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Pet Sins September 2002

Yellow - Race in America Beyond Black and White

Yellow, published by Basic Books in 2002, takes a new look at the issues of racial diversity in America. Do not be misled by the title. Although author Frank H. Wu draws from his own experience as an Asian American, he does not limit his discussion to yellow-skinned Americans of Asian descent. Wu argues that effort should be put into extending the race debate beyond the duality of black and white. He believes that Asian Americans, as well as Native Americans and Latino Americans, can enrich the debate by offering perspectives which are neither black nor white.

Wu, who teaches law at Howard University, takes on issues which which have been neglected in the 'mainstream' racial dialog. Most Asian American writers, whether writers of fiction or non-fiction, limit their coverage of race relations to white-Asian relationships. Wu explores black-Asian, black-white and white-Asian interactions, combining legal history, personal anecdotes, and historical context.

Frank Wu unflinchingly describes the racial prejudice of Asian Americans who prefer marrying white to marrying black. In a public address at the University of Washington, Wu comments on Asian women who say, "I want to marry American so that my children will be half-American". He points out that these women really mean "marrying white" when they say "marrying American". Wu brings up the question, "If they marry an African American, would their children not be half American? If they marry an Asian American, would their children not be half American?" The public can certainly benefit from this unique Asian American voice after being inundated with cliched Asian American literature which feature story after story about sexist Asian society, yellow women's relationships with white men and the dramatic hardship Asian women face in fitting into white society.

Although Wu expresses strong support for intermarriage and the mixed race movement, he harbors no illusions about the racial preferences which shape individual choices of marriage partners:

Intermarriage still occurs in distinct configurations, and not all individuals have the same ability to engage in it. Races come together assymetrically. Intermarriage may reinforce rather than break down the color line that separates whites from blacks, because intermarriage has risen primarily due to alliances among whites, Asian Americans and Latinos, not African Americans. Whites are much more likely to marry Asian Americans than African Americans. The Asian American intermarriage rate is triple the African American rate.

This book is a well-researched effort (complete with copious notes and references). Professor Wu informs the reader with statistics such as:

  • In 1990, 30 times as many Asian Americans in mixed marriages had white spouses as had black spouses.
  • In 1990, 72% of black-white couples consisted of a black man and a white woman. Wu notes "It appears that the African American man who marries a white woman is exchanging his higher economic status for her higher social status. He is augmenting his material success with a woman who is regarded as belonging to a superior class; she is acquiring access to his affluence."
  • 72% of Asian American-white couples consist of an Asian American woman and a white man.
  • Asian Americans who intermarry outside their ethnicity are more likely to marry a white American than an Asian American of another ethnicity.
Yellow is solidly enjoyable precisely because it relies on more than just anecdotes to describe the social trends we observe in everyday life. Wu does not claim to offer answers; he presents the reader with questions, and more importantly, with concrete information so that readers can start asking their own questions about the role of 'race' in their decisions.

Wu confronts the racial double standards which many of us would like to deny we practise, but he does so with humor and charm, as in an anecdote he shares concerning how people respond to the fact he is an Asian American working at a predominantly black college:

I have lost count of the number of times people have asked, "Why are you at Howard?"..."What are [the black students] like? Are they good students?" Or "Are you trying to make an ideological statement? Are you rebelling?"... nobody thought to ask "What are whites like? Are they good students?" I am bemused that Asian Americans now and then suggest that I have taken a position to curry favor with blacks, because I work at a predominantly black institution. They don't seem to realize that if such an assumption can be made about me without any other basis, they must be ingratiating themselves to whites by the same reasoning.

In Yellow, Frank Wu takes no sides and pulls no punches. The pages dives into issues which many of us would prefer to ignore, but the book's even-handed approach towards the different parties in the race debate has the potential to draw readers in without alienating those who disagree with its ideas.