Wu?s Yellow

The Trappings of Race in Frank Wu?s Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White

Frank?WuThe social commentary Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White by Frank Wu, is a valuable tool in the study of race construction in America. Wu not only provides interesting insight into the experience of being Asian American through the sharing of personal stories, he also employs his legal and scholarly skills of logic to articulate interpretations of, and to propose solutions to, the issues surrounding the disparity between race relations in America. Providing an effective balance of emotional engagement and analytical argument throughout the book, Wu?s use of Asian Americans to demonstrate the need for affirmative action is compelling and convincing, although his generalizations of whites through careless wording is troublesome. Also, in paying attention to the distinction between Asian Americans and African Americans, addressing the replacement of these problematic labels would have been a welcome addition.

To summarize, Wu uses the ?yellow? race to turn ?white? discrimination of both ?black? and ?yellow? in America in on itself for the benefit of the full spectrum, including ?red? and any other imaginative color label in use. His central argument states:

Asian American examples can enhance our awareness of the color line between black and white, rather than devalue the anguish of African Americans, because Asian Americans stand astride the very color line and flag its existence for all to see. If the color line runs between whites and people of color, Asian Americans are on one side; if the color line runs between blacks and everyone else, Asian Americans are on the other side. The line, however, is drawn in part by Asian Americans and in turn can be erased by us. (18)

Using this logic, Wu unveils the Asian American ?model minority myth? for the socially constricting racial stereotype that it is, regardless of the positive or negative responses it generates. Wu believes it should be rejected by all, including those Asian Americans who benefit from it, because it is a gross oversimplification of a massive population, it harbors a subversive negative commentary about African Americans by way of unfair comparison, and it has the effect of subverting the experience of racial discrimination of Asian Americans as well as turning them into a threat for whites (49).

In order to peel away layers of discrimination, Wu addresses two interesting questions often asked of Asian Americans. When the question ?Where are you really from? is posed by an American, it reinforces the idea that Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners based on race. This doubt of citizenship stems from an baseless fear of a foreigner?s lack of national loyalty, allowing for significant cultural events like the internment after WWII to the everyday practice of discrimination at present. To remedy this, Wu believes that minorities should be granted and must participate in the making of political policy and immigration law with as much of a right as those who ?were here first.? The other question aimed at Asian Americans is ?Do you eat dogs?? Wu says the implication of asking this, while the cultural practice exists, is the accusation and indication of a less civilized or savage race. To combat questions like this, Wu suggests adopting a new combination of assimilation and multiculturalism since neither has been effective on its own.

When addressing the topic of racial profiling, Wu dismantles what he calls rational discrimination and asks that we perfect it by relying on logic rather than what history dictates when making damaging determinations about stereotypes. He sees the use of stereotypes as a self fulfilling prophecy which produces the result it seeks. We must resist the urge to repeat our mistakes, otherwise, those who discriminate miss out on the experience of enriched diversity while those who are too often discriminated against suffer from a wound that, constantly re-opened, festers with negativity.

Ending on the power of coalitions, Wu argues that Asian Americans, in joining with other groups across racial lines, will be more effective in reaching their goals, but coalitions can only go so far until whites acknowledge and shift their attitudes relenquishing their power of privilege. In a somewhat clich?d ending, in part because it is based in truth, Wu places faith in the youth of America with their strength, passion and detachment from the past to restructure the mistakes of previous generations.

What I think Wu does best in this work, which I have not addressed in my summary above, is to leverage the position of Asian Americans against the black and white color line in order to revitalize an old argument for the continued importance of affirmative action in America. As he explains the obvious, that ?the crux of affirmative action is the use of race to respond to racial disparities? (167), he asks that we consider the floating position of Asian Americans in quota arguments in order to identify the ways in which they are used to leverage power by whites. Too often the end result is the exclusion of blacks and various other minorities from particular institutions and to exonerate whites from fixing systemic disparity riddled by these covert acts of racial discrimination. In either of these outcomes, the impact on Asian Americans and blacks is doubly negative. Blacks are held to a standard which is neither equal nor realistic, especially when the Asian American ?model minority myth? is a fallacy created, in part, to oppress blacks. Asian Americans who often proffer the advantage of white privilege in this arrangement are simultaneously placed at odds with blacks, Latinos, Hispanics, and others in a racial move they did not instigate. Ultimately, rather than to allow the continued negative practice of things like college alumni preference in order to secure positions for white families based on race rather than merit while closing doors to others, positive forms of affirmative action works to open those doors to ?others? that are otherwise closed. According to Wu, Asian Americans can play a specific and valuable role in the betterment of all American culture by unselfishly supporting affirmative action, even if it provides no direct benefit to themselves, because shouldering the shared responsibility in the name of a greater societal good will debunk whites arguments against the success of this measure and set a worthy example to follow.

While Wu?s argument is solid, what becomes problematic is his sloppy wording. Statements like the following present a problem:

Asian Americans also disprove the claim that it is affirmative action rather than racial discrimination that makes whites resentful of people of color? So if Asian Americans accept the same duty as whites, without begrudging the gains of other people of color, whites hardly have any cause for complaint. (71)

This generalization is cause for one of those moments where I, as a white American in support of affirmative action, cringe. Even with my recollection of Wu?s claim that he is ?taken aback by the inference that [he means] to cast aspersions on all whites by discussing some whites? (25), I cannot let this slide, if only for the reason that quotes like this constantly get pulled out of context much in the way I have done here. Taken aback or not, had Wu said ?some whites,? or even ?many whites,? this statement would have been accurate. The accuracy would not only relieve me from feeling unjustly categorized as I don?t fit his description of a resentful white begrudging the successes of people of color, but it would spare Wu the negative perceptions that take him aback. I could be argued that this is Wu?s attempt at educating whites on how it feels to be accused of being flawed based on race alone, to de-doxify white ideology in order to reveal its power and limitations, particularly as he refers to our ?postmodern world.? Still, I suspect the move is largely unconscious. Wu himself argues for a strong dose of honesty which impacts a person differently than a gross generalization when, earlier in the book, he likewise makes reference to generalization using terms like ?always? or ?never? as a way to confine a person to one position. Wu is aware, on an intellectual level, that the same argument holds to true in general reference to an entire population. Subconsciously, it would appear that he reveals his referential flaws in not a racist but a racial sense.

?I?d also like to point out that while Wu pays attention to the distinction between Asian Americans such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and others in several of his arguments, he never addresses another kind of flawed wording. While the umbrella term ?Asian American? refers to a genealogical track back to the origination continent of Asia, ?African American,? as used to describe blacks, makes no distinction between those people from the continent of Africa or those from places such as Haiti, the Dominican Republic or Jamaica. Truth be told, people of variously perceived races come from many different countries and making ?African American? referent to a single continent of origin for all blacks the greatest assumption of all. Likewise, the same logic applies to all ?fill-in-the-blank? Americans and is applied unevenly across nationalities because many fall under the indistinguishable umbrella of ?Caucasian.? That said, before America can adopt new ways of embracing ?the other? we must first remove these archaic, loaded and tired terms from our vocabulary and begin to refer to people as what they truly are. We must come to a point where the all inclusive term ?American? finally stands alone.

Wu demonstrates a strong ability to articulate the poignant and complicated issues surrounding race and, moving beyond mere identification, offers some challenging but logical solutions. In opening up this discussion, it is interesting to note that Wu is unable, as of yet, to recognize his own trappings within racial language. As much as we identify otherness in order to distinguish our own sense of self, the language of otherness must eventually come to represent inclusivity by achieving a greater level of accuracy. Generalizations cannot continue to be made in the name of making a point and, although Wu says minorities must denounce the derogatory and stereotypical labels cast upon them, such a ?spic? and ?chink,? to recognize the inaccurate language we use to distinguish groups without derogatory meaning is important as well. ?Asian American? is strictly a racial label when used to describe second and third generations of Americans with no ties to what is assumed their ?homeland.? Wu comes close to addressing this in his last chapter but then misses the mark. If he can see how this label fails in terms of Asian Americans, why does he not apply the same logic to ?African American?? Listing my concerns is not to say that this diminishes the value of Wu?s work (particularly since I recognize the ways in which I fall into the same traps myself – even here). On the contrary, to analyze Wu?s linguistic operation within the text is as informative as the text?s intended content.

Comments

  1. I?m not arguing against the need for a collective minority identity as much as looking for a more honest label. My point more-or-less stems from a conversation in Modern Poetry last semester. We discussed the label ?African American? and the ways in which it fails to identify many of the very people it is inflicted upon. The color black refers to a skin color that doesn?t exist. Colored, while more accurately depicting the variations of skin tone, harkens to the language used in the time of masters and slaves.

    At a loss as to what is most PC, we turned to Aliya and asked, ?What do you prefer to be called? Help us out here! What is least offensive??

    She just shook her head saying, ?Don?t ask me! I don?t f@*king know!?

    Still, your comment sheds light on a viable political need, and isn?t this a lovely little catch 22? According to critical race theorists, intersectionality is the overlap of race, gender, sexual preference, and class combinations, and anti-essentialism recognizes that not all races share the same experience. Considering those two points, how do we recognize nuances while still offering political representation to minorities??

    The root of the problem still seems to me that race is used as a base category when the more accurate focus would be all the ways in which race is intersected by those additional characteristics. Then again, Judith Butler would say that gender is as much a social construction as race. That would leave us with sexual preference and class. Perhaps we should just adopt a political party called ?Struggle? and call it quits for tonight.

    (After all, it is Christmas Eve and the last few moments are running out on my support of a raging capitalist and superficial society!!)

  2. kmiddleton says:

    You can tell that I’m planning a class on Asian American literature for the spring, because I’m thinking way too much about this (and thus pestering you about a book that didn’t exactly rock your world). Arguably, isn’t it the case that all categories are, to a certain extent, constructed? They’ve all been mobilized for political purposes (sexual preference, Foucault would say, only became a category of identity in the 19th C). So even if we acknowledge all of the various subject position that intersectionality notes, different situations are going to prescribe different “base” categories. To wit: on any given issue, one might identify as an Asian American, or as working class, or as bisexual, or as a rabid antique collector, etc., etc. Some of my favorite critical race studies people talk about the contingent and context specific notions of identity, and that idea always rings true to me.

    So, Struggle it is, for sure, but I got less beef with race as one of a number of base categories that can be politically and personally useful. If you have ideas about how to make these notions transparent to people who aren’t used to thinking about this, bring it on!!

  3. Let me clarify one thing before I comment. I have a problem with this paper/blog post as it stands. Every book report (or ?critical essay? as the syllabus describes it) has required the following formula:

    – Introduction and Thesis
    – Two page summary of text
    – One thing the text does well and why
    – One thing it doesn?t and why
    – Conclusion.

    By the end of the semester I was frustrated with these limitations and a maximum of 6 pages – eventually cut to 5 – with specific instructions not to contribute more. For Wu?s book I decided to mix things up a bit by hitting hard at the labels. While I was invested in my particular argument, I was also

    1.) bored with my (genuine) praise of every book we read and
    2.) left with two pages to address both my positive and negative stance.

    You know how much I like thinking through writing (as you often herald it the most useful tool), particularly since I handed you about 100 pages worth this semester. Thank you again for the lengthy commentary, which was both invaluable from you and generally unavailable in this class. I feel I?m getting more of an opportunity to explore these ideas through our interaction now.

    That said, this book DID rock my world. It offered a view into a social sphere that I had never considered, simply for lack of exposure. I, like many whites or blacks, understand the dichotomy of the color line, yet missed the nuanced version including other minorities. I loved the conversational delivery of Wu?s more formal information about these nuances, particularly since his style was accessible to a 200 level class filled with students of every major imaginable and without exposure to lit crit theory.

    The most insightful comments about this book came from minority students. I think Wu opened up a conversation where they felt heard, understood and comfortable in speaking their honest opinion. This type of conversation also inspired an interesting interaction on the repeated use of the term ?redneck? by one of the white students (as addressed in a book called ?White Trash?) and commentary on how the Chinese are probably conspiring against the US by ?infiltrating? our products with lead. (I got fairly testy and a bit boisterous over this remark aimed at the country as a whole.) We also spoke of the difference between say Germans and Asian Americans as “white” (again with the German thing). So anyway, if I gave the impression that this book was less than inspiring, I apologize. This truly is not the case.

    To return to the topic at hand, you said:

    Arguably, isn?t it the case that all categories are, to a certain extent, constructed? They?ve all been mobilized for political purposes (sexual preference, Foucault would say, only became a category of identity in the 19th C). So even if we acknowledge all of the various subject position that intersectionality notes, different situations are going to prescribe different ?base? categories. To wit: on any given issue, one might identify as an Asian American, or as working class, or as bisexual, or as a rabid antique collector, etc., etc. Some of my favorite critical race studies people talk about the contingent and context specific notions of identity, and that idea always rings true to me.

    Just before I reached my comment about forming a political party called Struggle, I too thought of Foucault. This is why I ended my argument. In that moment it occurred to me that class is the only category seemingly not constructed. Yet, while based on economic factors, those factors are inextricable from other social categories such as race. An obvious example would be to ask if we, as a nation, were so concerned about equality of opportunity, why do we not fund schools equally at a federal level rather than miring impoverished black neighborhoods within their own limited tax bracket? This is obviously a problem for blacks and categorically handled as such at least in rhetoric. So yes, categories ARE useful, contingent and context specific, as you have already said. I think we both agree that just because they are socially constructed, they are not meaningless.

    Nikki Lee?s photography comes to mind here. Her message seems to say that cultural categories of race, economics, sexual preference, etc. are both inclusive and exclusive at once. I?m sure you already thought of this, but perhaps she would be useful, as an Asian American artist and culture chameleon, to use in your class. I know she?s not literature in the ?traditional? sense, but she could be narrowed down to a few of her applicable pieces and used as a high impact visual in conjunction with something on your reading list. Her work has really struck a chord with me, revealing my own flawed thinking at a single glance and illuminating those assumptions about categories that, unexamined, plague me subconsciously.

    I might add, one of the most interesting aspects presented in the books we read for ?Constructing Race in America? were the latest investigations of whiteness as a race and the exploration of the creation and social operation of white privilege. If we?re going to talk race, we must include every one, yes? In ?Whiteness of a different Color,? Jacobson suggests that within the Panopticon, a guard may be able to police the prisoners from a single vantage point, but the prisoners collectively have a greater understanding of all sides of the guard. My wording on the fly is not exact, but I believe he?s saying that to examine the power influence of the oppressive race, we gain greater understanding of the power structure as whole than if we solely examine the effects of limitations placed upon the oppressed. (I hadn’t realized this concept was a new as the 90’s.)

    Wu seems to be doing both in Yellow. He specifically and effectively leverages the use value of white and Asian American in relation to black for the retention of white power. His argument that Asian Americans as ?the model minority? confines Asian Americans to a particular stereotype by whites, one based on race alone, while simultaneously implying that blacks are substandard in the ability to perform at similar levels. I found this particularly interesting because it never occurred to me that there are so many sides to a stereotype that generally reads as positive. I find myself more focused on fixing what appears to be negative. Wu also reveals other everyday practices of covert racism, from the entrance to college granted via white alumni family privilege to self fulfilling prophecy in regard to legal pursuance of blacks as criminals. He says we must base our decisions to employ affirmative action on logic rather than history. History informs us that blacks are underachievers while logic tells us that they have never been offered a fare shake. And, hey, we all know how problematic history is here.

    Like you, Wu makes the point that Asian Americans are a valuable political entity in that politicians eventually began to target them for votes specifically. This point was short lived though. Rather than moving toward an examination of benefits here, Wu spends far more time explaining the ways in which this political faction has been used to lump the millions within it into a disloyal bunch of treasonous villains unjustly targeted after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He examines this stereotype that has survived well into the Clinton Administration and beyond. Wu traces some telling political remarks surrounding the Japanese interment through to the factless-based hunt for Wen Ho Lee. I think he called it a move from being invisible to infamous. (Paraphrasing again.)

    Overall, I find that Wu effectively nails many public assumptions to the wall , illuminating the ways in which they operate. He also goes one step further, offering solutions to the problems. (I must have said something similar in my original post. Please forgive my repetition.) He asks that we, meaning the nation as a whole, consider societal benefits rather than personal benefits, even when it feels contrary to our gut reaction. We must operate on logic rather than history. I would add that it has been a history of misrepresentation.

    I think Wu is reaching out for the unification of society as a whole but not really pushing the point. For example, he asks that Asian Americans support affirmative action as a minority with little to gain from it personally, believing that this example will influence the actions of whites while closing the gap on the disparity of opportunity for blacks. While I think he?s absolutely right to focus on social reform as a whole, the only (and huge) problem I see is that the American Dream is based on personal gain, not collective benefits. Our health care system proves that. I can picture the masses bobbing their heads in agreement at the time they read Wu and then see them going back to the ?winner takes all? practice once the book cover is closed. For this I do not blame Wu. I think he recognizes the stages we must attain, one step at a time. Perhaps this is why he doesn?t go so far as to say that the labels must eventually be eradicated. Perhaps he does see value in their use. I?m not sure he took a strong stand in either direction. It seems that he is most opposed to the category of race as a factor in how we see people as individuals, which leads me to believe that the eradication of labels might be something he would consider.

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