I’m on the phone with a history professor at Indiana University, Bloomington, named Ellen Wu. We’re talking about skin color, identity and how people like us — Americans of East Asian-descent — can describe ourselves.
Wu and I agree that there are many words we could use: Asian American, East Asian, East Asian American. People with roots from South Asia or Southeast Asia sometimes refer to themselves as brown, which seems like a useful shorthand. But for a bunch of reasons, brown doesn’t work for East Asians. I’m wondering if there’s a parallel word for us.
I pose this question, a little hesitantly: What about yellow?
Wu sucks in a breath. Her gut reaction is, No! The word, she says, is too fraught. Using it would be like painting our skin with a sickly, mustard sheen, or writing a nasty word on our foreheads. “Yellow” has long been considered noxious. To some, it’s on par with Chink, Gook, Nip or Chinaman.
And yet. And yet. I sort of love yellow. The idea of calling myself yellow stirs in the pit of my stomach, the same place where belly aches and excitement form. It feels at once radical and specific. Though it’s a slur — in fact, because it’s a slur — it’s the type of word that could force people to face its long, storied history of racism and resistance directly, every time they heard it.
So, what about yellow?
One of my most vivid childhood memories is of watching Mighty Morphin Power Rangers after school with my two older sisters. I’d nestle into the couch beside them as they started on their homework, watching the Rangers shapeshift into things more powerful than their human selves.
Even at a young age, I understood the Rangers’ color-coded suits. Pink equalled female (white female, of course). Black was black.
And the yellow Ranger? She was played by Thuy Trang, an actress of Vietnamese descent. And though I loved her, her costume confused me. My skin wasn’t yellow. I didn’t know anyone who did have yellow skin.
In recent years, former Power Rangers cast members and producers have said that race had nothing to do with their costumes. Yet, as a child, it seemed clear to me that by the calculus of race in America, yellow meant Asian.
So how did yellow come to signify East Asian? How did the color morph into something that could inspire fear, outrage and even empowerment?
And given all the word’s baggage, why am I so intrigued by the idea of reclaiming it?
When and why yellow was first applied to people of East Asian descent is rather murky. The process occurred over hundreds of years. As some scholars have noted, it’s not like there were people with yellow skin. The whole “yellow equals Asian” thing had to be invented. And in fact, there was a time when there was no such thing as “Asian” — even that had to be invented.
Enter Carl Linnaeus, an influential Swedish physician and botanist who’s now known as the “father of modern taxonomy.” In 1735, Linnaeus separated humans into four groups, including Homo asiaticus — Asian Man. The other three categories, European, African and American, already had established — albeit arbitrary — colors: white, black and red. Linnaeus, searching for a distinguishing color for his Asian Man, eventually declared Asians the color “luridus,” meaning “lurid,” “sallow,” or “pale yellow.”
I get this bit of history from Michael Keevak, a professor at National Taiwan University, who writes in his book Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking that “Luridus also appeared in several of Linnaeus’s botanical publications to characterize unhealthy and toxic plants.”
Keevak argues that these early European anthropologists used “yellow” to refer to Asian people because “Asia was seductive, mysterious, full of pleasures and spices and perfumes and fantastic wealth.” Yellow had multiple connotations, which included both “serene” and “happy,” as well as “toxic” and “impure.”
He tells me that there was “something dangerous, exotic and threatening about Asia that ‘yellow’ … helped reinforce.”
Which might explain why the fear that East Asian countries would take over the West became known as yellow peril.
One of the first references to “yellow peril” can be traced to a dream that the German emperor Wilhelm II — best known for his bombastic political maneuvering in the years before, and during, World War I — had in 1895. In the dream, the emperor saw a Buddha on the back of a dragon, storming Europe. He commissioned an illustration of the dream, which he shared with leaders of Europe and the United States. The work, by the artist Hermann Knackfuss, depicted an archangel trying to persuade various European nations to band together to defend a womanly figure from the so-called yellow forces of Asia. It was titled “Peoples of Europe, Defend Your Holiest Possessions,” and it appeared in 1898 in Harper’s Weekly, which had hundreds of thousands of readers in the U.S. The image was widely referred to as “THE YELLOW PERIL.”
Not surprisingly, anxiety about Asia made its way into pop culture, too. In 1913, the British author Sax Rohmer created a fictional villain, Dr. Fu Manchu. The doctor — with his long, scraggly moustache and jaundiced-looking skin — became an unofficial template for portraying Chinese men as lecherous and maniacal. Fu Manchu made his on-screen debut in 1923 in The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu, and he stuck around well into the 21st century. I’ve heard his name used countless times in the manner of nonsensical — but racist — playground taunts. So it wasn’t terribly surprising when, in 2013, General Motors pulled an ad that featured women who say “ching-ching, chop suey” and referred to China as “the land of Fu Manchu.”
In 1956, Marvel’s short-lived Yellow Claw comic featured a villain of the title’s name. He was drawn with a bald head, long scraggly beard, slanted eyes, and, yes, fingers that resembled claws. True to the name, his skin had a distinct yellow hue.
That was all make-believe. The real-life consequence of vilifying a race included things like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese immigration to the United States until 1943; the violence against hundreds of Filipino farmworkers in Exeter and Watsonville, Calif., who were mobbed and driven out of their homes by white Americans in 1929 and 1930; and the incarceration of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.
For as long as Asians have lived in the United States, white people have been trying to label us: who we are, what we look like and how we should be described. It was also white people who defined our terminology — for many decades, “Orientals” was the moniker of choice. (And when people hurled slurs at us, we’ve been called Chinamen, Japs, gooks, Asiatics, Mongols and Chinks.)
That started to shift in the 1960s.
That’s when the term “Asian American” was born. At the time, it was linked to political advocacy. Yuji Ichioka, then a graduate student and activist at the University of California, Berkeley, who would later become a leading historian and scholar, is widely credited with coining the term.
This period, often referred to as the Yellow Power Movement, was one of the first times these disparate people — Korean Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Japanese Americans, Indian Americans, Laotian Americans, Cambodian Americans, to name only some — grouped themselves under one pan-ethnic identity.
There was power in numbers, which Ichioka knew as founder of the Asian American Political Alliance. In a letter and questionnaire to new members, AAPA made clear that its organization was not just advocating for the creation of Asian American studies courses, but for broader social causes. That included adopting socialist policies and supporting the Black Liberation Movement, the Women’s Liberation Movement, and anti-Vietnam and anti-imperialist efforts.
Spurred in part by the activism of the times, the term “Asian American” rose to popularity. It also helped that the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was passed, allowing an influx of Asian immigrants to the U.S.
But over the years, the term Asian American revealed itself to be a complicated solution to the problem of identity.
For one thing, most people who technically fit into the “Asian American” category refer to themselves based on their ethnic group or country of origin, according to the National Asian American Survey (NAAS).
Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, and the leader of NAAS, says he and his colleagues found that most Americans think of “Asian Americans” as East Asians. That’s despite the fact that East Asians make up the smallest regional subset of Asian Americans.
Karen Ishizuka, who wrote Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties, says that “Asian American” is still an important identifier because of the political power it has carried for decades. But it’s crucial for people to be educated about what it once meant, she says, because the term has become “more like an adjective now, rather than a political identity.”
Ramakrishnan and Ishizuka seem to reinforce why I’ve been searching for a term like yellow. In all my conversations about this issue, I’ve found myself remarking how the question of “What about yellow?” feels so hair-pullingly existential. Maybe it’s because Asian American seems like it’s been watered down from activism to adjective. I find myself wanting a label that cuts a little deeper.
In 1969, a Japanese American activist named Larry Kubota wrote a manifesto called “Yellow Power!” that was published in Gidra, a radical magazine created by Asian American activists at UCLA.
His words were a rallying cry. “Yellow power is a call for all Asian Americans to end the silence that has condemned us to suffer in this racist society and to unite with our black, brown and red brothers of the Third World for survival, self-determination and the creation of a more humanistic society,” he wrote.
Kubota wasn’t the only one using yellow in a new and different way.
Ishizuka tells me about a bunch of different groups in the 1960s and 1970s: Yellow Seeds was a radical organization in Philadelphia that published a bilingual English-Chinese newspaper of the same name. The Yellow Identity Symposium was a conference at Berkeley that helped ignite the Third World Liberation strikes. The Yellow Brotherhood was an Asian group made up mostly of former gang members in Los Angeles that tried to disband gangs and curb drug addiction. Yellow Pearl, a play on “yellow peril,” was a music project started by an activist group in New York’s Chinatown.
I call up Russell Leong. He’s a professor emeritus at UCLA, was the long-time editor of the radical Amerasia journal. As a kid, he used to make Yellow Power posters in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
“Do you call yourself yellow?” I ask him.
“That’s an interesting question,” Leong says. “If I’m with a group of yellow people like my close friends, I’ll call myself a Chink, a Chinaman, a yellow. But in public, I’m not gonna call anyone else that …. it depends what I’m comfortable with. It’s the same with my English or Chinese name. Sometimes I’ll use my American name. Sometimes I’ll use my Chinese name.”
Whatever the word, he adds, “I think it’s better that we have more words to describe ourselves.”
I get it. Despite the incompleteness of any one term, together they can become a powerful tool.
Still, if there were no term like “Asian American” — if it didn’t exist, if we gave up on it entirely — then what could we have to anchor ourselves? After all, it’s not just about a word; it’s about an entire identity.
Ellen Wu, the historian from Indiana, digs into that point: “To circle back to this question of, do we use something like yellow or brown? … Why do we even feel like we have to?”
Wu acknowledges that we’re always craving words that might come closer to encapsulating who we are.
“I think that invisibility — that feeling that we don’t matter, that worse, we’re statistically insignificant — in some ways really fuels that desire to have a really concise and meaningful way of talking about ourselves,” she says.
I pose all of this to Jenn Fang, an activist and writer who runs the appropriately-named blog Reappropriate.
She’s not so convinced that yellow would resolve the issues that plague Asian American. It might be a useful identifier if yellow was used very intentionally and people knew its history, she says. But it could also fall into the same traps as Asian American. With ubiquity, it could eventually lose its power.
Fang also thinks that if people were to identify as yellow, there would be more people staying in their own lanes, so to speak — that, say, East Asians who call themselves yellow might not advocate on behalf of Asians who call themselves brown.
“Are you reclaiming the slur, or reclaiming our history?” Fang asks me. “The thing I’m concerned about is — is [yellow] a truly reflective way of talking about the East Asian American experience? Is yellow more nuancing? … Or more flattening?”
In the pinnacle of the civil rights era, activists used yellow as a term of empowerment — a term they chose for themselves. In some ways, I’m still seeing that today.
When the director of Crazy Rich Asians, Jon Chu, wanted to include a Mandarin version of Coldplay’s song “Yellow” in a pivotal scene of his movie, some people were concerned that including it might not fly in such a high-profile movie about Asians. But that was exactly Chu’s point. He wrote a letter to the band pleading his case — he wanted to attach something gorgeous to the word.
“If we’re going to be called yellow,” Chu wrote, “we’re going to make it beautiful.”
I can’t help but think back to a group of people I spoke to late last year.
The Yellow Jackets Collective is an activist group, the name an echo of the 1960s. They’re four people in New York City who identify themselves with a wide swath of terms, in addition to yellow: she/her, womxn, brown, Asian American, femme, child of Chinese immigrants, Korean American, 1st gen., first gen. diasporic and “collaborating towards futures that center marginalized bodies.”
I send them an e-mail. “Why yellow?”
They point out that they don’t just walk around the world calling every East Asian person they meet “yellow.”
“Identity ideally is about you and how you feel and what you believe has shaped you,” Michelle Ling responds.
I let Ling’s words percolate. I don’t know if I’ll walk around in the world calling myself yellow — maybe to people who have similar experiences to mine; certainly not around people who’ve flung slurs at me.
Even so, having different words to choose from is itself a comfort. Having yellow in my arsenal makes me feel like my identity doesn’t hinge on just one thing — one phrase, one history or one experience.
After a back-and-forth with the group, something they’ve written stops me in my metaphorical tracks. It’s from the Yellow Jackets mantra; a snapback comment that I can’t help but appreciate:
“We say Yellow again because at our most powerful we are a YELLOW PERIL and those who oppress us should be afraid. We are watching you. We are making moves.”