Attacks on people because of their heritage is nothing new. Historians can find a correlation with instances in history and a kid on Jimmy Kimmel calling for all Chinese to be killed and free-for-all slurs on Miss America Nina Davaluri’s ethnicity. I talked to experts John Kuo Wei Tchen & Dylan Yeats who have compiled documentation and essays about the history of anti-Asian and Asian American sentiments and paraphernalia in their book, “Yellow Peril!!: An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear.”
There’s a long history of discrimination against Asians, but it’s seldom talked about. As evidenced by the pieces contained in your book, the reasons are multi-layered and varied. Can you offer a unifying explanation?
Dylan Yeats: There is a tradition of creating an imagined “West” against an opposing imagined “East” that has built up over the centuries. When people who want to think of themselves as “western” find themselves desperate to understand why their fantasies of dominance or superiority aren’t working, they have a go-to scapegoat in imagined “Orientals.” This deflects some of the troublesome guilt, fear, and rage they have about their own heroes. This works very differently in different times and places, because the specifics are so unique, but the broader pattern remains the same. It’s not “Our” fault, it’s all because of “Them,” whether it be Jews or Communists, Japanese competition, Chinese immigrants or the “threat” of Islam.
Why is it important for people to look at the subtle racism through a historical lens?
Dylan Yeats: We think the historical approach makes the most sense because it helps explain why things are the way they are, takes a lot of the immediate power of this form of thinking away by recognizing it as the tired pattern it is, and also offering the hope that change is possible. In every generation, certain folks try to say that most of us don’t “get” how real the East vs. West threat is, and that we should follow them because of it. They ask us to just look around and admit the obvious. But it’s not so obvious, when you’re not unaware you’re rooted in a set of assumptions that date back hundreds of years. These patterns were created by people because they worked, by taking away the ability of this way of thinking to seem like an innocent response to current events, we can reverse this process. We argue that each of us, in our own way, participates in the recycling and reproduction of this way of thinking from generation to generation. Once we are aware of this, we can then ask if that’s something we want or need to do, and hopefully begin to reproduce something different, and I would add better able to make sense of the world.
You find humor in the various images and thoughts. Why did you feel that that was important to convey?
Dylan Yeats: Satire is often a very effective response to this material, because it can take itself so seriously, but in fact most of it is quite absurd. We also want to acknowledge that much of this material is effective precisely because it is pleasurable at some level to the people who consume it. We want to try to flip this dimension of how these images and thoughts work, by recoding them into making a new argument that casts them not as essential truths, but as part of a hidden history that needs to be acknowledged and worked through. We feel this is a more effective response than simply damning these issues, for that can give them more power than they deserve. Instead, we seek to understand them, and make that process as enjoyable as possible.
Many younger Asian Americans haven’t even heard of Joy Luck Club or Better Luck Tomorrow. They probably suppose “Yellow Peril” is a reclamation of a term by an indie rock band. How can you convince them to learn about their history?
Dylan Yeats: Our approach has been to make this material inviting, intriguing, fun, and easy to digest. We’ve excerpted very short sections of dense academic essays so that readers can be exposed to a vast amount of material in small easily digestible bites. We hope they can be armed with some history and critical tools to help them make sense of their own experiences. In our experience, young people have responded very enthusiastically to laying out this form of thinking in historical context. We have all grown up within these ideas, and many of us have suffered from them. We hope the volume can help make sense of our experiences, and help us work through and beyond them.