The stereotype is a dominant portion of discrimination in the United States of America. It was and still is the medium for which discrimination exists. This can be seen for all races in America through the 19th, 20th, and 21st century. The stereotype is a signifying practice that is fundamental to the representations of difference. It necessitates simple, vivid, memorable, accessible, and universal characteristics about a person- the most important of the characteristics being memorable and universal. What the stereotype does is it seeks to simplify a category of human being (race) and generalizes their attributes, and is a phenomenon that occurs only where there is an inequality in power. A major implication of the stereotype is the representation of Asian Americans through visual art in the United States of America.
Throughout their time in the United States, Asian Americans, specifically Chinese and Japanese immigrants, have been subject to discrimination and stereotypes based on their different phenotypes and lifestyles. These phenotypical and cultural differences were, and to a lesser degree still is, severally distorted and manipulated by Americans through visual art. This began with the first large Chinese immigration in the mid 19th century. Mass Chinese immigration to America’s west coast happened for the same reason many Americans journeyed out west- the 1849 California Gold Rush. Upon their first migration, the Chinese were met with harsh resistance and immediately categorized as different. They were seen as separate because of their outward appearance and behaviors. The vintage “Yellow Terror” poster from the mid 19th century is a prime example of the demonization of the Chinese during this time period. This image has a Chinese man welding a smoking gun and a knife running forward overtop of a dead white woman. The poster is filled with loaded imagery to break down. First, the man is leaning forward with one foot over the dead woman. This sends the message that the Chinese man will continue on his path to destruction. In addition, the smoking gun and long braid call attention. Instead of him just holding a gun in the air to symbolize violence, the smoke exiting the barrel implies that the dead woman he is standing over is a deed of his doing. His long braid is an exaggerated feature of an actual Chinese man. In reality, the braid, or queue (the name of the hairstyle), was a traditional style that Americans disliked, and would often chop off against a man’s will. In the poster, the queue looks as if it is long enough to drag on the floor if he stood up straight. The artist exaggerated its length as a way to emphasize how different the Chinese were.
Continuing to reflect on how Chinese sentiment was during the mid to late 19th century, the “40 cents a day” poster reveals Americans’ underlying emotions. The image depicts the white mans’ dilemma, as to “Why They can live on 40 cents a day… and They can”. What this means is that white men cannot compete with Chinese workers because the white man had to support their family, while the Chinese did not. Chinese immigrants were not allowed to bring their wives or any females for that matter, meaning that the wages that they earned all went toward themselves. On the other hand, due to the ridged gender roles in America, the father provided the families income; the mother stayed in her domestic sphere. The abundance of Chinese males added even more to their distain. It was a common fear the plentiful amount of Chinese males, without the ability to bring their wives, would lead to the victimization of white women. This thread to the American way of life further fueled the negative Chinese sentiment of the 19th century.
In the 20th century, specifically post 1940, American attitudes towards Asian Americans drastically shifted. Following Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941, Americans were fully focused on Othering, subjugating, and objectifying the Japanese race. This was true both socially and political, with evidence being World War 2 propaganda artwork and Executive Order 9066 (Japanese Internment). In December of 1941, “…Life magazine published an article titled ‘How to Tell Japs from Chinese’”. In the article, the reader was taught how to distinguish and categorize Chinese and Japanese features. Skin color and facial features are generalized for each race, feeding into the stereotypes that permeated American psyches (Miles). These distinctions were by no means scientific however, and relied heavily on stereotyping. For example, the image shows arrows claiming that the friendly Chinese are “parchment yellow” and the Japanese are “earthy yellow”. In addition, “…Japanese were said to be more closely related to ‘aboriginals’ and could therefore grow a beard and mustache, while the Chinese had less facial hair” (Phillips). Another prime example of Japanese objectification was the “Tokio Kid Say” posters. These images had the sole purpose of conveying Japanese people as animal-like, unintelligent, and murderous. The drool, buck teeth, and broken English all contribute to making the Japanese seem dim-witted, while the fangs and pointed ears make the man more like an animal than a human. Lastly, the blood dripping dagger continues the notion that they are no stranger to killing. This demonization of Asian Americans has been a perpetual theme in America until the 21st century.
It is important to note that unlike most minorities in the United States, Chinese and Japanese Americans have experienced a drastic elevation in their social and political status. Through the 19th, 20th, and 21st century, they have endured a miraculous change in sentiment towards them. From the mid 19th century, to the mid 20th century, American attitudes towards the Chinese completely changed for the better. Now in the 21st century, Asian Americans are even seen as the “model minority”- a phrase reserved exclusively for them. Asian Americans climbed the socio-political ladder in the late 20th century to present day, despite the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1888 and Japanese Internment. Throughout United States history, images have stereotyped Asian Americans because of their phenotypical and cultural difference.