A top health official in California has apologized after facing backlash for calling Asian people “yellow folks” earlier this week.
Dr. Peter Beilenson, director of Sacramento County’s Department of Health Services, made the remarks on Tuesday during a Board of Supervisors meeting, which voted on a resolution to declare racism as a public health crisis.
“It’s a crucial thing we need to be doing to address the issues of the African American, and brown, and yellow folks, as well as the white folks,” Beilenson said.
The health chief thus voted in favor of the resolution, but his remark drew ire among critics who oppose the use of “yellow” in describing Asians.
“I think at this moment, we’ve seen words matter, and with the rise of anti-China rhetoric, and this idea of Asians as foreigners, the word ‘yellow’ just kind of promotes that sentiment,” Aarti Kohli, executive director of the Asian Law Caucus, told Capital Public Radio. “The term connotes this idea of fear of ‘other,’ of fear of disease, and it’s not a term that Asian Americans have embraced.”
“Yellow” as a reference to people of Asian descent — specifically East Asians — emerged with a negative connotation in the late 19th century. The phrase “yellow peril,” in particular, depicted Asian people as an existential danger to the West and was commonly used to support racist policies (i.e. Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882).
However, some have chosen to use the word in a different light in recent years, reclaiming it to empower the Asian identity.
“We say ‘yellow’ again because at our most powerful we are a ‘YELLOW PERIL’ and those who oppress us should be afraid. We are watching you. We are making moves,” said activist group Yellow Jackets Collective, according to a 2018 article from the National Public Radio that tackled the subject.
We are pleased to welcome Peter Beilenson as Director of the @SacCountyCA Dept. of #HealthServices! Dr. Beilenson has more than 25 years of experience in the delivery of #publichealth services, administration and policy. https://t.co/zPyhbcvzJr #WelcomeToTheTeam pic.twitter.com/htMltW6Wkb
— Sacramento County Public Health (@SacPublicHealth) September 28, 2018
Responding to criticisms, Beilenson apologized and stressed that he did not intend to offend anyone.
“I wasn’t calling them ‘yellow people.’ This is ridiculous, I’m gonna tell you,” he told the Sacramento Bee. “I was saying African American, brown, yellow, whatever color. It makes sense to have a public health emergency called for systemic racism. I was speaking out in favor of (the resolution). I certainly apologize. I did not mean to offend anyone. If I have, I’m terribly sorry.”
The official added that he had not received a single complaint of racism in his entire public health career.
“In my 30-year career in public health, I’ve never had an issue like this before. I very much apologize for that and will certainly use Asian Pacific Islander in the future,” he said, according to CBS13.
The Board of Supervisors ultimately voted to pass the resolution, with only one member, Sue Frost, rejecting it.
“I do not believe that America is a racist country or that most Americans are racist,” she said, according to FOX40.