Yellow Peril and Asian/Black/Multinational Unity

by Eddie Wong

As I write this post, the body of George Floyd is on its way to Houston where he will be laid at rest next to his mother’s grave on Tuesday, June 9. It will be a day of mourning not only for his family but also a day of remembrance for the hundreds of men and women murdered by police throughout the U.S.  By now, everyone knows his name and millions of people have watched his murder by a Minneapolis cop who smashed his knee against Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

Over the past two weeks, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets shouting  “Black Lives Matter”  and “No Justice, No Peace” until it reverberated  across continents.  From Minneapolis, New York, Los Angeles,London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Tunis, Brussels, Rio de Janiero, Seoul, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Melbourne and many more cities, the cry is for an end to the brutality against Black people and for systemic change. And all of this is occuring in the midst of a global pandemic which has exposed the inequities under capitalism as Black and Brown and Native American death tolls rise far above their percentage of the population in the U.S.

Rally on June 6, 2020 in Los Angeles. Photo from Asians Never Die Facebook page.

Los Angeles rally for George Floyd. Photo from Facebook page of Lisa Salvary.

Many observers have noted the large presence of white people, especially young whites, among the protesters, and indeed the crowds are multicultural and led by Black people.  It’s time for everyone to unite against injustice and systems of oppression of Black people and all marginalized people.  It’s also no surprise to see people of Asian descent (to me that’s everyone from hapas, South Asians, East Asians, Filipinx, Southeast Asians and people from the Asian diaspora) and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders  at the rallies, because there is a long history of fighting oppression among our communities.  Resistance has taken many forms including legal challenges, labor strikes, demonstrations, and cultural affirmation.

As someone who has participated in the Asian American movement since the late 1960s, I was pleased to see Asian protesters/social justice advocates carrying signs “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power.”  “Yellow Peril”  was once a reviled slur articulated by Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, in the 1870s: “The Chinese are uncivilized, unclean, and filthy beyond all conception, without any of the higher domestic or social relations; lustful and sensual in their dispositions; every female is a prostitute of the basest order.”  If Greeley’s name rings a bell, it is because his most famous quote is “Go West, young man,” the rallying cry for settler colonialism and annihilation of Native Americans and robbery of Mexican homesteads. The “yellow peril” designation was applied to subsequent waves of migrant workers from Asia: Japan, Korea, India, and the Philippines. Perhaps the simplistic marrying color with danger made the term so useful for generations of racists to evoke disgust, implications of sexual predation, and dehumanization. Racist terms like “yellow peril” were used to normalize white supremacy and led to Asian exclusion laws, restrictions on owning property, and denial of the right to citizenship.

Fast forward the late 1930s and 1940s as the U.S. had to distinguish “good” Asians from “bad” Asians, i.e. the Chinese Nationalist Party led by Gen. Chiang Kai-shek, and the Japanese imperial forces allied with the Nazis.  “Yellow Peril” could only be used against the Japanese and later against the Chinese communists in the Korean War and the Vietnamese people in the American War.  Asian Americans who were becoming politicized by the Civil Rights Movement (see profiles of Ed Nakatawase, Tamio Wakayama, Marion Kwan, Joseph Ozawa, and Vincent Wu in East Wind Ezine)  and the Black Power movement in the 1960s began to create a new front in the overall liberation movement.

“Yellow Peril” was featured on a button used by the Asian American Political Alliance, founded in Berkeley by activists Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee along with other Asian American students, as a fundraising tool. The term represented the ethos of the times when people of color reinterpreted how the dominant society viewed us. Thus, if you see us as dangerous, then we must become dangerous to your racist constructs and oppression.  “Yellow Peril” became synonymous with pride in our history of resistance that included striking Chinese railroad workers,  the 1903 Japanese and Mexican beet workers who struck to form a union in Oxnard, CA, Filipino workers whose 1965 strike initiated the United Farm Workers Union grape boycott, and many other acts to affirm our civil and human rights.  Moreover, the term provided an unifying pan-Asian platform as we fought for ethnic studies and against the U.S. war in Southeast Asia.  Most famously,”Yellow Peril Supports Black Power” was a slogan used by Asian Americans who demonstrated for the release of Huey Newton, co-founder and Minister of Defense of the Black Panther Party, who was held on murder charges in Oakland, CA in 1969.  But like many slogans of the day, the use of “yellow peril” faded over time as the Asian American movement evolved.

Left: Richard Aoki at Black Panther Party rally. Right: Protest in New York in 2014 over the killing of Michael Brown. Photo from Dan Truong’s Huff Post article.

Free Huey rally at Alameda County Courthouse. 1969

The phrase resurfaced in 2014 as Asian Americans joined the protest over the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  Similar to today’s demonstrations, thousands of people poured into the streets to demand justice in yet another police killing of a Black man.  And it has resurged today in no small part because politically conscious artists and activists such as Monyee Chau, who is based in Seattle, has created a poster that can be downloaded for free.  She has also created a graphic arts pamphlet that addresses the attempts by white supremacists to intimidate Asian Americans in Seattle International District.  See all of her work at Monyee Chau, Seattle artist.

Rally for George Floyd in Long Beach, CA with poster of the raised fist by Toronto artist Felicity Tse. Photo from Facebook post by Mel Tellekeratne.

Monyee Chau, artist.

Another striking design used in many protests across the U.S. by Asian Americans is the poster by Kalaya’an Mendoza, who is a queer, Filipinx co-founder of Across Frontlines and facilitator non-violent direct action.

Artist and organizer Kalay’an Mendoza.

Confronting anti-Blackness among Asian communities

The arrest of Hmong American officer Tou Thao, who is charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder in the killing of George Floyd, has initiated soul-searching among Asian Americans about anti-Black bias and stereotypes that has long existed but are rarely discussed openly in the community.  In part, there is a generational aspect to the divide with some older, first-generation Asian immigrants accepting the dominant culture’s racist stereotypes of African Americans as “violent law-breakers” while younger generations who have had more daily contact with not only African Americans but other people of color embracing a more objective and inclusive view.  In 2016, a grassroots effort called Letters for Black Lives project was launched to stimulate dialog and reconciliation.

Here are some excerpts from their founding statement:

Since its conception on July 7th, 2016, this open letter has been drafted collaboratively by dozens of contributors on a public Google Document — and translated by hundreds more into 20+ languages. The original intent of this letter was to serve as a multilingual resource for Asian Americans who wanted to talk to their immigrant parents about anti-Blackness and police violence, but the project has since expanded to include messaging for Latinx and African immigrants as well as people living in Canada and Europe.

All contributors to this project are united around one common goal: speaking empathetically, kindly, and earnestly to our elders about why Black lives matter to us. As many of us are first- and second-generation immigrants ourselves, we know first-hand that it can be difficult to find the words to talk about this complex issue, especially in the languages that resonate most with our elders. Our hope with this letter and its translations is to make it easier for people to craft their own starting points, and serve as a first step towards more difficult intergenerational conversations about race and police violence.

We are not looking to center ourselves in the conversation about anti-Blackness, but rather to serve as responsible allies — to educate, organize, and spread awareness in our own communities without further burdening Black activists, who are already doing so much. Please visit the #BlackLivesMatter site for more information on the core movement.

We wanted to write a letter — not a think piece or an explainer or a history lesson — because changing hearts and minds in our community requires time and trust, and is best shaped with dialogue. We know that this letter is far from perfect: it’s a bit homogenized, not comprehensive, and even excludes perspectives. Most of the important work of the letter is not being done in the English version, which was meant to be a basic template for translators, but in the translations themselves. Because we view translation as a cultural and not just linguistic process, many of the translations have changed portions of the letter to better address particular experiences, whether it’s the role of imperialism in their immigration or specific incidents in their community.

Even beyond that, we encourage each individual to adapt this letter to their own needs to best reach their families. Every family has a different experience, and this is merely a resource for you to use. That’s why this letter, and its translations, are published with a CC0 Public Domain waiver — anyone can use any part of it, though we’d appreciate a linkback.

Our hope with this letter is to make it easier for people to start difficult conversations, build empathy and understanding, and move us forward to real change.

Here is a video of the letter:

The following video by Fusion TV provides some context on how to use “the letter.”

The project organizers have written a new letter for 2020 with the goal of “creating a space for open and honest conversations about racial justice, police violence, and anti-Blackness in our families and communities.”  Here is the text of the entire letter that has been translated into 40 languages.

June 2020

Mom, Dad, Uncle, Auntie, Grandfather, Grandmother, Family:

We need to talk.

You may not have many Black friends, colleagues, or acquaintances, but I do. Black people are a fundamental part of my life: they are my friends, my neighbors, my family. I am scared for them.

Recently, in Minnesota, a white police officer killed a Black man named George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for almost 9 minutes—ignoring his repeated cries that he was unable to breathe. Two more police officers helped pin Floyd down, while a fourth, Asian officer stood guard and didn’t intervene. Floyd is not alone: Already this year, police officers killed Dreasjon Reed in Indiana and Tony McDade in Florida in May, and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky in March. An ex-detective killed Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia in February.

Overwhelmingly, the police haven’t faced consequences for murdering Black people, even when there’s been extensive media coverage. Imagine how many more incidents go unrecorded or unseen.

This is a terrifying reality that the Black people I care about live with every day.

You might be thinking: We are also a minority. We’ve managed to come to America with nothing and built good lives for ourselves despite discrimination, so why can’t they?

I want to share with you how I see things. I am telling you this out of love, because I want all of us, including myself, to do better.

For the most part, when we walk down the street, people do not view us as a threat. We do not leave our homes, wondering whether or not we will return that day. We don’t fear that we may die if we’re pulled over by the police.

This is not the case for our Black friends.

The vast majority of Black Americans are descendants of people who were sold into slavery and brought here against their will. For centuries, their communities, families, and bodies were abused as property for profit. Even after slavery, the government has not allowed them to build their lives—it has legally denied them the right to vote, get an education, or own homes and businesses. These inequalities are enforced by police and prisons—which can be directly traced back to white slave patrols and plantations. Black people are under a constant threat of violence that continues today. Their oppression has not ended; it has only changed form.

Black people have not only persisted but also persevered against all odds. They’ve been beaten by police, jailed, and killed while fighting for many of the rights that we all enjoy today. Even in an unfair system that pits us against each other, Black organizers helped to end unfair immigration laws and racial segregation for us all.

Though there has been progress, this unfair system is still winning. Throughout these hundreds of years, our government is still killing Black people and getting away with it.

I understand that you’re worried and scared about the looting and property destruction that you are seeing. But imagine how hurt you would be to see other people express more care for replaceable material objects than for the lives of your loved ones. How hurt you must be to protest like this in the middle of a pandemic. Imagine the exhaustion of fighting against the same state violence that your ancestors fought against.

This is why I support the Black Lives Matter movement.

Part of that support means speaking up when I see people in my community—even my own family—say or do things that diminish the humanity of Black people. Our silence has a cost and we need to talk about it.

I am eternally grateful for the struggles you have endured in a country that has not always been kind to you. We have been blamed for bringing poverty, disease, terrorism, and crime. You’ve suffered through a prejudiced America so that I could have a better life.

But these struggles also make it clearer than ever that we are all in this together, and we cannot feel safe until our Black friends, loved ones, and neighbors are safe. The world that we seek is a place where we can all live without fear. This is the future that I want—and I hope you want it, too.

With love and hope,

Your children

Writing the Letter

Dozens of individuals contributed to the writing of this letter. Here’s how we approached it.

Goals

The goal of the letter is to start a conversation with loved ones about the unique struggles that the Black community faces. We are not trying to prove we are “right” through debate (this letter is not intended to help you win an argument). We need to meet people where they are so they will be open to a perspective other than their own. After reading, people should understand they should be listening and reflecting.

This is primarily a call for empathy and understanding. The Asian immigrant community as a whole doesn’t see police brutality against Black people as “their problem” and are sometimes even anti-Black themselves. That may be true for your community, too. This is a conversation starter to ask for a willingness to stop and listen rather than getting immediately judgmental/defensive when we broach these issues with them.

Explain why we are in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, and how we’re affected by these shootings even if we are not the direct target.

Considerations

Be brief. Closer to 500 words than 5000.

Be personal. Write a letter, not a term paper. Avoid academic terms.

Be open. The Letter should be openly available for anyone to use however they’d like.

Be adaptable. While it’s being written by members of the Asian American community focusing on the United States, it should be an effective template for other communities in other countries.

Guide, don’t lecture. For example, the letter moves gradually from talking about Black people closest to us, to talking about all Black people whether or not we are related. This narrative arc is intentional.

Focus. There are so many things we wanted to include but couldn’t. We’ve placed these resources in our Supplemental Talking Points.

This letter is a powerful tool and reflects the new modes of organizing in this new technological age.  No longer do activists have to take their lead from established organizations, which certainly have a role to play, but they can reach thousands of people directly through social media.

Practicing Solidarity

As thousands of Asian Americans and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders take to the street to voice their support of Black Lives Matter, many people who are unable to participate due to health concerns, can lend support in other ways.  Here is a list of national efforts and organizations in the Minneapolis area where you can send financial contributions.

The solidarity among Asian Americans and African Americans is also rooted in common oppression.  The following video offers the powerful testimony of Youa Vang, the mother of Fong Lee, an 18 year Hmong American who was shot in the back five times by a white police officer in Minneapolis in 2006.  She spoke on May 31 at a rally in support of George Floyd. Other speakers included activist Ze Adverto Thao, State Senator Fong Her and Tou SaiKo Lee. Activist Monique Cullars Doty invited Youa Vang to speak at this rally. We don’t always hear Hmong voices in national TV news so this clip is very important to share. One feels Youa Vang’s pain and her determination to see justice for all victims of police murder.  (Editor’s note: If clicking on the video below prompts a message about accepting cookies, you can also view the video by going to the Facebook link: https://www.facebook.com/tou.s.lee.7?__tn__=%2CdCH-R-R&eid=ARAkyRpB0YBBFkF58om7GaNIheE0YIuKzeSMBw4O5ud11jXLTpb-o72vIp3YrBIylA6S7D1A947RA0-P&)

Another useful tool in furthering the conversation on Black/Asian solidarity is Unmasking Yellow Peril, which is described as follows:

A FREE colorful zine full of archival images, forgotten histories, and critical analysis. Unmasking Yellow Peril is a collaboration between 18 Million Rising and the Asian and Asian American Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut. 

With this project, we seek to ground ourselves in the long history of Yellow Peril, uncover its main forms, and resist it in the time of COVID-19. 

There is an unmistakable urgency to this moment where a global pandemic tears the mask of an oppressive system that privileges some people over others and some regions over others (Global North vs Global South).  Not only is it a time of “wokeness” about injustice and police violence for many people, but it presents a “no turning back” moment as the present economic/social political order is INCAPABLE  of relieving the pain and suffering of so many people who have lost their livelihoods and the lives of loved ones.  We see policy reforms that were once thought unfathomable and unachievable such as some form of guaranteed income or defunding and/or reconstituting  police departments now being considered because public pressure via a mass uprising spurs liberal and progressive legislators to push for more meaningful reforms. It’s not the end of the struggle for full equality and justice and an equitable health system, but it can be a beginning. The pandemic forces us to acknowledge that we cannot survive in silos, whether that be nations or neighborhoods, for as long as someone is stricken by COVID-19, we will all be potentially ill.  We live in one world with our fate bound together; we save ALL OF US or NONE OF US.  And the same holds true for justice.

Atlanta, GA rally for George Floyd. Photo by Georgia Advancing Progress PAC.

Author’s Bio:

Eddie Wong is the editor/publisher of East Wind Ezine and a longtime artist/activist.

5 Comments

  1. Genny Lim on June 11, 2020 at 1:00 pm

    Powerful, thank you Eddie for this powerful piece. The video of our Hmong sisters and brothers in solidarity with the African American brothers and sisters was powerful, brought me to tears. Thank you, Eddie and Eastwind.

    • Eddie Wong on June 11, 2020 at 1:36 pm

      thanks for your support, genny. i’m going to follow up and write about the killing of Hmong youth that the speakers mentioned. I was not aware of these cases and even though the statute of limitations may have passed in some cases, we will never stop fighting for justice.

  2. Olivia Truong on June 13, 2020 at 8:25 am

    Hi Eddie, thank you for writing this. I was in tears by the end of reading it, as well as watching Youa Vang’s rally speech. I pledge to be a better ally, especially in identifying my Asian privilege and using it to support the Black community.

    One thing I wanted to note is the 3rd poster in “Rally for George Floyd in Long Beach, CA. Photo from Facebook post by Mel Tellekeratne” is by Felicity Tse, a Toronto creative who made and sold this poster to raise funds for the BLM movement. Thought I’d let you know to include her credit.

    • Eddie Wong on June 13, 2020 at 1:06 pm

      thanks for letting me know about Felicity Tse’s poster. i’ll add the credit in the caption. be well and raise hell.

  3. Jerome Matthews on June 15, 2020 at 10:24 pm

    I really appreciate the thoroughness of this article. I remember (fondly) a protest by the black student body when I was a freshman in college. As we marched, chanting, towards the administration building, we were joined by a contingent of Asian students who not only supported us and our cause, but recognized that what we were then fighting for was a right of recognition that applied to victimized groups across ethnicities.

    Keep up the good work.

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