3.6 - Perpetual Foreigner - Systemic Racism Against Asian Americans
Grades: 5-12
Subjects: Ethnic Studies
Number of Activities: 4
Overview
PBS Asian Americans Episode 1 – Breaking Ground (1850s – 1920s). Perpetual foreigner stereotyping is a form of systemic racism used against Asian Americans. They have historically been stereotyped as foreigners in the United States no matter their duration of time living here or whether they were American-born. The perpetual foreigner stereotype is maintained by institutions such as Hollywood, private and public sectors, to elected public officials. Throughout U.S. history, Asian Americans have been scapegoated as the cause of the country’s various problems and catastrophes including economic despair, wars, terrorism, and coronavirus pandemic.
 
Objectives
  1. Learn about and discuss what systemic racism means.
  2. Learn about and discuss that perpetual foreigner stereotyping is a form of systemic racism against Asian Americans.
  3. Learn about and discuss the challenges Asian Americans face being viewed as perpetual foreigners in Hollywood, the public and public sectors, and by elected public officials in the United States.
  4. Learn about and discuss the consequences of perpetual foreigner stereotyping to Asian Americans.
  5. Talk about their own experience with stereotyping and the harms it might cause.
  6. Research on stereotyping on various communities.
  7. Discuss how stereotypes are used to pit races or groups against one another, and also how certain groups are taken advantage of by those with power and authority.
  8. Discuss why and how to combat stereotyping.
 
Topic Background Essay
Stereotyping is used to pit one race or group against another, pushing some to the bottom of the pecking order and allows certain groups to be taken advantage of. It also prevents people from uniting and advancing together. Perpetual foreigner stereotyping is a form of systemic racism used against Asian Americans, who have historically been stereotyped as foreigners in the United States no matter their duration living here or whether they were American-born. Asian Americans were placed into segregated schools, and were excluded from immigration and citizenship for over 60 years.
The perpetual foreigner stereotype is maintained by institutions including Hollywood, private and public sectors, to elected public officials. As far back as 1865 during the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, Chinese workers were seen as inferior labor and placed into unskilled jobs, earning two-thirds what European workers did, and segregated into “section houses.”
Within the entertainment industry, the acting career of Anna May Wong was stymied by the Hays Code. Instead of Wong, the lead female role in The Good Earth (1937)—about Chinese farmers—went to Luise Rainer in yellowface. Mickey Rooney also in yellowface portrayed a Japanese neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). This practice of Asian roles going to white actors instead of qualified Asian actors would later evolve into whitewashing, as seen most recently with Tilda Swinton playing an Asian monk in Doctor Strange (2016), and Scarlett Johansson as the lead character—originally Japanese—in Ghost in the Shell (2017).
During World War II, Japanese Americans were seen as foreigners. Under the pretense of national security, almost the entire population (120,000) of Japanese Americans in the continental United States were incarcerated from 1942 to 1946, and lost their homes and businesses. Two-thirds of them were American-born citizens.
In 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, became a scapegoat for the decline of the American auto industry in the 1980s. Chin was murdered by two unemployed white autoworkers who thought he was Japanese. In 1999, Joseph Ileto, a Filipino American, was murdered by an avowed white supremacist for being a person of color. Balbir Singh Sodhi, an Indian American, was the first among many murdered shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks, because he looked like an Arab Muslim.
In 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, the head of U.S. government and other elected public officials referred to the coronavirus as “the Chinese virus.” This labeling then created an environment whereby violence and attacks against Asian Americans became more permissible. Thousands of innocent Asian Americans were scapegoated for being the cause of the coronavirus, and faced hate speech, hate incidents and hate crimes in the process.
Throughout all of these points in history, Asian Americans have organized in different ways to protest and fight back against these injustices.
 

Works Cited
 
Vocabulary
  1. Hays Coder: among other restrictions, prohibited physical relations between races onscreen 1
  2. Perpetuate: continuing to spread or maintain a certain idea or belief 2
  3. Stereotype: a fixed general image or set of characteristics representing a particular type of person or thing, which may not actually be true; often negative 3
  4. Yellowface: the usage of makeup and/or prosthetics by white actors to portray Asian characters 4
  5. Whitewashing: the casting or rewriting of Asian roles for white actors 5
 

1 Definition adapted from TVTropes.org
2 Definition adapted from The Collins Dictionary
3 Definition adapted from The Collins Dictionary
4 Definition adapted from The Cambridge Dictionary
5 Definition adapted from The Merriam-Webster Dictionary
 
Discussion Questions
  1. What are some common images of Asian Americans on TV and in movies today? How did the speakers in the clip feel about seeing these images as they were growing up?
  2. What stereotypes of Asian and Asian Americans appeared in Hollywood films?
  3. How might seeing positive or negative images of a group affect you, especially if you are part of the group being portrayed?
 
Assessment, Application, Action, and Reflection
Hold discussions in Socratic seminars
Lesson Steps/Activities
Activity 1: Your own experience with stereotyping
Show students video clip from this lesson. [Run time: 01:48]
After viewing the video clip have an entire class discussion on the following questions:
 
Activity 2: Perpetual Foreigner - Systemic Racism Perpetuated by Multiple Sectors of Society
  1. Hollywood’s role in systemic racism
    1. Explain and discuss the following terminology with the class:
      • Yellowface, Brownface, Blackface
      • Whitewashing
      • Perpetual foreigner
    2. Have students conduct research on the following:
      • In 2015, #OscarsSoWhite addressed Hollywood’s racial inequity problems. However, how were Asian Americans stereotyped?
      • Find other examples of yellowface and whitewashing in film/media. One example: Emma Stone, a white actress, portraying a part-Hawaiian-Chinese character in 2015’s Aloha.
    3. After conducting their research and viewing the video clip, have a whole class discussion (i.e., large group, think-pair-share, Socratic Seminar) with students on the following questions:
      • While doing your research, what are some problems that Asian Americans encounter when yellowface and whitewashing occurs?
      • Why is the use of yellowface, brownface and blackface a problem?
      • Why is whitewashing a problem?
      • Do you think it is alright for Hollywood to keep on perpetuating stereotypes?
      • What can we do about it?
  2. How does perpetual foreigner stereotyping used by sectors of society lead to systemic racism?
    Ask students to read this lesson’s essay; then have Socratic Seminar discussion.
    1. How is the perpetual foreigner stereotype in Hollywood films also used in the public sector, and by elected public officials? Give examples.
    2. How is the perpetual foreigner stereotype also used in the private sector, and in private companies? Give examples.
    3. How do these different sectors reinforce each one another that the situation/problem becomes systemic racism?
 
Activity 3: The Consequence of Stereotyping
  1. What are the consequences of perpetual foreigner stereotyping on Asian Americans?
    1. What happened to the Japanese Americans during World War II?
    2. What happened to Asian Americans when the U.S. automobile industry lagged behind fuel efficient Japanese cars in the 1980s?
    3. What happened to Asian Americans during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic?
    4. What happens to Asian Americans’ chances of advancement in the workplace?
     

    Resources
  2. What are the consequences of stereotyping in other sectors of society?
    Conduct research on the consequences of stereotyping on two communities. A community can be an ethnic community, racial community, gender community, LGBTQ community, disabled community, religious community, undocumented community, low-income community, or homeless community, etc.
    1. Discuss how stereotypes are used to pit races or groups against one another, and also how certain groups are taken advantage of by those with power and authority.
    2. When did the stereotyping of the community that you selected begin? Who created it? What purpose did it serve? Who benefits from it?
 
Activity 4: How to Combat Stereotyping
  1. What is so bad or wrong about stereotyping? Why does it need to stop?
  2. What do you think a person can do to help reduce stereotyping?
  3. What do you think society can do to stop stereotyping?
  4. How would you deal with it?
 
Materials and Resources