‘Yellow Peril’: the dangers of the subconscious and The Blindboy Podcast
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
I spent the evening of 21st May in a small pocket of Barcelona at the Blindboy Live Podcast. Surrounded by what seemed a loyal and googly eyed audience, I watched Blindboy, well known for his hot takes and comedy, cut through topics with honest wit and originality. The calmness and clarity with which he dissected areas of contention was enlightening to say the least. However, my favourite of his podcast remains “The strange English dystopian Novel about Ireland” in which he considers dystopian fiction alongside postcolonial theory, with specific reference to the term “Yellow Peril”.
Coined by the Russian sociologist, Jacques Novikow in 1897, the racist term is inherently imperialist, harking back to Western colonisation of the “Orient”. As a means for validating the West’s aggressive expansion, “Yellow Peril” provided a narrative asserting Asia as dangerous, disease-ridden primitives who ultimately posed a threat to Western lifestyle.
Figure1. 'People of Europe, Guard you Goods', Hermann Knackfuss (1895)
“Yellow Peril” has since taken on various forms and uses, one being its use as a political weapon. Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm drew on Novikow’s definition in a bid to secure Germany’s security and imperial power. In his commission of a painting titled ‘People of Europe, Guard Your Dearest Goods’ (see Fig. 1), the emperor promoted a European invasion of China on the basis that the East posed a dangerous threat to Western ideologies. Later examples of Chinese racism, supported by “Yellow Peril” propaganda, include The Chinese Exclusion Act 1882, which banned Chinese Citizens from re-entering the US and from gaining citizenship. Arguably, this act in reaction to China’s growing labour services in America. Willing to work for lower wages and challenging American gender restrictions (as Chinese men accepted work in the domestic sphere), they proved obvious competition to American workers.
The pattern is recurring and consistent: As China succeeds, whether in overcoming colonialism, leading technological innovation or offering competitive labour services, the Western world feels threatened. In retaliation, they have painted Asia as an unknown mass, blurring individuality and emphasising violent stereotype. Drawing on xenophobic fears, they have used “Yellow Peril” to conjure up fear against the possibility of Asian advances and the subsequent ‘threat’ posed on Western lifestyle and thought.
More recently, the outbreak of Coronavirus spurred the West to point fingers at China, laden with accusations of uncleanliness and incivility. Donald Trump has been largely to blame for this, criticizing China for the virus in his referral to it as the “China virus”. His rhetoric has been especially inflammatory and hypocritical, using China as a scapegoat for the US’s inefficient response to the pandemic. Health Affairs’ data recognises 64% of Asian Americans citing COVID-19 to be the major reason for discrimination, and 57% answering Donal Trump as the cause. The Atlanta Spa shootings (2021) left 8 killed, 6 of whom were Asian women. Racial tragedies such as these seem especially incessant following the pandemic and fuelling of Asian discrimination. Stop AAPI Hate’s co-founder Russell Jeung noted the shooting as an indicator that “the racism is really deep rooted”, as opposed to a temporary reaction to Trump’s propaganda.
However, as troubling as these examples may be, their explicitness has allowed for a subsequent backlash, involving calls for the implementation of hate-crime bills. It is for this reason that Blindboy’s commentary on the cultural aspect of “Yellow Peril” feels so disturbingly dangerous. Less obviously identifiable, these stereotypes are able to seep into society unacknowledged.
Blindboy draws on the aggressor’s mindset, with specific reference to America dropping the only atomic bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima on the 6th and 9th August 1945. Haunted by their own acts of violence, repression and manipulation, America has been left plagued with the fear that the victim will retaliate in revenge. In a pre-emptive act of defence, US leaders have used “Yellow Peril” to instil fear in the nation against Japan, with the hopes that this fear will act as a repellent to Japanese revenge.
Blindboy references Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner as a product of this schematic manipulation. I was particularly interested in his argument that the employment of “Yellow Peril” is often subconscious. Of course, initially its introduction was part of the US’s political agenda, however, as Blindboy comments, it seems as though the stereotypes have become engrained in American society – to the point they are being employed unconsciously in films, art and literature. His allusion to film as a sub conscious harbouring of Asian revenge is impressively lateral; if we are to protect the 57% of Asian Americans who feel unsafe in public, we must dedicate more attention to public media outlets – including film.
Blade Runner, representative of 1980s cyber punk, depicts America’s dystopian vision – released in 1982 and set in 2019. As Blindboy explains, this dystopian idea (with Blade Runner being an obvious example) is often set in Los Angeles or New York – the atmosphere feels dark and unfamiliar, where no one speaks English and street signs are all in Japanese or Chinese. Scenes tend to include advanced technology – a reaction to the 1980s Japanese economic boom in which their technological innovation of electronics and cars posed obvious competition to America’s own market. This focus on technology underpins USA’s subconscious fear that Japan would colonize their country using technology.
Blade Runner is one of many cultural examples laced with subliminal references to “Yellow Peril”: Black Rain (1989) and Year of the Dragon (1985) to name a few. Riddled with Asian racism, they act as a metaphor for America’s fear – a fear against revenge. Subsequently, Blindboy’s episode embodies a crucial message: the danger of culture. Essentially a silent killer, films are able to implicitly indoctrinate their audience with harmful prejudices making them hard to attack or even recognise. We are therefore faced with an obligation to unpick these subconscious stereotypes engrained within blockbuster films such as Blade Runner, just as Blindboy has begun to do.
With US Congress discussing the passing of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, Britain too must acknowledge and condemn the increase in anti-Asian sentiment. The UK police data reported an estimated 300 percent increase in hate crimes towards China, East and Southeast Asians following the outbreak of the pandemic, with the physical assault of Wei Saik being one of them. This must end. By continually and meticulously drawing attention to all forms of racial discrimination – spanning from integrated racism in films to the devastating aggression of shootings, we will work towards freeing Asia from the pains of stereotyping and hate-crime.