“Rough on Rats,” trade card (c. 1880s). Photo by Phillip Chen.Courtesy of the Lenore-Metrick Chen Collection. (Provided via Dylan Yeats, “Yellow Peril!!: An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear”)
The demonization of Arthur Chu. Racist flyers at UCLA. Racial abuse of the Asian American trainer of the Miami Dolphins. The Asian Grooming Gang Kidnapping Hoax. These are some stories that have recently appeared on Hyphen and other popular AsianAm blogs such as AngryAsianMan.com. One needn’t go further than Twitter to find racist taunting of Chancellors, teenagers, and Miss America based on their Asian American heritage.
One reliable tool in propagating hatred is positioning the Other as an outsider and a threat, the concept of “Yellow Peril” can be traced back to the 15th century, as John Kuo Wei Tchen and Dylan Yeats detail in their book, Yellow Peril!!: An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear, released February 11. The authors found that, “In roughly 1425, Bernard Mandeville wrote, “It es grete peril to pursue be [by] Tartarenes [Tartars of the Mongol armies].”
As they demonstrate in the book, the assignation of “Yellow” was among the features that Scottish editor and phrenologist Robert Chambers (among many others) attributed to “the Monglian form”. This “form” was described as, at “the arrested infant” and “degenerate” stage of development toward the “marked features of the true Caucasian”, which are “perfectly developed.” (Robert Chambers, “The Development of Color” 1844)
“The Jolly Giant’s Artist Agrees with Darwin.” Thistleton’s Jolly Giant, The Critic, vol. 2, no. 19 (Feburary 21, 1874) cover. Courtesy of the Wong Ching Foo Collection. (Provided via Dylan Yeats, “Yellow Peril!!: An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear”)
I talked to Yeats via Skype about current anti-Asian and Asian American sentiment, and how Yellow Peril is alive and well.
“Comparative Anatomy of Races.” Types of Mankind: or, Ethnological Researches, Based Upon the Ancient Monuments, Paintings, Sculptures, and Crania of Races, and Upon their Natural, Geographical, Philological, and Biblical History, ed. Josiah Clark Nott, George Robin Gliddon,et al. (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo, & Co., 1854) 457. Courtesy of the New York Public Library. (Provided via Dylan Yeats, “Yellow Peril!!: An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear”)
Hyphen: Your book focuses on overt examples of racism, but subtle and unspoken racism still exists. How do you keep both manifestations relevant and recognizable?
Yeats: We are trying to mine a world-view or a feeling that permeates our culture. This feeling structures our responses, both analytical and practical, for what we imagine to be happening in the world. It’s easy to imagine that the world is made up of Good vs. Bad, East vs. West, Us vs. Them. It’s clear that’s not true and everything is more complicated. The binary thinking gets us into trouble. Take the case of Muslims in America before 9/11. Subtle racism and xenophobia of course pervaded American society. Everyday fears over different outlooks, traditions, and foods ostracized many communities. These mundane forms of othering also served as the backdrop for reckless academics who depicted tensions in the Middle East as a clash of cultures rather than a conflict over specific policies.
There’s a long history of discrimination against Asians, but it’s seldom talked about in mainstream culture or even history books. As evidenced by the pieces contained in your book, the reasons are multi-layered and varied. Can you offer an explanation?
One of the things we have tried to show in our book, though there is much more work to be done, is that because there is a tradition of creating an imagined “West” against an opposing imagined “East” that has built up over the centuries, when people who want to think of themselves as “Western” find themselves desperate to understand why their fantasies of dominance or superiority aren’t working, they have a go-to scapegoat in imagined “Orientals.” This deflects some of the troublesome guilt, fear, and rage they have about their own heroes. This works very differently in different times and places, because the specifics are so unique, but the broader pattern remains the same: It’s not “Our” fault, it’s all because of “Them,” whether it be Jews or Communists, Japanese competition, Chinese immigrants, or the “threat” of Islam.
What were some of the things that stunned or surprised you in researching the book?
The sheer volume of material both confirmed our suspicions but also shocked us. Yellow Peril was not a fringe phenomenon. In the book we include images from Ripley’s Believe it or Not! and Dr. Seuss, and if we could have secured copyright we would have added stills from Disney’s WWII-era films (Google them).
Initially we were going to focus on the 20th century, but the deeper we pried, the farther and farther back we pushed our analysis. Once you start digging into this sort of material you see it everywhere, but we were amazed at all the connections to be made, not only between “Orientalized” groups, but also between fields of scholarship that don’t think of themselves as in conversation with each other. These discoveries pushed our book into a new direction.
There’s only a short amount of essays regarding racism occuring in the 21st century. Why?
We decided that we wanted this book to be something that could serve as a basis for further study. We tried to bring together existing materials that aren’t often seen as part of the same scholarly fields and traditions, almost as a “here’s where we are” volume so that readers can take this analysis further with more contemporary relevance. Part of the point we want to make is just how old some of these ways of thinking are. We have a tendency to imagine the China threat, for example, as based in a new global reality. Once we see that these imagined civilizational contests have been repeated for centuries, we can see that our failure to know this history is the only reason the present seems so new and threatening.
Harper’s Weekly, vol. 42, no. 2144 (January 22, 1898) 76. Courtesy of the New York Public Library. (Provided via Dylan Yeats, “Yellow Peril!!: An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear”)
I found it interesting that very little explored intra-cultural and inter-cultural racism distinguishing amongst Asian ethnicities. The Newsweek graphic on Japanese features during World War II was certainly an obvious omission. Can you explain why this wasn’t explored?
We really tried to focus this book on overarching patterns of demonizing Oriental others within mainstream Anglo American culture, and tried to show how these patterns emerged from European imperialist ideas of the West and were reproduced again and again over time. Because of space constraints we weren’t able to get at some of the subtleties of how this worked between groups, who was good and who was bad at any one time, or how groups used these temporary designations to their advantage. We now know that our leaders never really understood any of these conflicts, and we’re stuck picking up the pieces. The key then, is to challenge this form of thinking generally, not in terms of specific ethnic representations. We felt that taking this together as a whole would help make sense of the long tradition more easily.
What was your intention with the book and what response or reaction do you aim for?
We hope that the book will make readers pause the next time they see or hear analysis of the world as divided between East and West, or scapegoating Orientals for the nation’s problems.
Autoworld exhibition poster, Flint, MI(1984). Photo: Helen Zia. Courtesy of Helen Zia. (Provided via Dylan Yeats, “Yellow Peril!!: An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear”)
You do find some humor in the various images in your book. Why did you feel that that was important to convey?
We wanted to keep the book as light as possible in order to draw readers in. Satire is often a very effective response to this material, because it can take itself so seriously, but in fact most of it is quite absurd. We also wanted to acknowledge that much of this material is effective precisely because it is pleasurable at some level to the people who consume it.
Why is it important for people to look at the subtle racism through a historical lens?
We argue that each of us, in our own way, participates in the recycling and reproduction of this way of thinking from generation to generation. Once we are aware of this, we can then ask if that’s something we want or need to do, and hopefully begin to reproduce something different, and I would add, better able to make sense of the world.