Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White – Book Review

In Yellow Frank Wu takes on the necessary task of expanding discussions of race beyond black and white by specifically investigating how Asians and Asian-Americans in the United States navigate the intricacies and contradictions of being caught in the middle.

fullsizerender-4The racialized Asian and Asian-American experiences are quite different from the black experience in the United States and from the introduction Wu expertly captures the nuances of anti-Asian discrimination while also building common ground. To do this Wu positions racism as a system of control. In describing his own experience Wu states: “In most instances, I am who others perceive me to be rather than how I perceive myself. [In the United States] the inability to define one’s self is the greatest loss of liberty possible.” (p.9) Wu then carries this theme of control throughout the text as he unpacks the contradictions, parallels, and distinctions between how Asians and Asian-Americans experience race in the united states in reference to the commonly discussed black/white dichotomy.

Limitations
In a post-Obama election, late-2016 some of Wu’s assertions from 2002 read as naïve. Particularly when he makes broad generalizations about the state of racism in the United States. In the introduction Wu expands thoroughly on the concept of invisible racism or “aversive racists [who are] conditioned to regard racism as reprehensible but also reflexively following racial impulses.” (p.13) Prior to the 2016 presidential election I would have been inclined to agree with Wu here, yet is difficult to agree as the new reports Muslim women having their headscarves forcibly removed and increased frequency of white supremacist graffiti and other hate crimes reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Wu is clear throughout the text about what he does and does not cover and as one might expect LatinX and Native American experiences are largely absent. Discussions of intersectionality are also largely absent from the text and Wu acknowledges those limitations without perseverating on the issue. While the above are important issues that educators must discuss and develop their understanding of, Yellow’s value comes in its specificity. The text remains focused on positioning Asians and Asian-Americans within the dominant black/white dialogue on race and does so with great success.

These limitations, however, do not diminish the power or relevancy of the text.

Superb Argumentation
The highlight of the text comes in its argumentation. As one might expect from a lawyer and legal professor, Wu is an expert of supporting his claims with a bounty of evidence. He draws from a wide range of sources including case law, personal experience, mass media, literature, and popular culture. This diversity of sources increases the text’s accessibility and prevents Yellow from being limited to the academy or the legal field.

Additionally, and noticeably rare in discussions of race and racism, Wu is adept at trying on perspectives and following them to their logical conclusion. In his chapter on Affirmative Action Wu takes on whether colorblindness is a reasonable goal by assuming that it is reasonable and trying to follow the internal logic of colorblindness.

Imagine what their lives would be like if they censored race fastidiously. … [Proponents of colorblindness] could not decided that the Chinese restaurant with many Asian diners is “authentic.” They would have to refrain from telling two friends who w ere meeting one another for the first time beneath the clock tower at Grand Central Station that one should look for a white woman and the other should look for a black woman. … In each of these situations they could not use race to draw inferences about individuals, [or] to give complete identifications of them…. (p.151)

Under this type of scrutiny colorblindness immediately collapses under its own contradictions and impossibilities. This takedown of colorblindness is impeccably reasoned while  remaining fully comprehensible to a general reader. Wu repeats this method when arguing against improper use of statistics and how to balance assimilation with diversity. This persistent thoroughness is one of Yellow’s key strengths helping the text to stand apart from more superficially argued peers.

Yellow in Schools
Yellow is not a text aimed specifically at educators, nor does it purport to examine Asian and Asian-American experience in schools. As far as usability for professional development goes, I would likely subdivide Yellow and use it piecemeal due to the incredible depth in each chapter and the limited time that educators typically have in each discrete professional learning experience. (Most chapters also clock in between forty and fifty pages.) I can easily imagine running a single session using one or two individual chapters from the text.

For example the chapters on both the Model Minority and Perpetual Alien fallacies would be extremely beneficial when helping (overwhelmingly white) educators understand the lived experiences of Asians and Asian-Americans and the unique forms of racism they experience. Embedded throughout these chapters are key moments of U.S. History that are not commonly emphasized in the classroom, let alone emphasized with an Asian-American lens. These chapters would provide helpful perspectives for educators of all races when working with Asian and Asian-American students.

I particularly recommend using Yellow in schools and districts with substantial Asian and Asian-American populations. Too few texts on race, racism, or educational equity spend time examining Asians and Asian-Americans because these groups traditionally succeed at high levels (an overgeneralization that Wu investigates at length) therefore rendering Asian and Asian-American experiences largely unexplored by educators.  Even one or two chapters from Yellow would go a long way to filling that gap.

 

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