The Yellow Peril Is Upon Us
Updated: Mar 24
On coronavirus, racism, and the University.
By Benjamine Mo
The Yellow Peril is virulent and mutant. Its manifestations are manifold and perhaps temporally transient, to the extent that one can distinguish two faces of the same underlying hate—but all fundamentally reflect, first and foremost, derision of the dreaded Orient. The Chinaman, the chink; the East is red. And now, through its latest metamorphosis, we¹ have become vectors of disease, biological agents of foreignness, savage exoticism incarnate.
The troubling central mechanism of the Yellow Peril is a licensed operation of wholesale dehumanization. Only a century and a half ago, this was practical for Western colonizers in the calamitous subjugation of China; the method is imperialist by nature and covertly sanctioned at a systemic scale. Consider, for instance, the extraordinary circumstances that led President Bollinger to publicly defend Columbia’s foreign-born Chinese students against federally-advised surveillance in September. In many ways, people of Chinese descent are viewed with suspicion as a monolithic conglomeration of indoctrinated agents.
Such erasure of individuality and humanity is undeniably advantageous for the perpetrators of an oppressive social system that consigns Asian diasporic communities to the fringes of political visibility. What is deeply disheartening—truly enraging—is that the narrative of a public health emergency has been co-opted to justify and even endorse immense human tragedy. Proponents of the Yellow Peril have leveraged long-standing racist pejoratives to devalue Chinese lives, painting them as dog-eaters, monsters, savages. The convenient rendering of an entire populace as deserving of such trauma and death because of perceived cultural inferiority—and the extent to which such sentiments are normalized—is an appalling reminder of how deep-seated the Yellow Peril is, and how it threatens already marginalized communities.
This normalization of prejudice is cause for a comprehensive reevaluation of our value—at the very least, within our university communities. Damien Xu (许钟子), a first-year undergraduate at New York University from Wuhan, China, shared with me his illuminating experiences upon returning to the U.S. this year, and how they have exhibited the underlying nature of widespread racism and xenophobia. When we spoke, it quickly became clear that humor is a contentious form of interaction where dissonant sensibilities converge and conflict with one another.
With an uneasy grin, Xu recounted an exchange he had with another student: Xu explained to his classmate that he could not leave his home during the winter break because of the quarantine, to which the student responded, “So you must be excited about escaping from your hometown. That’s great.” At first, Xu was taken aback but concerned that his discomfort was an overreaction. Considering the interaction in light of the disparaging jokes he had seen posted on social media about those affected by COVID-19 (coronavirus)—his objections to which he was ridiculed for by proponents of so-called “dark humor”—he concluded that the agitation provoked by callous displays of ignorance was not solely his onus to digest, internalize.
Humor is often, by nature, provocative; it is suggestive and meant to elicit reaction. But Xu clarified a distinction between innocuous humor and humor that profits from suffering: “Now a whole bunch of people died. My hometown is under lockdown. People are dying. They can’t have their Chinese New Year… If you still think that is funny, I don’t think that fits into any moral code.” By normalizing humor that capitalizes on tragedy, Xu suggests that we consider what is lost in its delivery, and what is revealed in the tensions we choose to normalize, even ironically.
Xu also revealed to me the emotional toll of his ordeal, from his time in Wuhan to his treatment after returning to the U.S., and disclosed to me that the roommates of students from Wuhan have decided to temporarily move out of university housing, choosing to seek private accommodations elsewhere. “We have 14 people from my city in N.Y.U., and we are feeling isolated now,” he said. Those affected by the outbreak, whether they are in China, the U.S., or beyond, should be treated unconditionally with dignity, with humanity, as individuals faced with a humanitarian quandary. We must be rational about, and deeply critical of, the way that the Yellow Peril may inform our present anxieties.
Even uptown, at Columbia, such compassion and empathy have been put to the test. In threatening the use of code of conduct violations to enforce quarantine and bar any exit from self-isolated students’ rooms, Barnard’s self-isolation policy called into question the right to privacy. Hostile treatment of self-isolated students from China suggests a base mistrust and antagonization that fails to uphold the core values of our institution. Instead, the animosity that the policy engenders and legitimizes dangerously feeds the social isolation that some Chinese international students already confront on campus.
Moreover, an anti-Chinese message written in Butler Library, Columbia’s community mainstay, cements the xenophobic Yellow Peril as a pillar of our university as fundamental as those that buttress Butler. At press time, more than a week after the incident was first reported, Columbia has taken no action to transparently discuss an investigation into the matter. What does Columbia’s silence reveal about its values, especially its duty to protect students who belong to marginalized groups? Perhaps inaction is in itself an act of measuring the relative value of Chinese students to the community. In its appraisal, Columbia has disgracefully found them wanting.
As an apparatus of oppression, the Yellow Peril is remarkably adept at redefining itself so as to become normalized in each new context of contemporary sociopolitics. We all have a stake in the equitable provision of voice and visibility. At the end of our conversation, I asked Xu what he thinks those labeled by the Yellow Peril should do to fight against racism and xenophobia. In a hopeful assertion, he responded: “Be determined, be focused, be humble. Don’t be afraid to speak up when you encounter any of [these kinds] of circumstances. You should stay strong. Always have a very just moral code.” What a dignified means to an end—resist and defy.
1. Speaking with Damien Xu, a student from Wuhan who I will introduce later, I became acutely aware of the distinction made between Asian-Americans and those born, in this case, in China. I use “we” here as an aggregate reference to Asian diasporic communities in America. In the end, I’d argue that the cause is one that calls for unity and necessitates the use of a term that both generalizes and specifies the individuals in a diaspora.