I Am Curious (About Yellow)

Race is  a particularly salient issue in the current US national discourse. The horror of the shootings at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and the controversy around the validity of the claims of an apparently white-skinned woman who identifies as black are but two contemporary examples of the controversial and often ugly history of racial classifications, the racial lexicon, and race relations. Perhaps this is why I was particularly struck by a sentence that I recently chanced upon in an article about the heritability of esophageal cancer: This meta-analysis showed there was a significantly [sic] association between PLCE1 rs2274223 polymorphism and esophageal cancer in yellow race populations [bold not in original]. 

Graphic by Emily Singh

Yellow Race. It has been a long time since I have seen that term in any medical or professional literature other than when I am rooting around in the history of eugenics. In our supposedly enlightened times such terminology is the same kind of bad as Brown Race and Red Race. I am not implying that this marks a resurgence in racism against Asians or a renaissance of racial hierarchies. Indeed, encountering yellow race in these articles was remarkable precisely because of its rarity nowadays.

The authors of the article have East Asian names, and the journal is published in Asia, so I assume that yellow race was not intended to be a racist slur or an ironic appropriation of a pejorative term by the very people it was meant to belittle. The racial vocabulary in this instance most likely stems from the nuanced and sometimes awkward complexities of language translation, cultural differences, and the regretful disappearance of copy editors from journal publishing houses (note the grammatical error in the quoted sentence from the abstract, using an adverb where an adjective is called for). A quick PubMed search yielded several other articles that used the term yellow race; the authors were invariably from countries where English is not the primary language. Not all articles were authored by East Asians; one had Brazilian authors. Several articles were from journals published in non-Asian countries, such as The Saudi Medical Journal,  Human Reproduction (Oxford) and Obesity Surgery, published by Springer, the mothership of the Journal of Genetic Counseling.

Putting aside the contentious debate about the biological reality of race and the appropriateness of using racial classifications in medical, biological and governmental analyses, I am intrigued by the question of why some race-based terms are socially acceptable and why others are condemned. You can use black or white when referring to race without too much eyebrow raising, but not yellow, red, or brown. Some skin color-based vocabulary has been replaced by apparently less offensive ethnic or geography-based but no less vague names like Hispanic or Asian. True, African-American and Western European are also common, but black and white appear at least as frequently in medical, biological, and popular publications. Even the federal government’s  Census Bureau and the annual National Vital Statistics Reports on annual births in the US use black and white to racially categorize mothers. Imagine the uproar if these official reports classified Asians as yellow, Native Americans as red, and Hispanics as brown.

US Census Bureau 2010 Racial Classifications


I have been stewing on this for a few weeks, trying to come up with an explanation. Does it stem from some complicated sociohistorical narrative about the forced immigration of slaves from Africa to the US, compared to the relatively more voluntary immigration to the US from other continents? Is it somehow related to the continuing social effects of slavery, which was not experienced by other immigrants (not to imply that other groups did not experience other forms of abuse and prejudice)? Greater social inequities among blacks in a society where whites are the power group and other groups are “in between” whites and blacks on the social hierarchy? An unstated and perhaps unconscious belief that the two groups are biologically different? The result of conflating race and ethnicity and lack of a clear distinction between race and ethnicity? The shortcomings and biases inherent in any scheme that tries to parse the continuous spectrum of humanity into discrete biological categories? The inconsistent ways that people self-identify their ancestry (see my posting about ancestry in the context of genetic counseling)?

Mostly, though, these sound like half-baked explanations. Perhaps it is just a stochastic linguistic persistence with no underlying rational explanation. Aluminum foil is still often called tin foil even though it hasn’t been made from tin since World War II (of course, aluminum – or aluminium, outside of the US and Canada – foil is less emotionally charged and socially complex than racial terminology).

Really, though, I don’t have a good answer. But I am interested to hear what the Good Readers of this blog have to say about it.


Filed under Robert Resta

5 responses to “I Am Curious (About Yellow)

  1. Julia

    In regards to the use of “black” vs. African or African-American, I have many friends and patients alike who do not consider themselves African or African-American (especially if from Caribbean island countries), but who do consider themselves black. A few will get incredibly insulted if something other than just “black” or their actual home country appears on a form. It may be true that they do have some ancestors that came from African countries via slave trade several hundred years ago, but that is not how they identify. I think it really speaks to the need for an overhaul of all the categories and a better discussion of why/if/when we need to even have or use the categories in the first place.

  2. Sheila

    Interesting posting but I feel the need to point out that forced slavery is not and has never been unique to the black (African American, negro, colored, …whatever the PC term might be) population. Slavery of some sort or another right or wrong (because it was an acceptable practice in many parts of the world) is a part of world history….not just U.S. history. The difference with the U.S. is that they can’t seem to move beyond the behavior of their forefathers and they continue to create and propagate the divide between people based on skin color- mostly between black and white. The Irish, Chinese, American Indian were all slaves in the U.S. at some point but we don’t hear that history on a daily basis. Lest we forget that there were also many blacks who were slave owners in this country but no one ever talks about that. My last comment about ‘color’ is that the U.S. is so hypersensitive to offending any one or thing that no one knows what to call each other anymore without offending someone or something. It’s a ridiculous world we live in and it’s getting progressively more bizarre.

  3. Donna Blumenthal

    I appreciate all of the above comments and ponder them myself when i have time. I just wanted to add two points that i have gleaned from my patients. 1) Some people say it is wrong to equate “American” with people from the US. They say that in fact, South Americans and Central Americans and people from the New World in general are Americans. That’s why i stopped balking about using the term “African American” in describing black people from the Caribbean.
    2) Indians (people from the country, India) who hail from Guyana were like slaves in that they came over as indentured servants. I know it’s not exactly the same thing as slavery, but it may have felt like it. They may call themselves “West Indians”. I thought the West Indies were a group of Caribbean Islands. Guyana is not an island but is on the contiinent of South America. As a result, i had a patient just last week with an abnormal sequential screen, increased risk of Down syndrome of 1/111. Her race was entered as African Caribbean. In fact, she was East Indian born and raised in Guyana. When i changed her race to Asian Indian, her results fell into the normal range.

  4. BST

    Bob – it is interesting you bring up Brazil, as having just been audience to a discussion about the extreme degree of genetic admixture in Brazil, and considering their official yet controversial census classification system is indeed based on color (white, brown, black, yellow), perhaps the best explanation is Sergio Pena’s summary of the complex relationship between being able to define genetic ancestry in terms of a phenotype in Brazil, which may very well soon apply to the United States:

    “The correlation between color and genomic ancestry is imperfect: at the individual level one cannot safely predict the skin color of a person from his/her level of European, African and Amerindian ancestry nor the opposite. Regardless of their skin color, the overwhelming majority of Brazilians have a high degree of European ancestry. Also, regardless of their skin color, the overwhelming majority of Brazilians have a significant degree of African ancestry. Finally, most Brazilians have a significant and very uniform degree of Amerindian ancestry!”
    (Braz J Med Biol Res vol.42 no.10 Ribeirão Preto Oct. 2009)

    And while imperfect, perhaps our persistent acceptance of otherwise non-specific phenotype descriptors (white, black) is foreshadowing our increasing inability to truly define genetically distinct subpopulations in our country (for medical research purposes).

    Although, at the end of the day, I’m most curious what to do with those who discover they are 5% Neanderthal from their DTC SNP Ancestry report…

    • Robert Resta

      Yes Brazil is enormously complex and really is a challenge to anyone who tries to fit us all into even fuzzy edged boxes. See this recent publication on genetic diversity in Brazilians:


      As for the Neandrthals among us, perhaps the next U.S. Census should have a racial category of Caveman.
      Who knows, maybe all those 5%’ers will get together and breed and after a few generations we will have a resurgence of Homo neandethalensis and maybe this time they will win the evolutionary struggle. Hmm I might have to brush up on my stone tool making skills. Anyone know where I can find a reliable chert supply?

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