‘YELLOW PERIL SUPPORTS BLACK POWER’: RECLAIMING THE WORD ‘YELLOW’

JOSEPH LITTAUA WRITES — “Yellow Peril.” When I first found out about the phrase, it was on my own, doing research for a social studies class in middle school. I don’t quite remember the reason for the research, but the phrase stuck with me. Why would anyone be okay with being called “Yellow Peril?”

I’d already known, from a young age, that discrimination against Asians in the US goes frequently unnoticed. From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to Executive Order 9066 (Japanese Internment), to even one of the most recent bills brought up by Congress (the SECURE CAMPUS Act) – all of these governmental actions restrict Asians and present a Western view of Asians as an existential threat. The phrase “Yellow Peril” has historically created problems for the Asian American community, so I find it interesting that “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power” is being brought back with such vigor in the Asian American Community.

The phrase “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power” comes from the 1960s when students at San Francisco State University and University of California Berkeley formed the “Third World Liberation Front,” a coalition of SFSU’s Black Student Union, the Mexican American Student Confederation, the Asian-American Political Alliance, and the Native American Student Alliance. This coalition was formed in order to establish academic studies that focused specifically on Black Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans. Asian American students tried to reclaim the term “Yellow Peril” by reforming its usage into a term of empowerment. The slogan would then be used by former Black Panther officer Richard Aoki, the only Asian American to hold leadership in the Black Panther organization.

Today, again, the slogan is being used to show solidarity between the Asian and Black communities of the US. There are some who find this dangerous and problematic, such as Connie Wun, co-founder and executive director of AAPI Women Lead. Wun believes that the usage of the slogan today is not as inclusive as when it was first coined in the 1960s.  We need to consider the fact that today, there are a lot more Asian Americans who don’t identify as yellow, or East Asian, so the term ‘yellow peril’ isn’t inclusive,” she stated.

In some ways, I can see how this holds true; but there are some who take pride in being considered “yellow,” such as author Kat Chow. From her perspective, “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.”

These perspectives on the word “yellow” are interesting to me, a young Asian American man living during these trying times here in the US. I grew up learning about problems related to the phrase in relation to global perceptions of Asians. I had done research early on after reading Farewell to Manzanar, by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston. “Yellow” had essentially been used to represent Asians everywhere, intentional or not. For example, the children’s TV show Mighty Morphin Power Rangers presented the first iteration of the rangers based on skin color. The Black Ranger was Black, Pink Ranger was a female (White), and the Yellow Ranger was Asian. Did I ever agree to such a standard? No, but that’s how, at a young age, I learned the world looked at Asians.

Now older, I’ve come to see Yellow as something that should be reclaimed, much like author Kat Chow says that the term “Asian American” is too broad and could separate all Asians from other minorities. I’ve listened to many teachers, officials, and random people in public list various minorities, without putting “American” after the mention of race, except in the case of Asians (Who says German-Americans? Or Iranian-Americans)? This singular style of syntax reinforces stereotypes about Asians, like that they are all smart, rich (the positives), or, to some degree, unable to do anything else besides law, engineering, or work in the medical field.

“Yellow’ itself can be a troubling concept. The color has had historical connotations to sickness and disease. “Yellow Peril” is a phrase that haunts the Asian community in America. And yet, maybe in order to change a society that seems to be systemically against minorities we should take those words and phrases that have been used to push us down and use them to raise ourselves up and show the evolution that society needs. To quote the Yellow Jacket Collective, “We say Yellow again because at our most powerful we are a YELLOW PERIL and those who oppress us should be afraid.”

Back to the original question: Why does Yellow Peril support Black Power? Because if we can induce change for one minority, we can induce change for all.

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4 Replies to “‘YELLOW PERIL SUPPORTS BLACK POWER’: RECLAIMING THE WORD ‘YELLOW’”

  1. Hello! Please credit artist Monyee Chau for the “Yellow Peril Supports Black Peril” graphic with the tiger and panther. Her Instagram handle is @monyeeart and she’s actually put up a corrected graphic with an insightful corresponding post as well.

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  2. Do very much agree with the somewhat arbitrary claim up until most recently (COV-19), both individual and systemic racism against Asian Americans tends to go overlooked or downplayed. That’s because of their unique place in society. AA having been academically and economically outperforming white Americans for years now. Nowadays, anti-racist activists are more concerned with redistributing wealth away from those who have it than fighting for equal opportunity, respect and harmony among all. For some time now, polls have consistently shown the vast majority of AA oppose seemingly well-intentioned diversity initiatives that discriminate against prospective Asian students. But this is downplayed and justified by those who favor Blacks and Hispanics, who as a group are disproportionately poorer. Some marginalized minorities are more marginalized than others. 

    To clarify, Asian American is a racial category, its not an ethnic group in the same way German-American and Iranian-American are. … you know the drill. Points for using the phrase “community” w/o the irony or the sarcastic internet quotes BTW. Anyway, if you want specific examples of who’s used such terms: Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, etc.

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  3. (cont.) Individuals alternate between saying “Asian” and “Asian-American” all the time, as I have. Probably heard it countless and simply can’t recall. Though people are more likely to include the “-American” thanks to the added alliterative appeal. Either way, it is not a good idea to take one’s anecdotal, admittedly young life experience as representative in a multifaceted, bubbled society. Not seeing the bridge between syntax and perceptions of those working in law, engineering, and medicine. Even as far as cynical, self-conscious assumptions of assumptions go, that one was a bit of a leap. Sidebar: when watching breakdancing competitions on YouTube/MTV, who do you expect to see?  

    All that aside, and I dislike returning to this well, in the grand scheme of things Japanese-Americans did receive reparations. That’s more than Black Americans received, more than Italians received. German-Americans didn’t even get an official apology, and they were interned two world wars in a row. Lastly, regarding the main premise of taking an offensive, derogatory label, whether its even currently in active use among most or not, and *reads notes* “reclaiming it as an empowering term of endearment.” Not sure why certain people of a certain age always seem to reach that exact same resolution, but maybe it’ll actually work this time. 

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