Winter Photo Essay: People of Color

By Elena Liao

Oftentimes, color is used as a descriptor for races: white, black, brown, and yellow are shorthand terms for ethnic groups that have been produced by cultural understandings of race. I explored the use of terms/concepts like "black criminality," "white trash," "brown voice," and "yellow fever" by having my subjects play with different props and poses. Not only was my aim to discredit the negative connotations of color stereotypes, but to urge my subjects to embrace their individual complexions in a new way. Shame can spiral into silence over racial discomfort, leading people to shy away from their natural color palette instead of accentuating it. Skin color can be a mode of self-empowerment, instead of shame. Thus, my essay's aim is to reconceptualize what it means to give a voice to these stereotypes from a position that not only critiques the negative aspects but asks rhetorical questions about the way they are created in the first place.

Sharod - What is "black criminality"?

Is it the black hood that makes a black person more suspect of criminal activity? What do you suspect they hide? Why do you suspect they are hiding?

Is it the dreads underneath that make a black person seem like "the Other"? 

Is it the image of a gun that spurs a belief that black people are threatening to civil society? Even if, like in Tamir Rice's case, it is just a toy, does it still promote the image of black violence?
In the evolution of "bumptious conduct" to the cultural fascination with trap dancing, have we changed our perception of the limitations on black social life? On who can move? And in what way?

Or is it nothing but social conditioning that makes us believe in a reductive stereotype like "black criminaltiy"? Is the fear of being seen as a criminal what causes black people to shy away from being "too black," even though there is a whole society telling them that they can never attain the social status of white people? Even though the guns are pointed at them by neighborhood watchmen, police officers, and gangs.

Sally - What is "white trash"?

Is it being overly proud to be white?

Or is it being somehow lesser in appearance? The feeling that white skin without the luxury of enhancement reeks like decayed potential? Or the pervasive image of white superiority pushing the needs of lower socioeconomic whites out of the dominant narrative?

Is it a metaphorical description for the disposability of certain peoples?

Do its roots trace back to when Jewish, Irish, and Catholic immigrants were not seen as white? Is "white trash" a social construct that people use to denote a hierarchy of Eurasian communities? Does it have the power to control social mobility? 

Naina - What does it mean to have a "brown voice"?

Does it mean we can still watch the Indian cartoon character, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, on The Simpsons, despite being voiced by a white actor? Are identities removable, transferable, interchangeable, or replicable? Does it mean that an unseen speaker can still be categorized as a certain ethnicity? 

Does it mean that people feel obligated to strip away traces of their ethnicity in their speech patterns?
Does it mean that, if Naina's voice does not have an accent, she is somehow less ethnic or less traditional or less authentic? Does this lessen the strength of the connection she has with her ethnic culture?

Does it mean that we can't listen beyond someone's accent? Do the traits we see in others define their identity?

Why should someone seal up the words they have to say? Is it even possible to separate the words we are saying from their source? Or is "brown voice" just a meaningless descriptor that has no relation to the source? 

Tommy - Where does "Yellow Peril" exist?

As an Asian American woman, I feel that it is inappropriate for me to act as if I am asking what "yellow peril" is. Rather, in this section, I will tell you what it means to me, how I see it constructed, what its material impacts can be, where it manifests.

"Yellow Peril" lies in the act of celebrating a country that won't always celebrate you. As an immigrant culture, we are celebrated for our exoticism, yet we've slowly traded in firecrackers for birthday candles as we have established an American identity. Then, we are told that we are brave for deciding to assimilate into a country of "Yellow Peril," where foreignness is still feared.

"Yellow Peril" exists in the disdain for the cultural stereotypes we've been given as hard workers for Western nations. Diagnosed as a doctor or intellectual before we're even infected, thereby ensuring that we'll never infect the American media or elite industries enough to displace subconscious racial biases. 

"Yellow Peril" can become fear of oneself at times. We watch Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's, and we feel disgusted by the dehumanized version of an Asian male. Every misrepresentation builds upon the fear of affirming racial stereotypes of foreignness, which morphs into the downplaying of Asian ethnicity so as to distance oneself from the unassimilated Asian immigrant. 

But it's precisely this connection we have to immigration that sets us free. We overcame. "Yellow Peril" existed in the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Page Act of 1875, the National Gentlemen's Agreement, Bill Clinton's Chinagate, and in Obama's neoliberal trade agreements like TPP that Trump wrecked.
However, I will refuse to allow "Yellow Peril" to coerce my expression as a Asian-American woman.
When we wear our skins proudly, "Yellow Peril" ceases to exist as a specter over our lives.


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