More than a century before Coca Cola’s controversial Super Bowl commercial celebrating America as a nation of nations, the melting pot overflowed with people of all races and ethnicities—each subject to its share of mass media abuse. Immigration made America what it is, but not without considerable racist barbing and comic hazing by cartoonists, illustrators, and artists. Blacks, Indians, Irish, Jews, and Asians were the main targets. The last was not just savagely portrayed in media as rat-tailed demons but legally restricted for decades from entering the United States. An insightful new anthology of writing on racist stereotyping, Yellow Peril! An Archive of Anti-Asian Fears edited by John Kuo Wei Tchen and Dylan Yeats (Verso), describes how demonizing Asian peoples in word and picture was acceptable in America for so long.
With China’s reemergence today, the term “Yellow Peril” is still faintly whispered. Yet the first use of the pejorative “as a modern political tool,” Tchen, an NYU professor and the author of New York Before Chinatown, told me, was Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm. Responding to his cousin the Russian Czar’s defeat to Japan in 1905, Wilhelm commissioned an artist draw a “threatening Buddha in a lotus position riding a dragon thundercloud off in the distance.” This was not an effective piece of propaganda by contemporary standards, Tchen says, “but it did get at some basic dynamics: the threatening, evil man marked by certain exaggerated and racialized physical characteristics. It gets the juices going for men to become protectors.”
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