and Brian Leetch. Though
I have undoubtedly been made fun of and have felt out of place for
being Asian, I have always believed that I would be able to fit in.
Even though I heard the usual epithets of "gook" and "chink," I
largely ignored them and tried to prove myself through my accomplishments.
After all, if I could beat them on the ice rink, on the track, or in
the classroom, I had nothing to be ashamed about. I never really questioned
issues of race until I came to college. I have always been the respectable,
well-mannered boy that parents (even white parents) simply adore. I
am a product of white, suburban America and I have played my role as
member of the model minority to a T.
Growing up, I simply had no idea how this model minority myth sprouted
from the vicious stereotypes of Asians that has persisted in America
and I truly believed that as long as I worked hard and acted responsibly,
I could achieve anything that I wanted. I didn't believe in glass ceilings
and I didn't believe that people could actually hate me only for my
skin color and that I could be seen as a traitor in my own country.
Now I do. The arguments that Dower and Wu make are too well-grounded
for me to dispute.
It is scary thinking how I have benefited from stereotypes that had,
in previous generations and in slightly different forms, barred my
race from entering the United States and led to almost incomprehensible
atrocities during World War II and now, as Vijay Prashad and Frank
Wu argue, are being used to keep African Americans down. It is scary
but race always is an issue and I was simply naïve for thinking
Chin, Frank and Chan, Jeffrey Paul. "Racist Love." In
Richard Kostelanetz, Ed. Seeing
Through Shuck. New York: Ballantine Books, 1972.
Dower, John. War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the
Pacific War. New York:
Pantheon Books, 1986.
Minear, Richard. Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War
II Editorial Cartoons of
Theodore Seuss Geisel. New York: New Press, 1999.
Petersen, William. "Success Story, Japanese-American Style." The
New York Times.
January 9, 1966.
"Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S." U.S.
News and World Report.
December 26, 1966.
Wu, Frank H. Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and
White. New York: Basic
Zia, Helen. Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an
American People. New
York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.