‘Yellow Peril’ and Asian Identity

This is a response I crafted after a day to a post that was about — among other things — ‘yellow’ as an identity, and I think this is something for all of us to think about, but especially East Asian readers.

“So I’ve had some time to marinate on this post for about a day or so and here’s my basic issue. Disclaimer: I am South Asian with upper-caste North Indian Hindu privilege; I am not South-East Asian or black and thus may be stepping out of my lane here a bit.

I find the premise in the first sentence to be a bit flawed. Saying “East Asians are to be known as yellow” plays into a few attitudes and issues, most of them colonial and related to colorism: The construction of a ‘yellow’ race to describe the generally lighter-skinned East Asians without considering them white and the erasure of lighter-skinned non-East Asians, darker-skinned East Asians and ethnic minorities in EA countries who do not conform to the lighter-skinned/’yellow’ standard.

Secondly, I chafe at the idea of ‘yellow’ as an identity to be reclaimed. Plenty of East Asians, as individuals and as a collective, have historically been only too happy to follow assimilation narratives and allow themselves to benefit from white desires to leverage paternalistic concern for (East) Asian model minorities into anti-black rhetoric and policy, most famously and notably in the fight against affirmative action in the United States. Plenty of East Asians STILL parrot the myth that affirmative action is harmful to (East) Asian-Americans for the benefit of black people — which is outright RACIST bullshit. A historical aversion to identifying with other people of color and a desire to cling to the gains made by said distancing does not gel well with any idea of East Asian “pride”, or a newfound realization that East Asians are, in fact, a marginalized group in a white context. I do not wish to erase Asian-American and black solidarity that has existed, even before and through the Civil Rights movement, but I very much would MORE like to not ignore the history of separatism and marginalization practiced by East Asians.

I would chafe less at the idea of a reclamation of ‘yellow’ by East Asians if, for example, ‘Asian-American’ had not come to de facto mean East Asian-American due to the way they have captured and dominate the discourse, or if there were not already a history of racist, imperialist and exclusionary attitudes by East Asian nations against non-East Asian Asian people, but there is. This ‘reclamation’ of ‘yellow’ feels too much like another way to exclude other Asians, another way to dominate the discourse, another way to be centered and live in denial about the harm EAs have perpetrated against other poc.

tl;dr I feel like SEAs should be able to claim ‘yellow’ if they feel it fits them, but the whole construction feels hollow, erasing and revisionist to me. East Asians, please think about this, and everyone, please keep in mind that ‘yellow’ truly does not have the same kind of history of struggle, solidarity and resistance that ‘brown’ and ‘black’ do. Please keep in mind that some things have histories too fraught, too complex and too steeped in the ideology of the aggressor that they cannot be reclaimed or are not worth reclaiming.

I am not the ‘right kind’ of Asian for ‘yellow’, I cannot be a part of something like ‘Yellow Peril supports Black Power’, and given the historical power those with a ‘claim’ to ‘yellow’ have held, this seems suspect. After a long time of being told I’m not Asian, especially, this seems suspect. After a long time of Asians and Asian-Americans (not just EAs this time) stealing from and benefiting from black struggle, black culture and black liberation movements, this seems suspect. I invite everyone to think on this further.”