As Asian representation expands in the United States, from the decorated class commentary of Parasite, to the rising popularity of Asian-American music label 88rising, I want to take a critical look at what popular portrayals reveal about Asian-American-ness today. Modern depictions of Asian people in the media mostly aim to dismantle the “yellow peril” and “model minority” stereotypes that have defined Asian characters for so long – but how well do they succeed? Historically, the “yellow peril” framework paints Asians as unassimilable foreigners whose presence in America spells doom for the whole country. We’ve seen yellow peril make something of a comeback in recent years due to the COVID-19 pandemic — as actor John Cho so eloquently stated, “Coronavirus reminds Asians-Americans … that our belonging is conditional.”
On the flip side, Asian people that assimilate too well are deemed model minorities. White people use them as ammunition to blame other minorities for their race-centric problems, as if to say “if they can do it, why can’t you?”
In 1922, a Japanese man named Takao Ozawa, who was ineligible for U.S. citizenship by naturalization, tried to convince the Supreme Court that he should be classified as a “free white person” on account of his American upbringing, language, religion and cultural practices.