The Trappings of Race in Frank Wu’s Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White
The 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 a 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 relinquishing their power of privilege. In a somewhat cliched 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.