My earliest memory of yellowface as a kid is a cliche, just like all racism. White children pulled their eyes up by the corners and said, “Chinese!” Then they pulled them down and said, “Japanese!” They did this over and over again. The Black kids did it too; one of white supremacy’s primary functions is to discourage solidarity, to divide and conquer. My skin has never been thin, except when I was fat. So in retaliation, I ran across the blacktop pulling my eyes wide open as though with calipers, going, “White people, white people!” No one got in trouble for this. It was all harmless fun. As we teach in my work, racism equals power plus privilege, and the power of unsupervised children is relative. I was the second fastest sprinter in my class. I told a boy “I love you” just to get him to stop teasing me. I wasn’t fearless, exactly, but I wouldn’t learn to be truly anxious until much later. Despite this, the groundwork for a white supremacist education had already been laid.
Yellowface is an opportunity to get a glimpse of how white people see us. Hollywood’s history of orientalized costuming shows how easy they think it is to look like us. In the 007 film, You Only Live Twice, Bond undergoes several temporary procedures to look like a Japanese fisherman. This costuming was apparently convincing enough for everyone involved in the film, and presumably for western audiences, but in the end, it’s just Sean Connery with a bad dye job, squinting into the camera. In whose fantasy can he pass as Japanese? I imagine him tugging on the corners of his eyes in the dressing room mirror, saying, “Easy peasy Japanesey.”
But it’s been roughly fifty years since that film, and now, Hollywood has cast Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi for the live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, and the director even considered using CGI to make her look Japanese. While the lengths Hollywood will go to avoid taking a chance on an Asian actor is infuriating, it would be enlightening to see what state of the art effects would have been used to enhance her yellowface. These days, yellowface is less likely to be as cartoonish as Mickey Rooney’s bucktoothed bespectacled character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. We’re more likely to witness white actors with curiously Asian names, or the uncomfortable uncanny valley of Cloud Atlas. The only consistency: it isn’t us. For generations, we have practiced rooting for white leads and feeling empathy for their stories. We are not versed in doing the same for ourselves, and this has changed the way Asian Americans self-identify forever.
American white supremacist racism is rooted in two primary fears. There is the fear of the cruel unthinking savage, a fear which drove white people to massacre Native Americans and enslave Africans, tear apart their families, displace their children, change their hair, take away their language, tell them not to sing, help them find God -- and then so arrogantly wonder, after so little time, why they too can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps. This fear emerges when white people become tense in urban neighborhoods, when these groups are characterized as violent, stupid, abusing of substances, and deserving of their pain, when white men talk about linebackers and penis size, when Indigenous people are required to carry identification. These measures come out of a history of fear of an uprising bigger and more terrible than history has already seen.
Then there is the fear of the exotic "other." This fear is reserved for those who (sometimes) came to the United States by choice, and is primarily for those who did not have their language stolen and whose identities were (sometimes) not at first stamped out by colonization. If language couldn't be taken away, then it could be a source of danger and espionage against the US. If families were moving in, then they could be corralled into Chinatowns. This fear leads to the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment, draconian immigration laws, like those that deport undocumented women escaping their abusers. This fear emerges when white people are afraid for their jobs, when they panic over Asians outperforming them in universities, and every time Trump says the word “China.” Even when benevolent, it serves to brutalize Asian Americans by making us out to be robotic, emotionless, overachieving machines. It is the fear that the “other” will take over, as a plague takes over a herd, and this fear allows people to be seen like ants, making them easier to drone, bomb, and put away in camps. Take away the identity and replace it with “terror,” with “peril.”
All Look Same isn't dead. In Rush Hour 2, Chris Tucker accidentally punches Jackie Chan in the nose in the middle of a brawl. Flustered at hurting his buddy, he shouts, “All y’all look alike!” It’s a statement that’s only funny if you think it’s true. It's also an example of the "cross-race effect," or the tendency to more easily recognize members of one's own race. Another instance in the same movie occurs when Chris Tucker rushes up the stairs of a Hong Kong apartment nearly barelling into a woman who mutters in Cantonese, “Move aside, Kobe.” The reality is Asians in predominantly Asian countries don’t see themselves this way. In a video exploring the cross-race effect, Koreans are asked to correctly pair photographs of the same celebrities. Almost everyone fails at matching the faces of westerners. Meanwhile, Asia’s thriving fashion, beauty, and entertainment industries have teens discussing an idol’s miniscule weight gain and comparing celebrities to each other, naming differences that often seem indiscernible to the West. When it comes to a large cast of people of the same nationality, Japanese animators use a concept called “mukokuseki,” or “stateless” characterization, to emphasize a character’s uniqueness by exaggerating traits such as hair color. This is why Sailor Moon is coded as white by many western viewers, with her yellow hair and blue eyes. When viewers are introduced to Sailor Moon’s mother and daughter, who have blue and pink hair respectively, hair and eye color are revealed to be insignificant. To prove this further, the Sailor Scouts in the live action adaptation are played by Japanese actors, sporting black and brown hair when they are students and colorful wigs when they transform. When American or European characters do appear in anime, they are usually drawn with squarer foreheads, jawlines, noses, and other features that distinguish them from the rest of the cast. On the playground the cross-race effect is inconsequential, and in movies, these are just jokes. But racism equals privilege plus power, and in the entertainment industry, white people hold the cards.
If many Asians in predominantly Asian countries do not struggle with self-identification, Asian Americans are caught between seeing ourselves as we are, and seeing ourselves as white Americans see us. This is why our communities collectively groan when three Jeopardy contestants cannot tell Jet Li from Bruce Lee from Jackie Chan, but why we may also be quick to distance ourselves from those like us. Think “FOB,” the term used primarily by Asians to deride Asians who have not assimilated to the satisfaction of other Asian Americans. If the teasing in elementary school is harmless, it's important to note how internalized racism carries through into adulthood. By high school, I had already been thoroughly indoctrinated. I knew there were rules about what made someone “Asian” vs. “Not Like Other Asians,” and I had spent so many years trying to distinguish myself that I had already mentally flattened and caricatured my Asian peers. Having been supremely average in high school at every subject except English and music, I felt alienated by second-generation friends, the high achievers with tiger moms who cried when they got Bs. Part of setting myself apart was creating the mental distance that allowed me to more easily subvert the stereotype of the Asian girl that threatened to box me in when in the company of white friends who treated me with a sort of probationary whiteness. Later, I would hide grimaces when I found out “Asian girls” were a guy’s “thing.” I would kill my boss with kindness when she said, “I could tell you were mixed with something. You don’t look as Asian as others.” I was freelancing at the tail end of the recession, a new graduate with an English degree. Telling my boss that I actually was full Asian, being Chinese and Filipina, didn’t seem worth the possibility of losing my job. Even now people try to place me, and when they can, they give themselves a pat on the back for being able to tell us apart. People sometimes insist I must be mixed or ask if my double eyelids are natural because I cannot fit within their purview of what an Asian woman should look like.
What should we look like? Hollywood knows the answer: dark hair, slim frame, small eyes. Chinese, Japanese. Swap the Rs and Ls, and make us shout if it’s a comedy. Give us small mouths that never open if we are women. It’s easy. Sure, all of this speaks to white entitlement and the industry’s unwillingness to deal with the racism that harms Asians in the industry. But there is also psychic damage when we begin to see ourselves the way white people see us. The casting for Motoko in Ghost in the Shell is not angering simply because it is inaccurate. It is angering because it, in large part, continues this devastation to the Asian American psyche. It is angering because it sabotages our self-identification. It pressures us to isolate from one another, change our hair, abandon our language, and feel shame about our Asianness if it means we are anything but a peony. This fear of the "other" is pernicious because it teaches us to do to ourselves what has already been forcibly done to others. But yellowface, even when attempting to be faithful, will always fall short, until white America is ready to truly see us.