Recently, we’ve been getting a lot of questions about the history of racism at Princeton University. As we’ve worked to help those trying to research this topic, we realized that we’ve highlighted some types of racism more than others on this blog. In order to help researchers locate materials that may assist them in constructing a fuller picture of the history of white supremacy at Princeton, today’s post considers some examples of racism against Asians through the lens of yellowface in Triangle Club performances in the first half of 20th century.
Yellowface is a form of minstrelsy that mocks East Asians. It rose in popularity in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was closely linked to anti-Black prejudice. As Krystyn R. Moon has explained, both blackface minstrelsy and yellowface are uniquely American phenomena, and yellowface drew on the tropes of blackface (including physical caricature, hybridized musical styles, and deliberate mockery of accents and dialects) to convey messages about nonwhite inferiority. Blackface primed audiences to understand the underlying meaning of yellowface. Yellowface became one of many ways Americans expressed strong anti-Asian (especially anti-Chinese) sentiment in this period and emphasized the idea that Asians could never become Americans.
Alongside the examples of redface and blackface in the University Archives, we also find incidents of yellowface in Princeton’s past. White students frequently played roles of non-white characters in the Triangle Club prior to World War II. Though the most common non-white characters they played were Native Americans, there were also a handful of East Asian characters in Triangle productions. These show evidence of the minstrelsy inherent in yellowface. Continue reading