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Marvels & Monsters: Yo, Is This Racist?

It’s an age-old question: does popular culture reflect mainstream perceptions, or is the mainstream influenced by the images it sees in popular culture? Jeff Yang, of Secret Identities and the Wall Street Journal, examines this question in the exhibit, Marvels & Monsters, now showing at the Japanese American National Museum.

Exhibit curator Jeff Yang

Compiled from the comic book collection of science fiction author William F. Wu, the exhibit looks at images of Asians published in American comic books between 1942-1986. During this time period, the United States was either at war or in an economic grudge match with a variety of Asian countries, and those tensions were reflected on the comic book page. Almost all of the imagery used to to portray people of Asian descent was belittling and mocking, and this was during a time when the majority of Americans, young and old, consumed comic books. No wonder these gross stereotypes still exist today, from Halloween costumes to Broadway.

Yang divided up the stereotypes into the following eight archetypes: the ever-foreign Alien, the Manipulator keen on taking over the world, the Kamikaze who incoherently and impetuously dies a fanatic’s death, the Brute who silently kills on command, the magical Guru who espouses fortune cookie mysticism, the brilliant-but-emasculated Brain, the sexy-but-deadly Temptress, and her innocent-yet-still-sexualized polar opposite Lotus Blossom.

Although I had read about the archetypes before and was somewhat cognizant of the subject matter, walking through the exhibit was still a shock to the senses. The walls were painted an aggressive shade of yellow, the archetypes blown up to life-size proportions. They stared at me menacingly, and my initial instinct was to look away from such overtly racist imagery. But I slowly acclimatized and soon was able to follow my children as they explored each section.

One of our favorite parts was entitled “Shades of Yellow,” where various characters’ faces were blown up and displayed alongside the Pantone shade of their skin tones. Apparently Asian skin can range from avocado to tangerine. Tasty goody indeed.

I did wonder if I made the right decision in bringing my kids along. I worried that seeing all this imagery all at once might affect them negatively. However, as the evening wore on, I realized that there was no better place to see these archetypes than in this context: in a museum, behind glass, with their parents and Uncle Jeff, as history.

We were also arming them with valuable tools for how to grow up as a minority in this country. As a mother of school-age children, my job is not about shielding their eyes and ears from all of the harsh realities of the world anymore. It is more about showing them what a lot of the world thought and still thinks about people like us, in a way that shows just how ridiculous those stereotypes are. All around us were kind, thoughtful, English-speaking people of Asian descent who do not look like those grotesque images printed on paper so long ago. The difference between the printed page and reality was as stark as it could be, so the lesson was clear.

We were in an environment where they could ask questions, ask for definitions and context, in a safe space with knowledgeable, nuanced people. I would much rather their first experience with “chink eyes” be here than on the playground, directed at them by some ignorant schoolchildren. That evening, we were the ones who were laughing.

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