Basic Definition: Yellowface

Yellowface is when someone who isn’t Asian (American) dresses up and pretends to be Asian (American). It’s most commonly used to describe actors taping back their eyes to look more chinky, so that movie studios can avoid hiring Asian (Americans) (who, as we all know, rarely act and when they do, have no talent and do not appeal to American audiences. Or so the justifications for yellowface go). Classic example, Katherine Hepburn playing a Chinese peasant in Dragon Seed:

But that was 1944, you say. A long time ago. Mickey Rooney playing Audrey Hepburn’s buck tooth landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, John Wayne pretending to be Ghengis Khan, that’s all in the past. Now we have John Cho and Sandra Oh and independent storytellers like Wong Fu and CAAM!

Of course, we also had Cloud Atlas open this month. Hugo Weaving goes from white man, to white woman, to Asian man, all in one movie! (Poor Hugo Weaving, he does not look good as a Korean.)

And he’s not the only one. Halle Berry gets to be Jewish, Indian, and Mexican. And an alien, apparently. The rationale here, is that the directors wanted the same actors throughout the film, and so the make up was necessary. The question here, is “Can they do that? Is that racist?”

It definitely looks weird to me. And it bothers me that the racial cues used for all races (blond= white!, slanted eyes=Asian!, tribal face paint (or are they tattoos?)=cannibal!) are stereotypical nods to the way people of color have been portrayed in film in the past. I do appreciate that the Wachowski siblings knew that race bending would be a serious issue. I am disappointed that their solution was to leave out blackface, and do every-other-race-face. Is that what we’ve come to? The risk of offending the black community is too high, but everyone else is fair game?

But, as always, racism is not a binary. We can’t divide culture into things that are racist (bad!) and not racist (good!). Cloud Atlas doesn’t look like the most racist movie ever, but it’s definitely not the most progressive either.

Third World Everything

The term “third world” has com to refer to developing nations in our global community. But that wasn’t always the case. During the cold war, the political globe really was divided into three worlds– the capitalists, the communists, and everyone else. Many of the peoples and countries included in ‘everyone else’ were ex-colonies, still choosing how to politically, socially, and economically align themselves.


“Third World” became synonymous with the fight for liberation and justice in US for a few reasons. First, the Third World was made up of a lot of Africa and Asia, and African Americans and Asian Americans saw them as their brothers and sisters, bound together by their cultures and by their common oppression by larger powers. Second, the Third World had successfully decolonized in many cases, and that was encouraging to US activists who saw their struggle in the US as a mirror of the struggle in other countries. Third, and perhaps most loosely, the Third World offered an alternative. An alternative to the two political superpowers that seemed bent on taking over or destroying the world. Beyond capitalism and communism, activists used the Third World as a way to dream of a better world, one where people of color and their knowledge and their culture got equal respect. Where power and profit were not the end goals of a country’s institutions.


Clearly, the 60’s and 70’s did not see Third World countries, or their American counterparts remake the world into a utopian vision. But phrases like “third world college” and “third world thoughts”, among others, remain.

On the Nature of Cultural Exchange

I actually got to write an email today that went like this:

Have you ever heard of the term transnationalism? Its the idea that when
people migrate between countries, they don’t simply go in one
direction. Rather, people, products, money, ideas, and culture are
constantly moving back and forth across borders. Anime is a very
simple example of this. The US, in the early twentieth century, was a
world innovator in animation. Mickey mouse was hot stuff. Those
animated movies were distributed widely around the world, including in
Japan. Japan was so entranced with the idea that they started making
animated films, anime. When Japan rose as an economic power, they
exported not just physical goods, but also anime, which took ahold in
the us, and influenced cartoons here. We can even see a new cycle
starting as Japanese tv channels start making shows about American
superheroes like iron man. And thats transnationalism.

The example isn’t great, but I wanted something that clearly illustrated the idea that people, money, and ideas exist with ties to multiple places. Another good example is transnational communities. A country like China or the Philippines might have communities where it’s common for part of the family to be overseas in the US and part of the family to remain in the country. Those families have very strong ties, then, to multiple countries and move between them with varying degrees of ease.

In Between Rocks and Hard Places

In defining Asian American, we often begin with common experiences– physical colonization, economic imperialism, discriminatory immigration policies, overlap of cultural values like strong familial obligations, racialization as the foreign/exotic, etc. (leave a comment if any of those sound interesting)– and then move towards the mind boggling diversity of experiences within the community.

In unraveling this diversity of experiences, it’s helpful to talk about something called intersectionality. Intersectionality is when multiple parts of a person’s or community’s identity combine to create a new experience. For example, the experience of Asian American women is not just a combination of the experiences of Asian American men and nonAsian American women. The experiences of Asian American women are unique to Asian American women, even though they do have similarities. To take this one step further, the experiences of queer Asian American women are more complicated than taking the experiences of Asian American women and tacking on some lesbian issues, or taking LGBTQ issues and expecting Asian American women to fit into them.

Identity is more than a collage or spreadsheet of movable parts. Intersectionality means that identity is like a very complicated color wheel, where every new combination creates a new complicated shade of issues.

Toward a More Perfect Acamedia, Part 3

Who should teach Asian American Studies? Should we make an effort to hire faculty and staff who reflect the demographics of the communities we research an serve and come from? I think that Asian American Studies should make an effort to hire Asian American professors for a number of reasons.

First, when someone says “Shouldn’t you just hire the best person for the job?”, there’s an underlying assumption that well-qualified, brilliant Asian American professors are in short supply. I’ve been looking around, and that’s definitely not the case. Especially in Asian American Studies. The majority of people who go into Asian American Studies are Asian American. Affirmative action started because people of color couldn’t get jobs no matter how qaulified they were, not because all people of color were lacking qualifications and weren’t good enough to succeed on their own efforts.

Second, there is something valuable for Asian American students to have role models who come from similar ethnic/cultural backgrounds. The first time I met an Asian American mixed race adult, I was shocked. It had never occured to me that there were adults who looked like me. And there really is a sense (rational or not), that if someone like you managed to do something, then you can, too.

Third, Asian American faculty and staff have some advantages to doing the interpersonal work that Asian American Studies demands, both with students and community constituents. The personal nature of Asian American Studies often means that Asian American researchers and teachers have a personal investment in the work that they want to transfer to their students. Working with Asian American communities can be easier if people can already communicate with the community members linguistically and culturally.

This isn’t to say that I would disregard non-Asian (American) candidates. I don’t mean to say that only Asian Americans can understand Asian American communities or that Asian American students can only look to other Asian Americans role models.definitely want non-Asian Americans to take classes and work within in the field because it’s not just about studying ourselves with ourselves. There are important connections to make across communities. Other community groups share a lot of our concerns (sometimes more than other Asian American ethnicities) and even when they don’t, it’s important to build understanding between non-like peoples. What I am saying is that there are reasons, ideological and practical, that give Asian Americans a leg up.

Toward a More Perfect Academia, Part 2

Who gets to be included in Asian American Studies?


The core of this question revolves around the question “Who is Asian American?” Should we include only Asian Americans? Should Asian-heritage people living in Canada and other parts of the Americas fall under Asian American Studies? And where do we draw the lines of what is or isn’t Asia? What about Pacific Islanders or Arab American scholars who don’t identify as Asian American, but don’t have their own Ethnic Studies based programs and departments?


Another aspect of the question is the issue of transnationalism– the immigrant and refugee narrative is not, and has never been a linear journey. Culture, money, and people continually cross national borders. Laborers and business people travel one place, then another for work, and money flows through them. Young people go abroad for education, and bring back foreign ideas of development and cultural expectations. Family ties stretch across the globe, forming chains of goods, money, and migration. Are transnational communities a de facto part of the Asian American experience? How much do we need to study Asia in order to understand Asian America?


At least for now, I’m leaning towards including groups in Asian American Studies even if they don’t identify as Asian America. Firstly, because there’s a lot that we can learn by comparing communities and secondly because the core of Asian American Studies– a commitment to analyzing and ending oppression, doesn’t exist in many places in the University. It’s more important to teach this core than specific groups.


A very oversimplified view. I may expand later.

Toward a More Perfect Academia, Part 1

I’m feeling more academic than usual, so my title is longer than usual. I’m starting a new series about defining and expanding Asian American Studies. Let’s start with defining Asian American Studies. At it’s heart, Asian American Studies is about making education useful– giving students an education that accurately reflects the world that they live in, and actively strives to make that world a better place. I’ve come up with my own way to describe this, “The Golden Triangle” (I think golden triangles are also an appetizer at Thai restaurants, no?):

The Golden Triangle describes the three foundations of good Asian American Studies programs/departments/classes/whatever. These three foundations are:

1. Intellectual Growth: Asian American Studies is part of the University, and as part of it, it should be furthering academic theories. There’s definitely a tension between writing in fancy language to  with other academics and writing in more colloquial language to communicate with non-academics, but nevertheless, words have power. As part of the university, Asian American Studies has a responsibility to do research and write theory. It also keeps people from doing the same work over and over.

2. Community Growth: Communities of color were instrumental in the creation of Asian American Studies. Field study and research are a great opportunity to use the resources of universities to benefit communities of color. It should be a symbiotic relationship– if Asian American Studies works with communities of color, the projects should address community needs, so that both parties benefit.

3. Personal Growth: Asian American Studies is the first time that many students see themselves reflected in curriculum. Engaging with materially emotionally, and learning to understand yourself better is a good, natural outgrowth of Asian American Studies. It’s a good place to take an honest look at your own values, and think about how you want to live in the world.