Discussion, Yellow Peril: Sociology in Entertainment / by David Anderson

This is a discussion of themes from the webcomic Yellow Peril.
Though not entirely necessary, if you would like to put it in context, check out Dave's review of Yellow Peril here.

Noguchi began YPcomics as a way to expand the list of American entertainment media featuring a predominantly Asian cast, at least by a thousandth of a percent. His comic name comes from an old xenophobic editorial cartoon, published in 1899 under the title, "The Yellow Terror in All His Glory." The cartoon features a Chinese man wearing a Queue style hairbraid, the symbol of the Qing dynasty's hegemony, slicing and shooting his way past a murdered white woman. The phrase became even more widely know in America after the 1911 publication of influential religious figure G.G. Rupert's The Yellow Peril; or, Orient vs. Occident. He believed that the faiths of the East were a direct attack on Britain and Christianity, but professed the firm belief that they would be stopped by Jesus Christ.

This is some pretty strong imagery to use to define a comic strip, and it might seem odd to have that impression hanging over your head while you read YPcomics, because the dialogue and culture of the characters is practically indistinguishable from the rest of American culture--at most, there are obscure references to Japanese shows that only some niches of nerd culture would easily pick up on (I've watched a few episodes of Kamen Rider myself). So it might seem like Noguchi's complaints about cultural under-representation in the media are largely superficial. Though the argument could also be made that it's not about the difference, but about representing the sameness of his characters to everyone else.

I still don't think that's in though. At least in my reading, I think that Noguchi's larger point is about how whites and non-whites have different views of America that we seldom communicate to each other, and how the dominant narrative of America is still white-centric. I had only one sociology class in college, but in it we learned about how culture creates invisible walls between different ethnic groups depending on your experiences.

For example, as a white guy living in a fairly ethnically homogenous community, I can be sure that most of the people I meet are white. In the town over though, there are Polish, Puerto Rican and African American subsections mingling with each other constantly. Their experience will be completely different from mine because of the sheer variety of people and languages and cultures they come in contact with every day. That's probably why my town is so boring.

It's also why I can't stand people who moan and whine with questions like "Why can't I use the word n***er?" or "Why is there a Black Entertainment Television but no White Entertainment Television?" Because every other channel on TV apparently wasn't enough?

Anyways. I'm white, and so are a lot of wealthy and powerful people in this country. One thing I hear a lot is how being a white male opens a ton of doors for me, and as insensitive as it is to say, they're probably right--cultural bias still works in my favor. I can be sure that when I name 10 random movies produced in the last year, most of them will have white protagonists. If I were to close my eyes and point at a map of the Senate or House of Representatives, I will most likely land my finger on a seat held by an old white man. The richest man on earth right now is Carlos Slim Helu, a Mexican telecom CEO, but this is the first time a non-white has even made the list. Most of the richest 100 men on Earth are still white. And don't forget how obsessed everyone became with Barack Obama's ethnicity--how we couldn't even figure out if he was our first "black" president for a while.

Hell, even cosmetics companies label pale skin creams as "skin" colored, while non-white colored creams are labeled in other colors. That's how pervasive our bias has become--we, a numerically inferior ethnic group in the grand scheme of Earth, still think our skin color is the default. There were non-racist people whose entire perspective on the human race was changed when scientists figured out that blacks were here before whites.

So in that context, Noguchi's claims have more substance, at least in my opinion. It's still a society that defines non-whites as "minorities". Traditionally minorities refer to political ones, like how blacks were numerically superior to whites in South Africa but still had zero representation in the government due to Apartheid,  sort of like the kind of under-representation Kafka wrote about in Prague. The vulgar definition in America, though, is pretty much "non-whites".

I once heard someone ask that if New York City is mostly minorities, doesn't that make them a majority? The answer is that it only becomes a majority if New Yorks' city council represents them fully. Even further than that, though, it is only true if economic mobility is easy to obtain for them. A city of 100,000 poor blacks and 10,000 rich whites is not a place where blacks are a majority.

Asian-American, African-American, Hispanic-American--each of these hyphenated terms is appended to a person based on their cosmetic appearance. Kane and Bodie of Yellow Peril walk and talk like Americans but are defined first by their Asian-ness, then by their American-ness, at least from a white perspective. From Noguchi's perspective, they're just a couple of normal guys.

I've mostly talked about this from the point of view of whites as the dominant ethnic group and comparing them to other non-whites. There is definitely more to it, i.e. the way blacks interact with Asians and the way Asians interact with Arabs. It's not a monolithic dichotomy of white vs non-white, but I don't have too much experience in talking about those so I'll leave it to the commenters on this article.

Consider Noguchi's point, though: How much does the ethnicity of the cast of any media--comics, movies, TV--affect your perception of that piece of media? How much does it matter to you? What do you think will change the status quo in favor of increased representation of non-whites in American media?