CW: rape, sexual exploitation, war, discussion of racial microaggressions
Although it may seem like something small, I was surprised and disappointed to overhear someone on campus say that they had “yellow fever” and go on to explain all the things they liked about Asian women. “Yellow fever” refers to a sexual preference or fetish for Asian women, typically held by white men. Even though people who say they have “yellow fever” consider it a compliment because it indicates that they are attracted to Asians, it is still a racial microaggression that furthers the exoticization and stereotypes of Asian women.
First of all, racial microaggressions are small, everyday slights and insulting messages towards people of colour made by white people, who are often unaware of the subtle implications of their words or actions and how they affect people of colour. People who make racial microaggressions typically do not intend to cause any harm, but they can still perpetuate misogynistic, racist stereotypes. For example, with “yellow fever,” it is sometimes perceived as a compliment for Asian women because it suggests they are attractive. However, Asian fetishism as indicated by terms like “yellow fever” has highly problematic implications. Asian fetishism is usually tied to sexualized stereotypes about Asian women being mysteriously alluring, small and submissive, especially in the bedroom. It is rooted in Orientalism, which was used to glorify the West. Orientalism was used to exoticize Asian people and their culture, meaning that Western understandings about Asians and their culture were used to make the East appear foreign, mysterious and different from Western civilization. The mysterious, exotic image of Asian women in particular was constructed to be sexually alluring because it offered a stereotypically submissive ‘feminine’ counterpart to the dominant ‘masculine’ identity of the West. However, Asian women were not seen as anything else beyond that sexualized exotic image – they were not considered full persons, as they were reduced to being sexual objects that existed for consumption by white males.
These images also stem from misogynistic and heteronormative ideas of the man dominating over the submissive woman. This is clearly linked with the idea that Asian women are easier to control since they are stereotyped as being compliant with the sexual needs of men. These ideas of the submissive Asian woman also involve racist power relations, where white power is exerted over the ‘weaker’ Asian race, as exemplified by stereotyping Asian women as being submissive to ‘powerful’ white men. Asian women are therefore favoured and considered attractive because they are presumably more submissive and willing to obey the sexual desires of men. This ultimately feeds into the white male sexual fantasy, which involves sexual and racial dominance over women of colour.
Unfortunately, these beliefs about Asian women are more than just ideas – they have had real harmful historical effects. Through colonial encounters and war, Asian women were often objectified for sexual consumption by white soldiers from Western countries. In fact, prostitution in Asian Pacific military bases differed from prostitution in Western bases. Since Asian societies were considered inferior by the West, sex workers in Asian military bases were often treated as subhuman sexual “toys” or “pigs” by US soldiers during the time of the Philippine-American War, according to many Filipina sex workers. Also, during the occupation of Japan after World War II, there had been reports of US soldiers raping many of the Japanese women in Okinawa, who were seen as sexual objects that US soldiers were entitled to using for sexual gratification after the war. These are only a couple of examples of how exoticizing and sexualizing Asian women has led to harmful consequences.
As an Asian woman myself, I personally find it degrading for someone to value me solely on the basis of my race and their perceptions of what makes my race attractive. Also, despite the fact that some may think that “yellow fever” is just an innocent phrase, it makes me uneasy to think about how my race has been sexualized and exoticized in the past, and how this process continues through seemingly small racial microaggressions. In addition, given the horrendous history behind sexualized, exotic stereotypes of Asian women, it is extremely uncomfortable to hear that these ideas about Asian women are still accepted by some people and that racial microaggressions such as “yellow fever” are still being used, even though they perpetuate these deeply problematic stereotypes about Asian women. Even though harm may not be intentional and short everyday phrases don’t appear to have a significant impact, it is still important to think twice about the kind of language we use because it can continue ways of thinking that are harmful to women of colour.