Chapter 11: Activist Amy Uyematsu Explains Concept of “Yellow Power”
Source: Amy Uyematsu, “The Emergence of Yellow Power in America,” (reprinted from Gidra, October, 1969), Roots: An Asian American Reader, eds., Amy Tachiki, Eddie Wong, Franklin Odo, Buck Wong (Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1971), pp. 9–13.
Courtesy of the UCLA AASC Press. Please contact the Press for further use requests.
Asian Americans can no longer afford to watch the black-and-white struggle from the sidelines. They have their own cause to fight, since they are also victims—with less visible scars—of the white institutionalized racism. A yellow movement has been set into motion by the black power movement. Addressing itself to the unique problems of Asian Americans, this “yellow power” movement is relevant to the black power movement in that both are part of the Third World struggle to liberate all colored people.
Part I: MISTAKEN IDENTITY
The yellow power movement has been motivated largely by the problem of self-identity in Asian Americans. The psychological focus of this movement is vital, for Asian Americans suffer the critical mental crises of having “integrated” into American society—
“No person can be healthy, complete, and mature if he must deny a part of himself; this is what ‘integration’ has required so far.”
—Stokely Carmichael & Charles V. Hamilton
The Asian Americans’ current position in America is not viewed as a social problem. Having achieved middle-class incomes while presenting no real threat in numbers to the white majority, the main body of Asian Americans (namely, the Japanese and the Chinese) have received the token acceptance of white America.
Precisely because Asian Americans have become economically secure, do they face serious identity problems. Fully committed to a system that subordinates them on the basis of non-whiteness, Asian Americans still try to gain complete acceptance by denying their yellowness. They have become white in every respect but color.
However, the subtle but prevailing racial prejudice that “yellows” experience restricts them to the margins of the white world. Asian Americans have assumed white identities, that is, the values and attitudes of the majority of Americans. Now they are beginning to realize that this nation is a “White democracy” and that yellow people have a mistaken identity.
Within the past two years, the “yellow power” movement has developed as a direct outgrowth of the “black power” movement. The “black power” movement caused many Asian Americans to question themselves. “Yellow power” is just now at the stage of “an articulated mood rather than a program—disillusionment and alienation from white America and independence, race pride, and self-respect.” Yellow consciousness is the immediate goal of concerned Asian Americans.
In the process of Americanization, Asians have tried to transform themselves into white men—both mentally and physically. Mentally, they have adjusted to the white man’s culture by giving up their own languages, customs, histories, and cultural values. They have adopted the “American way of life” only to discover that this is not enough.
Next, they have rejected their physical heritages, resulting in extreme self-hatred. Yellow people share with the blacks the desire to look white. Just as blacks wish to be light-complected with thin lips and unkinky hair, “yellows” want to be tall with long legs and large eyes. The self-hatred is also evident in the yellow male’s obsession with unobtainable white women, and in the yellow female’s attempt to gain male approval by aping white beauty standards. Yellow females have their own “conking” techniques—they use “peroxide, foam rubber, and scotch tape to give them light hair, large breasts, and double-lidded eyes.”
The “Black is Beautiful” cry among black Americans has instilled a new awareness in Asian Americans to be proud of their physical and cultural heritages. Yellow power advocates self-acceptance as the first step toward strengthening personalities of Asian Americans.
Since the yellow power movement is thus far made up of students and young adults, it is working for Asian-American ethnic studies centers on college campuses such as Cal and U.C.L.A. The re-establishment of ethnic identity through education is being pursued in classes like U.C.L.A.’s “Orientals in America.” As one student in the course relates:
“I want to take this course for a 20-20 realization, and not a passive glance in the ill-reflecting mirror; the image I see is W.A.S.P., but the yellow skin is not lily white … I want to find out what my voluntarily or subconsciously suppressed Oriental self is like; also what the thousands of other (suppressed?) Oriental selves are like in a much larger mind and body—America … I want to establish my ethnic identity not merely for the sake of such roots, but for the inherent value that such a background merits.
The problem of self-identity in Asian Americans also requires the removal of stereo-types. The yellow people in America seem to be silent citizens. They are stereotyped as being passive, accommodating, and unemotional. Unfortunately, this description is fairly accurate, for Asian Americans have accepted these stereotypes and are becoming true to them.
The “silent” Asian Americans have rationalized their behavior in terms of cultural values which they have maintained from the old country. For example, the Japanese use the term “enryo” to denote hesitation in action or expression. A young Buddhist minister, Reverend Mas Kodani of the Los Angeles Senshin Buddhist Temple, has illustrated the difference between Japanese “enryo” and Japanese-American “enryo”: in Japan, if a teacher or lecturer asks, “Are there any questions?”, several members of the class or audience respond; but in the United States, the same question is followed by a deathly silence.
Reverend Kodani has also commented on the freedom of expression between family members that is absent in Asian Americans. As an American-born student in Japan, he was surprised at the display of open affection in Japanese families. This cultural characteristic is not shown in Japanese-American families, who react with embarrassment and guilt toward open feelings of love and hate.
This uneasiness in admitting and expressing natural human feelings has been a factor in the negligible number of Asian Americans in the theater, drama, and literary arts. Not discounting the race prejudice and competition in these fields, yellow Americans cannot express themselves honestly, or in the words of Chinese-American actor James Hong, they cannot feel “from the gut level”.
The silent, passive image of Asian Americans is understood not in terms of their cultural backgrounds, but by the fact that they are scared. The earliest Asians in America were Chinese immigrants who began settling in large numbers on the West Coast from 1850 through 1880. They were subjected to extreme white racism, ranging from economic subordination, to the denial of rights of naturalization, to physical violence. During the height of anti-Chinese mob action of the 1880’s, whites were “stoning the Chinese in the streets, cutting off their queues, wrecking their shops and laundries.” The worst outbreak took place in Rock Springs, Wyoming, in 1885, when twenty-eight Chinese residents were murdered. Perhaps, surviving Asians learned to live in silence, for even if “the victims of such attacks tried to go to court to win protection, they could not hope to get a hearing. The phrase ‘not a Chinaman’s chance’ had a grim and bitter reality.”
Racist treatment of “yellows” still existed during World War II, with the unjustifiable internment of 110,000 Japanese into detention camps. When Japanese Americans were ordered to leave their homes and possessions behind within short notice, they co-operated with resignation and not even voiced opposition. According to Frank Chumann, onetime president of the Japanese American Citizens League, they “used the principle of shikataganai—realistic resignation—and evacuated without protest.”
Today the Asian Americans are still scared. Their passive behavior serves to keep national attention on the black people. By being as inconspicuous as possible, they keep pressure off of themselves at the expense of the blacks. Asian Americans have formed an uneasy alliance with white Americans to keep the blacks down. They close their eyes to the latent white racism toward them which has never changed.
Frightened “yellows” allow the white public to use the “silent Oriental” stereotype against the black protest. The presence of twenty million blacks in America poses an actual physical threat to the white system. Fearful whites tell militant blacks that the acceptable criterion for behavior is exemplified in the quiet, passive Asian American.
The yellow power movement envisages a new role for Asian Americans:
“It is a rejection of the passive Oriental stereotype and symbolizes the birth of a new Asian—one who will recognize and deal with injustices. The shout of Yellow Power, symbolic of our new direction, is reverberating in the quiet corridors of the Asian community.”
As expressed in the black power writings, yellow power also says that “When we begin to define our own image, the stereotypes—that is, lies—that our oppressor has developed will begin in the white community and end there.”
Another obstacle to the creation of yellow consciousness is the well-incorporated white racist attitudes which are present in Asian Americans. They take much false pride in their own economic progress and feel that blacks could succeed similarly if they only followed the Protestant ethic of hard work and education. Many Asians support S. I. Hayakawa, the so-called spokesman of yellow people, when he advises the black man to imitate the Nisei: “Go to school and get high grades, save one dollar out of every ten you earn to capitalize your business.” But the fact is that the white power structure allowed Asian Americans to succeed through their own efforts while the same institutions persist in denying these opportunities to black Americans.
Certain basic changes in American society made it possible for many Asian Americans to improve their economic condition after the war. In the first place, black people became the target group of West Coast discrimination. During and after World War II, a huge influx of blacks migrated into the West, taking racist agitation away from the yellows and onto the blacks. From 1940 to 1950, there was a gain of 85.2 percent in the black population of the West and North; from 1950 to 1960, a gain of 71.6 percent; and from 1960 to 1966, a gain of 80.4 percent.
The other basic change in society was the shifting economic picture. In a largely agricultural and rural West, Asian Americans were able to find employment. First- and second-generation Japanese and Filipinos were hired as farm laborers and gardeners, while Chinese were employed in laundries and restaurants. In marked contrast is the highly technological and urban society which today faces unemployed black people. “The Negro migrant, unlike the immigrant, found little opportunity in the city; he had arrived too late, and the unskilled labor he had to offer was no longer needed.” Moreover, blacks today are kept out of a shrinking labor market, which is also closing opportunities for white job-seekers.
Asian Americans are perpetuating white racism in the United States as they allow white America to hold up the “successful” Oriental image before other minority groups as the model to emulate. White America justifies the blacks’ position by showing that other non-whites—yellow people—have been able to “adapt” to the system. The truth underlying both the yellows’ history and that of the blacks has been distorted. In addition, the claim that black citizens must “prove their rights to equality” is fundamentally racist.
Unfortunately, the yellow power movement is fighting a well-developed racism in Asian Americans who project their own frustrated attempts to gain white acceptance onto the black people. They nurse their own feelings of inferiority and insecurity by holding themselves as superior to the blacks.
Since they feel they are in a relatively secure economic and social position, most Asian Americans overlook the subtle but damaging racism that confronts them. They do not want to upset their present ego systems by honest self-appraisal. They would rather fool themselves than admit that they have prostituted themselves to white society.
Part 2: THE RELEVANCE OF POWER FOR ASIANS IN AMERICA
The emerging movement among Asian Americans can be described as “yellow power” because it is seeking freedom from racial oppression through the power of a consolidated yellow people. As derived from the black power ideology, yellow power implies that Asian Americans must control the decision-making processes affecting their lives.
One basic premise of both black power and yellow power is that ethnic political power must be used to improve the economic and social conditions of blacks and yellows. In considering the relevance of power for Asian Americans, two common assumptions will be challenged: first, that the Asian Americans are completely powerless in the United States; and second, the assumption that Asian Americans have already obtained “economic” equality.
While the black power movement can conceivably bargain from a position of strength, yellow power has no such potential to draw from. A united black people would comprise over ten percent of the total American electorate; this is a significant enough proportion of the voting population to make it possible for blacks to be a controlling force in the power structure. In contrast, the political power of yellows would have little effect on state and national contests. The combined populations of Chinese, Japanese and Filipinos in the United States in 1960 was only 887, 834—not even one-half percent of the total population.
However, Asian Americans are not completely weaponless, in the local political arena. For instance, in California, the combined strength of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos in 1960 was two percent of the state population. Their possible political significance lies in the fact that there are heavy concentrations of these groups in San Francisco and Los Angeles. In the San Francisco-Oakland metropolitan area, 55% of the Chinese, 16% of the Japanese, and 33% of the Filipinos live. On an even more local level, Japanese and Chinese in the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles form about one-third of the total residents; and Japanese in the city of Gardena own forty percent of that city’s property.
In city and county government, a solid yellow voting bloc could make a difference. As has been demonstrated by the Irish, Italians, Jews, and Poles, the remarkable fact of ethnic political power is its ability to “control a higher proportion of political control and influence than their actual percentage in the population warrants.”
Even under the assumption that yellow political power could be significant, how will it improve the present economic situation of Asian Americans? Most yellow people have attained middle-class incomes and feel that they have no legitimate complaint against the existing capitalist structure.
The middle-class attainment of Asian Americans has also made certain blacks unsympathetic to the yellow power movement. In the words of one B.S.U. member, it looks like Asian Americans “just want more of the money pie.” It is difficult for some blacks to relate to the yellow man’s problems next to his own total victimization.
Although it is true that some Asian minorities lead all other colored groups in America in terms of economic progress, it is a fallacy that Asian Americans enjoy full economic opportunity. If the Protestant ethic is truly a formula for economic success, then why don’t Japanese and Chinese who work harder and have more education than whites earn just as much? Statistics on unemployment, educational attainment, and median annual income reveal an inconsistency in this “success” formula when it applies to non-whites.
In 1960, unemployment rates for Japanese and Chinese males were lower than those for white males in California:
2.6 percent for Japanese
4.9 percent for Chinese
5.5 percent for whites
In the same year, percentage rates for Japanese and Chinese males who had completed high school or college were higher than those for white males:
High School34.3 percent for Japanese
24.4 percent for Chinese
College (4 years or more)
13.3 percent for Chinese
11.9 percent for Japanese
10.7 percent for whites
Despite these figures, the median annual income of Japanese and Chinese was considerably lower than the median annual income of whites. Chinese men in California earned $3,803; Japanese men earned $4,388; and white men earned $5,109.
The explanation for this discrepancy lies in the continuing racial discrimination toward yellows in upper-wage level and high-status positions. White America praises the success of Japanese and Chinese for being highest among all other colored groups. Japanese and Chinese should feel fortunate that they are accepted more than any other non-white ethnic groups, but they should not step out of place and compare themselves with whites. In essence, the American capitalistic dream was never meant to include non-whites.
The myth of Asian American success is most obvious in the economic and social position of Filipino Americans. In 1960, the 65,459 Filipino residents of California earned a median annual income of $2,925, as compared to $3,553 for blacks and $5,109 for whites. Over half of the total Filipino male working force was employed in farm labor and service work; over half of all Filipino males received less than 8.7 years of school education. Indeed, Filipinos are a forgotten minority in America. Like blacks, they have many legitimate complaints against American society.
A further example of the false economic and social picture of Asian Americans exists in the ghetto communities of Little Tokyo in Los Angeles and Chinatown in San Francisco. In the former, elderly Japanese live in rundown hotels in social and cultural isolation. And in the latter, Chinese families suffer the poor living conditions of a community that has the second highest tuberculosis rate in the nation.
Thus, the use of yellow political power is valid, for Asian Americans do have definite economic and social problems which must be improved. By organizing around these needs, Asian Americans can make the yellow power movement a viable political force in their lives.