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Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking (review)

From: Journal of World History
Volume 23, Number 3, September 2012
pp. 676-680 | 10.1353/jwh.2012.0064

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Michael Keevak has given us a wonderful, even riveting, deep-historical account of how people in Asia (particularly East Asia) came to be seen as yellow. It surveys how Asians were described as white in most European accounts prior to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and only later determined to be yellow—in the new color-differentiated theories of human “races” dreamt up from the eighteenth century onward, which established white, black, red, and yellow as key identifiers.

Becoming Yellow investigates this long process in considerable detail. Keevak shows how the race-color classification evolved in the works of seminal European scholars, such as Linneaus, Linnean disciples dispatched to Asia, plus Buffon, Blumenbach, Kant, and others, who all contributed toward developing a scientific racism with color as a defining feature. He also discusses how colors retained the key role as classificatory headings even as other characteristics (eye shape, skull morphology, etc.) became important in nineteenth- and twentieth-century science. Blumenbach (who actually was not history’s worst racist!) is identified as largely responsible for naming the “Mongolian” race—a long-lived label, to which others labored to firmly attach its designated color, yellow. Keevak catalogs (chap. 3) these efforts, including such strange devices as the Color Top, originally a children’s toy, in all seriousness spun near native limbs by anthropologists and other scientists, to ascertain that East Asian skin really was yellow.

But why yellow, and why the effort? Keevak says there is no definite answer, and not even a clear beginning point for the use of yellow instead of white or other terms that were used before (some writers acknowledged seeing lighter-skinned people in the north, and brown-or dark-skinned Southerners). The choice of yellow was the result of a complex, fitful process. Keevak hints at the larger global-historical context in which the new European world-classification was produced, including the importance of transatlantic slavery (which, of course, concentrated on enslaving “black” Africans1 only after ambiguous seventeenth-century beginnings in which “white” Europeans were also enslaved), but he does not explore this much further. He discusses the ambiguities of India, which like East Asia also presented trouble, as a difficult anomaly. He examines and rejects (for lack of evidence) the hypothesis that European observers were inspired to use yellow for the Chinese, at least, by the apparent high status of the Chinese-language term for yellow (huang)—as, purportedly, in the mythical Yellow Emperor’s name, and in the official color of the last imperial dynasty.2 Instead, it was a coincidence—and later a part of the foundation for today’s Chinese acceptance of Western race theory, and for its peculiar fusion with recycled elements of the historical Chinese use of huang (chap. 5 on the reception of yellow in China, and in Japan, which was less receptive).

Most interestingly, Keevak describes (chaps. 1–2) how the original European description of the Chinese, Japanese, and others as white was abandoned in the course of a slow-in-coming realization that even though these people were both light-skinned and civilized, they would not easily give themselves up to Christianity. If they had done so, it would have confirmed what the Europeans hoped was a certain kinship: the Asian’s lightness contrasted with the darkness of the purportedly noncivilized within “Asia” as a whole in a way that closely paralleled how Europe contrasted with the darkness of its own non-Christian others, notably Africans. The scientific insight that all humans were originally dark-skinned and that lightness of skin is in part an evolutionary response to latitude, had not yet been reached; instead, the observation that many civilized Orientals had light skin, similar to Europeans, was interpreted in theological terms, where light represented good and dark was evil, as in the dark enemies of Christianity.

Here is a point of connection with anthropology’s insights about colors and cultures, not engaged by Keevak. To explain briefly: the natural color spectrum is everywhere mined for tools used in the symbolic play that is the stuff of human culture; colors are used everywhere both to classify and then to promote and enforce social values. Some relativists...

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