Yellow Peril and the American Dream by Catherine Chung

Spotted this on The Rumpus courtesy of a link from Angry Asian Man. An Asian-American woman takes the timeout to write an in-depth piece about microaggressions, racial scapegoating, and the changing face of the United States as part of a reaction to an offensive Facebook “status update” her friend made.

By Catherine Chung

“No one is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart: for his purity, by definition, is unassailable.”
― James Baldwin

Last Christmas, my oldest friend, a girl I’ve known since we were ten years old, posted an image on her Facebook wall about how we should all buy American-made goods over the holiday season to help the economy we’re all so worried about. While I agreed with the sentiment, I was caught off guard by her comment underneath, “I reary rike this.” At the time, I hid the whole post from my feed and said nothing, but her comment triggered about five thousand angry alarms inside my brain. I am the child of Korean immigrants who spoke English with accents, and someone who grew up enduring taunts of “ching-chong” gibberish. I am an American who has been asked where I am “from” for as long as I can remember. My friend probably could not have imagined the sense of outrage she triggered, or how I would seethe at her comment in front of my computer screen. I’m certain she thought she was making fun of the Chinese—which in itself is problematic—without considering how she was parroting the ways we make fun of Asian Americans of all stripes, the ones who work and live in America, and speak with foreign accents.

I got used to such carelessness growing up, but lately, the familiarity has bred impatience in me rather than tolerance. Lately, the warning bells that warn me to duck for cover have been clanging away nonstop, making me realize that maybe it’s not a question of carelessness, but of a much larger problem. They went off when my friend said of an Asian man we both know, “And he’s such a success story—he got to marry a white woman!” They went off again when another friend asked me how the really squinty-eyed people can see, and then quickly amended that he wasn’t talking about Asians per se, just you know—people who live with squints.

These same friends are also all good people who have told me how they are outraged by racism, hurt by it, bewildered. And sometimes that’s what makes it so frustrating: how difficult it is to talk about race even with them, people I know are on my side, because the conversation inevitably becomes one about how they’re not racist, how they’re not even, when it comes down to it, white.

The bulk of these conversations end with me reassuring them that I know they mean well, and then insisting as gently as I know how that if I have to be yellow, if blacks have to be blacks, and so on, then they have to be white. The truth is that they don’t realize that it is the particular privilege of the white to say they don’t “feel” white, that they’re not bound to “white” culture. And that casual dismissal, that simple, blind, unwitting privilege, always makes me angry.

I understand my anger might be misplaced, unfair, ungenerous. At its deepest level, it’s probably born of envy. It’s so easy for them to casually disavow their race, as if it were a matter of personal choice. If only it were so easy for the rest of us.

I don’t believe my friends mean to be racist, but if we tell ourselves we have no relationship to racism, that we don’t participate and aren’t complicit in perpetuating racial inequality in a hundred different ways each day, we’re kidding ourselves. Myself included. My own silence in the face of discomfort is complicity. We are terrified of racial guilt. But when we’re too afraid to actually deal with what’s happening in the world, to acknowledge our responsibility or what’s at stake, we will be doomed to miss the point over and over again. And maybe I should stop being surprised that we do miss the point, in private, in public, even when reading the news or a book, or going to the movies.

Take, for example, the New York Times article published last October about how Asian students are dominating admissions at high-stakes testing schools, and the outrage around that. And the novel The Orphan Master’s Son, a book about a North Korean orphan that, if you close your eyes and replace the words “North Korea” with “the Wild West” is nothing so much as he is the North American fantasy of the cowboy. And of course most recently there is the movie Cloud Atlas, which features white actors playing Asians in yellowface. (Perhaps we can ask them if they found it difficult to see.)

The title of the New York Times article made me wary before I began: “For Asians, School Tests are Vital Stepping Stones.” The online header was worse: “Asians’ Success in High School Admissions Tests Seen As Issue By Some.”

It tells the stories of Asian immigrant students who have prepared extensively to gain entrance into select schools, and how a civil rights group is consequently suing for discrimination for other, underrepresented groups. As its titles suggest, this article fails to differentiate between Asians and Asian Americans, and reveals a misplaced anxiety about Asian overrepresentation at select New York high schools. The article is presumably about inequality, but it hardly seems like news that the system is weighted. Of course it has always been weighted: after all, the article itself acknowledges that the elite high schools mentioned have typically favored whites. But now an unexpected group is excelling in a system that was built to favor someone else…[Read Full Article Here]

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