January 26, 2014

GUEST COLUMN | Confronting the Term ‘Yellow Fever’

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The origin of the slang term “yellow fever” is derived from one of the symptoms of the disease, jaundice, which causes a yellowing pigmentation of the skin. The racial epithet, therefore, has come to connote an attraction to people of Asian origin. This term was particularly interesting to learn of as a young Asian woman in American society. Before coming to Cornell, I didn’t know the term was rampantly used on college campuses –– so much so that one would think yellow fever has become quite the epidemic.

My friends and acquaintances will often say at a party or bar that the people I am speaking with are victims of yellow fever. Often, the individual in question hasn’t expressed an exclusive attraction to Asian women and doesn’t have a romantic history exclusive to one race. Instead, the individual may have only been seen interacting with a woman of Asian origin once or twice, leading to an exaggeration through word of mouth. Sometimes a fellow student will also use the term derogatorily to refer to a period of time during which his or her attraction to people of Asian origin was particularly fervent.

I’m not sure at what age I began to notice that yellow fever was a noteworthy term in society. However, I do recall in high school male students rated classmates separately on a “Hottest Girls” list and a “Hottest Asians” list. This separation suggested to me that there was something about inherently different about being Asian that necessitated special acknowledgment when debating attractiveness. I mocked the lists as a product of childish preconceptions that would fade with age and experience. Little did I know that upon attending college –– even at a school as progressive as Cornell –– the yellow fever stereotype would not just remain but become a stubborn element of my college experience.

Some of the bolder men I’ve encountered have occasionally referred to me as “that cute little Asian girlfriend” they once had or to their weakness for women of my ethnic background: Nothing can make a girl feel more replaceable.

At first, the term yellow fever is somewhat entertaining –– that is until I began to read into its implications. Since attraction to Asian woman is labeled as an affliction, the term insinuates that normal or healthy behavior is to not be attracted to Asian women, as if being attracted to Asians is synonymous with a perversion or fetish. And interracial dating can become quite the experience when students chalk a relationships up to Asian persuasion.

I don’t mean to appear unappreciative for being an Asian woman. Some women of different ethnicities than mine have even expressed envy of the advantages of yellow fever, like attraction partners. However, along with these so-called advantages are a number of outdated stereotypes and references to misogyny.

For example, I recently viewed a blog dedicated to creepy things said about Asian girls on dating websites. On this blog, men mention how Asian women “know how to make a man feel like a man.” Other individuals I have encountered at Cornell have presumed that because I am Asian, I am passive and gentle –– and therefore easily controlled. There will be a slow, if any, attempt to eradicate such preconceived notions if these stereotypes are erroneously considered to be advantageous.

Despite the abundance of assertive, ambitious women on campus, the prevalence of the yellow fever stereotype isn’t any less at Cornell. I’ve received comments both explicit and sexual in nature. These instances exemplify how this archaic and somewhat sexualized view of Asian women not only create unjust expectations for Asian women, but also women in general. The yellow fever stereotype eschews acceptance of unique women –– especially those breaking the feminine mold. And that’s not all right.

Cecilia An is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Feedback may be sent to [email protected]. Guest Columns appear periodically throughout the semester.