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Popular Culture and the History of Racism,
This review is from: Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (Paperback)
Robert G. Lee eloquently and effectively illustrates how the construct of race in America operated to perpetuate racist notions towards Asian American immigrants. The history of ascribed racism towards Asian Americans had its roots in the mid 19th Century, and it operated under an American system of placing cultural meaning on the body. Racist notions toward Asian Americans were created chiefly to solidify the American sense of nationality and cohesion that was absent, and needed in order to facilitate American identity. Lee examines how racist ideas were perpetuated and transmitted through popular culture in the "six faces of the Oriental," the pollutant, the coolie, the deviant, the yellow peril, the model minority, and the gook. These caricatures implied that all Asian Americans fell in to one of six categories, and this stereotyping precluded most Asian Americans from functioning as individuals in American society. Systematic "typing" of the Asian Americans in America, Lee argues, functioned to maintain systems that were larger and more socially driven. These complex social practices were not lost on many Asian Americans, however, and many Asian Americans consistently challenged the unfair ideology of a nation that at once promoted individuality while denying the right to that individuality though six invariable types. Lee cleverly illustrates how each of the six types gave meaning to the Asian body by showing how each stereotype functioned at different periods in America's history. America's first encounter with the Asian Americans quickly led to the idea that they were "pollutants" in their religious practices, or were, as Lee calls them, ""Heathen Chinee' on God's Free Soil." The alien body of the Asian American subsequently served as a system of white working class identity in the "coolie." As "deviants," the Asian Americans challenged not only racial but gendered ideas as well, and the forced prostitution of Chinese women prior to arriving to America led them to become a sexualized threat. Apparent as threats to Victorian ideas of domesticity and gentility, sexuality perpetuated the Chinese women' subservience not only to men but women as well. As the "yellow peril" Asian immigrants represented a larger anxiety towards all immigrants. Lothrop Stoddard's 1920 publication, The Rising Tide of Color was a pseudo-scientific rally to abort Asian immigration, claiming that the Asian immigrants were a racial threat to American society and thus their presence was indeed a "peril." The "model minority" during the Cold War functioned through the financial success of the Asian immigrants, establishing them as a veritable consumer market. The "model minority" gave birth to the "gook," which was actually a response to America's eventual de-industrialization after the Cold War. At this point, according to Lee, America continues to racialize Asians as "Orientals," through allusions to the previous six typecastings as well as newer forms of racial categories complexly tied to economics. Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture is at once an excellent social history of Asian immigrants in America as well as a cultural history of American racism, and its questions lead to examining the problems and faults with the latest "oriental" category.