yellow: race in america beyond black and white, by frank wu.
This book was one of the books recommended to me by dr. soong-chan rah, in the wake of the “skits that teach” fiasco. It’s a pithy, heady and long book (a bit too long for my adolescent attention span). But it’s a powerful book, primarily about the asian American experience; but really much more than that.
I can honestly say this: I will never, ever be able to listen to a racist comment about asian Americans again – even an unintended one –without thinking of what I’ve learned in this book. There were times I cried while reading, considering the life-long “otherness” foisted on asian Americans by white Americans, including myself.
A few chapters into this book, I was sitting in an exit row on a plane that was getting ready for take-off. The flight attendant came down the aisle to ask the perfunctory questions of us in those seats, of our willingness to die for the cause and all. The flight attendants are required to get a verbal ‘yes’ from each passenger in the exit row. Sitting across the aisle from me was a middle aged asian American business man, dressed impeccably, clearly a frequent flier (as most people in the exit row are). After explaining the situation, the flight attendant turned to this man and asked, “do you speak English?” he responded, “yes”, with the complete lack of accent only available to a 2nd or 3rd (or longer) generation asian American. I almost jumped out of my seat, with my new awareness of what it would be like to be asked questions like this (and worse), have assumptions made, and be treated as “other”, and “not us”, for your entire life. (I actually turned to the man, and a bit shaky with my brand-new righteous indignation on behalf of all asian Americans, said, “I apologize for the stupidity of Caucasians.” He gave me the odd look I deserved.)
Here’s the rub: how do I – how do we – engage in this critical conversations without somewhat perpetuating or adding to the “otherness” sin against asian Americans? By the very fact that I am trying to figure out how to be a part of change – in my own heart, first, and in our culture in some way – I am concurrently, and by necessity, bringing attention to the uniqueness (read: otherness) of the asian American experience. How can I pursue the friendship I think I would really enjoy with the asian American youth worker in san diego I met through all this mess, have conversations about stuff like this, and yet still not treat him as my token asian American friend, as my personal guilt-assuager, or as my “project” – all positions that do violence to him.
The book actually addresses this tension, explaining (at length) why the ideal of “colorblindness” doesn’t work. but, either I didn’t quite understand that part, or I thought the final conclusion of “live in the tension” wasn’t quite satisfying enough.
Anyhow. I really do recommend this book, especially for anyone who would like to grow in their understanding of the asian American experience and the issues that continue to surround the racism we don’t tend to talk about in America.