The word “yellow,” when describing race or ethnicity in the United States, evokes an ugly history of violent and legally protected xenophobia toward Chinese, Japanese, Korean and other East Asian Americans. Journalist Kat Chow examines the word in an article published by Code Switch yesterday (September 27). 

She starts by tracing the history of yellow as a xenophobic slur staring in 18th century Europe: 

In 1735, [Swedish botanist Carl] Linnaeus separated humans into four groups, including Homo Asiaticus—Asian Man. The other three categories, European, African and American, already had established—albeit arbitrary—colors: white, black and red. Linnaeus, searching for a distinguishing color for his Asian Man, eventually declared Asians the color “luridus,” meaning “lurid,” “sallow” or “pale yellow.”

I get this bit of history from Michael Keevak, a professor at National Taiwan University, who writes in his book, “Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking,” that “Luridus also appeared in several of Linnaeus’s botanical publications to characterize unhealthy and toxic plants.”

Keevak argues that these early European anthropologists used “yellow” to refer to Asian people because “Asia was seductive, mysterious, full of pleasures and spices and perfumes and fantastic wealth.” Yellow had multiple connotations, which included both “serene” and “happy,” as well as “toxic” and “impure.”

He tells me that there was “something dangerous, exotic and threatening about Asia that ‘yellow’ … helped reinforce.”

This characterization ultimately led to the term “yellow peril,” used by White Europeans and Americans to characterize Chinese immigrants as insidious threats to White morality: 

One of the first references to “yellow peril” can be traced to a dream that the German Emperor Wilhelm II—best known for his bombastic political maneuvering in the years before, and during, World War I—had in 1895. In the dream, the emperor saw a Buddha on the back of a dragon, storming Europe. He commissioned an illustration of the dream, which he shared with leaders of Europe and the United States. The work, by the artist Hermann Knackfuss, depicted an archangel trying to persuade various European nations to band together to defend a womanly figure from the so-called yellow forces of Asia. It was titled, “Peoples of Europe, Defend Your Holiest Possessions,” and it appeared in 1898 in Harper’s Weekly, which had hundreds of thousands of readers in the U.S. The image was widely referred to as “THE YELLOW PERIL.”

Not surprisingly, anxiety about Asia made its way into pop culture, too. In 1913, the British author Sax Rohmer created a fictional villain, Dr. Fu Manchu. The doctor—with his long, scraggly mustache and jaundiced-looking skin—became an unofficial template for portraying Chinese men as lecherous and maniacal.

Asian Americans challenged that narrative in the 1960s during a wave of activism known as both the Asian American Movement and Yellow Power Movement:

That’s when the term “Asian American” was born. At the time, it was linked to political advocacy. Yuji Ichioka, then a graduate student and activist at the University of California, Berkeley, who would later become a leading historian and scholar, is widely credited with coining the term.

This period, often referred to as the Yellow Power Movement, was one of the first times these disparate people—Korean Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Japanese Americans, Indian Americans, Laotian Americans, Cambodian Americans, to name only some—grouped themselves under one pan-ethnic identity.

Chow then brings these conversations into the present, where Asian American has grown more complicated and vague while yellow still largely maintains its racist connotation:

[Activist and writer Jenn Fang is] not so convinced that “yellow” would resolve the issues that plague “Asian American.” It might be a useful identifier if yellow was used very intentionally and people knew its history, she says. But it could also fall into the same traps as “Asian American.” With ubiquity, it could eventually lose its power.

[…]

“Are you reclaiming the slur, or reclaiming our history?” Fang asks me. “The thing I’m concerned about is—is [‘yellow’] a truly reflective way of talking about the East Asian American experience? Is ‘yellow’ more nuancing? …Or more flattening?”

Read the full essay at NPR.org.