Who’s Afraid of Being Yellow?

The ambiguous term "Asian American" has its uses, but we need a more precise word to talk about the "yellow" racial experience.

a year ago

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If you go to Asian American online spaces, a discussion will inevitably arise about the definition of “Asian” and inclusivity. Often, it comes in the form of someone saying that “Asian” doesn’t just mean East Asian (and sometimes also Southeast Asian). There will be calls to include more South Asians, Pacific Islanders, and so forth. Occasionally, you’ll even encounter the “Russians are Asians too!” line of argument from someone who remembers middle school geography.

It’s a tiresome argument because it confuses a geographical term (Asian) with a racial one (yellow). In America, what most people mean when they say “Asian” is the racial definition. Nobody really cares about geography. Just think of how meaningless “North American” would be if used as a racial category.

Asia is the world’s biggest and most diverse continent, one that should actually include Europe if Asia includes South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. It shouldn’t be hard to acknowledge that one can be Asian yet have different racial experiences due to the continent’s diversity. (By the way, is there any effort in the United Kingdom to include yellow Asians in their definition of Asian, which mainly refers to brown Asians? Honest question.)

There is clearly a political benefit to an expansive definition of “Asian American.” If an AAPI organization is seeking to flex political influence, it presumably helps to have more numbers. But in online spaces, political operatives aren’t the ones pushing for expansiveness. It’s everyday people. So what’s their stake in this?

Perhaps this is all just a vocabulary problem. As a geographical term, “Asian” stands apart from white, black, or brown. Do we simply need to choose a color? But if this is the solution, I haven’t seen a big push for it. Many (yellow) Asian Americans complain about how narrowly “Asian American” is used, but I see much less effort to then find a replacement term for that narrower definition. Terms like “Oriental” are instantly rejected due to its weird colonial connotations and some people just seem to have the problem with the color yellow. Then… the conversation stops, which leads me to believe that some of this drive for inclusivity is really about the yellow American’s perpetual fear of being too yellow.

Almost every yellow American has that moment when they’ve worried about being around too many other yellows. We’ve probably all had, or have, those embarrassing moments when we’re too eager to bring along the white friend to a yellow gathering to show off how sociable we are. This fear of being too yellow isn’t unfounded. On its own, yellowness hasn’t had much value in America. Yellowness is ostracized for not being white, yet it receives much less of the moral, political, and social capital that blackness and brownness does. Yellow Americans are often seen as co-white people, which leaves us without much standing among social progressives (unless we can add on another identity like gender or sexual orientation). But a long history of war and conflict, not to mention just plain xenophobia, means our place among white people is precarious.

Yes, some yellow American groups have high income levels, but that is no basis for an identity or a community, especially when those income levels make you the pawns and targets of both major American political parties. We are stuck in an uncomfortable place where we’re marginalized enough to loath ourselves, but too well-off to gain any sympathy for it. Thus, the ambiguity of “Asian American” is perfectly suited to de-yellow our identities. We repackage our embarrassing insecurities into seemingly grand calls for inclusivity, hoping to come off like our white social superiors.

Image of "Tenth of December" by George Saunders

It’s a pretender’s noblesse oblige, as if yellow Asian Americans realize our lack of power and try to mask it by adopting the behaviors of the white liberal elite. In George Saunders’s short story Al Roosten, an embittered and unsuccessful shopkeeper tries to show up a hated, more successful peer by matching him donation for donation at a charity event. Much like how that character is giving away money he doesn’t have in order to falsely project strength, so are yellow Asian Americans. In America, only white people could’ve come up with the idea of inclusivity because it’s mainly white people who’ve occupied spaces worth seeking inclusion. The idea of yellow people fretting about inclusivity is laughable when so many yellow people ourselves don’t want to be “Asian.” It’s like worrying about your annual donation to the children’s hospital when you can’t even afford the monthly gas bill.

The premature obsession with inclusivity also touches upon the disturbing idea of yellowness as the perfect complementary element. This is why Asian fusion cuisine is so popular. Even creepier, it explains why mixed-race yellow children are so coveted by some. Yellowness on its own is too much, like an overly pungent cheese. But when tempered and diluted by something else? Perfection. And thus, every yellow person seeks to be accepted as that complementary element by some other group and escape the limitations of stinky cheesedom.

Even this newfound pride in being yellow has to be looked upon with suspicion if it’s so dependent on non-yellow approval. If Crazy Rich Asians was good but flopped, how many of us would’ve embraced it? If David Chang and Eddie Huang weren’t so enthusiastically embraced by non-yellows, how heroic to us would they be? If To All The Boys I Loved Before didn’t have a white male love interest, how appealing would it have been to yellow girls? If we didn’t see so many non-yellow girls screaming for BTS, how many yellow guys would care about kpop?

Maybe in some yellow enclaves like the San Gabriel Valley, yellow Americans have indeed obtained such power and status that they’re at the stage of real noblesse oblige, not wannabe noblesse oblige. But the SGV is not the majority of yellow America.

I recently tweeted the above in reaction to some people demanding why (yellow) Asians weren’t celebrating Kamala Harris as an Asian American pioneer. Firstly, are there even any brown Asians upholding her as a pioneer when she doesn’t even openly identify that much as Asian? If so, why would yellow Asians? Despite being from the same continent, brown and yellow Asians have significantly different experiences. Imagine if yellow Asians tried to use the Oak Creek murders as our Vincent Chin Pt. 2. For good reason, there would be something completely off about that.

Secondly, some of the replies I received expressed disgust at the color yellow. They said it was the color of cowardice, piss, jaundice, etc. Every color has its negative connotations (e.g. white is surrender, black is evil, brown is shit), but if people are so inclined, let’s scrap yellow and pick another color or word to recognize what we all know to be yellowness.

What is yellowness? It could be one of those things that’s difficult to define but easy to recognize. I would propose some central pillars: (1) People who look like you have a history of war or economic rivalry with Western nations, especially America, (2) dehumanization via hypersexualization of the women, (3) dehumanization via emasculation/desexualization of the men, and (4) you’re liable to get hit with the ching-chong and eye-pull taunts. This definition would encompass most, perhaps all, of East and Southeast Asia.

This criteria may need further refinement, but it at least would start to capture what most of us mean when we say “Asian” in the American context. This doesn’t mean the comity between the diverse Asian American groups has to end. We are similar in some ways, but we’re also critically different in others and we need to be able to talk about that. Whether we use “yellow” or “Oriental” or something completely new, the most important thing is come up with something more precise to mean what we’re actually intending to say. Or else, we’ll get bogged down in pointless debates over wordplay.

And if you’d count as as an Asian who fits this criteria and you’re vehemently against recognizing our unique experiences, what are you afraid of? We actually do have legitimate fears that the West would not react too kindly to the coalescing of this yellow identity. But then let’s be honest about that and stop bullshitting that this is actually about noble inclusivity.


Follow Chris on Twitter: @JesuInToast


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Chris Jesu Lee

Published a year ago