The Strangeness of Yellow

Source: Wikimedia Commons

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;

Am an attendant lord, one that will do

To swell a progress, start a scene or two,

Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,

Deferential, glad to be of use,

Politic, cautious, and meticulous;

Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—

Almost, at times, the Fool.

Excerpt from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot


The one time I was referred to as a white woman was by a black peacekeeper-activist from Ferguson.

We were sitting in a café near Washington University in St. Louis, a 30-minute drive and a world apart from the quiet street where Mike Brown had been killed less than a year before. The peacekeeper-activist was talking about his routine experience of getting pulled over by the cops. He said the police would be more likely to pull him over if I were his passenger because they’d see a black man driving a white woman in his car, a sight immediately suspect.

A white woman.

Now, I’m a 5’1” Asian girl. I believe “almond-shaped” is the societally decided-upon descriptor for my eyes. Foundations that match my skin tone are called “sand dune” or some other name that somehow evokes Attila the Hun on an exotic beach. So being called “white” was certainly a first.

Then I realized white was shorthand for not-black. And in that context, it really made total sense. We were sitting in the same county where Dred and Harriet Scott had sued to gain recognition as free people—and been denied (“the Court can’t take private property” was the gist of the analysis); and where racial covenants were so entrenched that Shelley v. Kraemer was what it took to start slowly turning the tide. This was the slave state in the Missouri Compromise. And, of course, it was where a heated verbal spat between a resident of Ferguson and one of the officers who pledged to protect him had ended in the boy’s death, the officer killing him with impunity and leaving his body on the pavement in the unrelenting Midwest sun for four hours while the boy’s mother wept, unable to go to his side.

In this embattled setting, I understood why the categories were binary. You were either white or black in the same way you were either the oppressor or the oppressed. Still, it was strange to have membership in the dominant class of the hierarchy imputed to me. I felt a lack of agency, and it made me uncomfortable. At the same time, I saw my complicity in the hierarchy’s very existence.

Therein lies the strangeness of being yellow in America. In the bifurcated racial power structure, we are swept under the rug when things are good, pulled out when needed to prove a point by either side, and pummeled like silent punching bags when things come to a head.

In her newly published book, Erika Lee points to five centuries of systemic racism that have insidiously excluded Asian Americans from American society, insightfully summarized in the piece “The Two Asian Americas” in the Oct. 21, 2015 issue of The New Yorker. It’s a historical explanation of why Asians are “perpetual foreigners” in America. While this may be true, I posit that Asian Americans today, appeased by our relative gains, often try to maintain the status quo through neutrality, and that this only sustains our exclusion.

Asian Americans are the perennial Prufrock in America’s twisted relationship with race, muttering “Do I dare disturb the universe?” while battles against white supremacy are being waged. What the genteel Asian America of today perhaps fails to realize is that it has a stake in those battles. Because yellow is not white.

Yellow, in America, means having your role decided for you. My racial identity is simply a malleable, not-white buffer zone where failures in our nation’s understanding of racial harmony can let off steam in fits and bursts. The L.A.P.D. retreated and let the fires burn for three days when the acquittal of the four white officers who had brutally beaten Rodney King came down and broke the camel’s back, and the wrath of the riots poured out upon the Korean-owned shops of South L.A. (To be clear, there were preexisting tensions between the Black and Korean residents of Los Angeles at the time and incidents of anti-black racism by Korean storeowners.) Those fires brought to the fore the status quo in a visceral way. Those Korean-owned stores, and that particular area of L.A., were weighed in the balance and deemed not worth saving. It was 1992. It’s now 2015, and there’s a Bush onscreen telling us it’s okay that he referred to “anchor babies.” He was only talking about the Asians!

But, yellow, in America, can also mean complicity in the subordination of others. And I’m growing tired of this, too. For example, my demographic is often held up as a model to further the fiction of the U.S. as a colorblind society. My attainments as one type of minority facilitate the gas-lighting of other minorities who might point out the systemic racism in our voting laws, housing, education, policing, and sentencing. My actions can then perpetuate this systemic racism, through my housing choices, consumption patterns, career decisions, and social associations. As another example, a St. Louis police officer could use me as a reason for pulling over a peacekeeping community organizer just because I’m with him. The thought sickens me. But then I think about the times I’ve shrunk back in fear on the street, only to realize the racism in this reaction to a man who was only asking for directions.

So I seek a new yellow, one that no longer means to live in a way that could justify the violent act of someone taking a black life and then claiming to act on behalf of the whole community. Because as much as yellow in America” has been constructed by others without my say, I only sustain it by staying silent about racism.

But I can also deconstruct it by speaking up.

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