Can Fonts Be Racist? (Yes, They Can)

            If there was anything we learned in Sociolinguistics, it’s that language holds the social attitudes of the people who use them and over time, iconic uses of varieties of language can register certain social attitudes even without the original context. Today, we’re going to look at typefaces especially those connected to (East) Asians and specifically, Chinese Americans.

            I will be using the terms typeface and font interchangeably in this paper; fonts are just a specific set of glyphs (e.g. Arial Bold) in a typeface (e.g. Arial).

            Typefaces and fonts are not, of course, inherently racist but due to the long-term association of a typeface with groups of people, ideas or other entities, the presence of those typefaces can elicit the same reactions as those towards the objects they represent even if those objects are absent. This is called enregisterment (Agha, 2005).

            For example, can you recognise the companies below from their typefaces alone?

            Companies spend a lot of money on their branding and this includes ensuring that they have a recognisable typeface. If you guessed that the companies were Disney, Nike and IBM, you would be correct. Even without iconic brand colors or graphical elements like Nike’s swoosh, the typefaces alone were able to call to mind the companies and their products and how we feel about them. Now, what happens if typefaces, like stereotypes, were created to reinforce negative controlling images (Collins, 2009) of a group of people?

            We know that, broadly, graphical design is very white and very male-dominated. Although representation across race and gender has become much more diverse since 1991 when 93% of those in the industry were white, higher-level decision-makers continue to be mostly white and male (Schou, 2020). This homogeneity is a ripe breeding ground for people to incorporate their biases into the designs they put out into the world without being challenged. In fact, the design world has been instrumental in cementing racial attitudes in American consciousness by enregistering race and race issues with instantly recognizable visual cues (I highly recommend Peter Fine’s book The Design of Race on this topic) and this includes something as ubiquitous as typography. In this way, typefaces are a type of visual dog-whistle for a number of racial attitudes.

            Any text that is printed or digitally displayed has been deliberately chosen to look that way. Through repeated associations, racist messaging with a certain typeface in the past means that that typeface now carries that racist overtone even if the words bearing that typeface aren’t racist. For example, what sorts of beliefs do you think the book below is espousing about which group of people?

            You might have thought it is similar to the font for The New York Times logo and you would be right. The font used here is called Fraktur and it was the typeface of choice for Nazi Germany before 1941; the cover of Hitler’s Mein Kampf has a handwritten version of this typeface. Even with the generic lorem ipsum text, some of you may have made the connection to Nazi Germany and their genocidal regime. This typeface has a long history in Europe but that long history has largely been eclipsed by its association with Nazi Germany. Even today, Fraktur and other similar typefaces collectively known as blackletter signal this past whether as German nationalism or an explicit reference to Nazi ideology (Mars, 2020).

The sign says “This bus is driven by a German driver”, implying that the driver is a “real German” rather than an immigrant. This coupled with the choice of the typeface makes it very clear that this bus driver holds German nationalist views.

I introduce my topic with Nazi Germany because while most of us know about Nazi Germany and their crimes against humanity, most of us aren’t very familiar with the history of Asians in North America. If we go back in history in the US from the advent of the first Asian immigrants in the late 1800s to now, we see a long troubled history with lynchings, legal discrimination, colonialism, racially-targeted deportation and exploited labor (“Timeline of…”, 2021). There is also a history of conflating all East Asians as Chinese with racist epithets like Chinaman that was directed against anyone who was racialised as East Asian regardless of whether they were Chinese. With the Chinese as the biggest group of East Asians with the longest history in the US, I will be primarily focusing on this group.

The 1800s were a time of rabid Orientalism, as Edward Said describes, where the Western (i.e. European and North American) world tries to “contain, control and fetishize the splendours of the ‘Orient’” materially and through its depictions in Western art and literature. As the forces of colonisation swallowed swathes of Asia, the exoticisation of Orientalism reached East Asia. It was during this time that what is known today as chop suey, karate, wonton, bamboo or takeout fonts became a shortcut for “Asianness”. If you couldn’t tell already, just the naming of these fonts is highly stereotypical and it will only get worse from here.

We can now find it everywhere from products to signage, politics to entertainment. My most recent encounter with this font family came from the supermarket:

In 1883, we saw the first iteration of such fonts in the patent for the typeface Mandarin:

This font supposedly mimics the calligraphic strokes of Mandarin characters but later fonts as we will see become more abstract in registering Asianness (PrintMag, 2009). While this typeface and others like it originated in the US and has no inherent connection to Chinese cuisine or culture, fonts such as this have proliferated as an easy signpost for restaurants and Chinese-owned businesses to signal themselves and their culture to those not within it. While this may have been a tactic to attract customers who are expecting certain types of presentations from such businesses. This has further legitimised the usage of such fonts in an “if they’re using it themselves, then it must be okay” argument.

            It has been noted that the above sentiment is ironic in that, again, the font is used for the benefit of those outside of the community, to appeal to mainstream America’s need for the exotic appeal of foreign scripts and foods while not being too foreign. Authentic Chinese typography would be Mandarin characters and not this typographic mimicry in Latin letters called Mandarin (Meletis, 2021).

We see this reflected in other forms of appropriations such as the superficial, often incorrect adoption of AAVE features into mainstream slang or the bastardisation of Native American regalia into costumes and the Boho aesthetic.

At this point, I should pause and clarify what I mean by mainstream America or mainstream American culture. I mean the hegemonic culture in America; that is, the capitalist, white, male, and Christian-dominated narrative of what America is and what American culture is and should be.

           The usage of such typefaces are often not as banal as just the signage of a Chinese restaurant and often goes beyond just the question of appropriation or racial insensitivity into something much more sinister. I will be pulling from historical records as well as more recent usages of such fonts.

            These fonts have been used to fuel xenophobia and calls for deportation and targeted immigration restrictions:

            The political cartoon uses the typeface Chopsticks in the phrase “Regular O’Donnell Ticket” and depicts the senatorial candidate getting the “Chinese Exclusion ball” rolling.

            Predictably, the use of the racist fonts intensified during times of unrest and we see several examples from around WWII featuring exaggerated caricatures and stereotypical broken English:

Those political posters both cement the othering of non-white peoples (sometimes as existential threats to Americans and the country if you think about the Cold War and Communist China) and the fonts accompanying the messages not only reinforce the message but also reinforces itself by repeated association with such messaging. It also taps into the notion of the perpetual foreigner by tying those racialised as Asian Americans to their Asian genealogy rather than their shared cultural experience as Americans. This type of messaging directly led to the destruction of property and livelihoods of Japanese and other Asian Americans during WWII as well as groomed the general public to more readily accept Roosevelt’s concentration camps for Japanese Americans.

Here’s a political ad in the current era:

   It’s almost funny just how cartoonishly racist the graphic is. Rather than a military threat, Asians are now seen as an economic threat which encourages a zero-sum attitude towards racial relations; one group’s success must be at the expense of others.

         While this ad technically targets Asians in Asia for “stealing” jobs, through the perpetual foreigner stereotype, Asians in America will bear the brunt of the abuse. By highlighting an Asian face and using an Asian-coded font, it tells the people who see this ad that the reason why unemployment is higher is because of Asians. This is not a new sentiment; the earliest Asian immigrants who were imported to work dangerous, low-paying jobs (Chinese laborers built the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1800s) were stigmatised as job-stealers and untrustworthy which mirrors the racialisation of Latine immigrants today.

It also obfuscates the fact that American companies led mostly by white men were the ones who outsourced their jobs in search of cheaper labor abroad. This ad is a misdirection campaign that directs discontent at a minority group rather than capitalists seeking profit at the expense of its employees. That is all a nice way to say that, wherever possible, corporations are willing to profit off of modern slave labor.

In another modern example, we see how, even absent any explicitly racist content, the combination of visual cues are immediately recognisable as Anti-Asian:

We see the usage of a chop fuey font in the red with “real fishy” and “Andy Kim” at the bottom with the imagery of whole fish at the market. The messaging is clear; Americans are used to eating fish as a fillet and any form of whole fish, much less with the head attached, will elicit a strong disgust reaction. It also calls back to the stereotype that Asians eat anything which itself arose from an ethnocentrist view of food as well as the witnessing of people of famine-ridden regions in Aisa desperately trying to stay alive (no official source, just things that my grandparents told me).

            The font may imply that an Asian “foreigner” is not fit to govern over “real Americans”. The fish image in tandem with the font usage makes this political smear ad racist but with plausible deniability (Tom MacArthur whose campaign ran this ad eventually did deny racist intent) due to the lack of explicit racial content but anyone with eyes can see what’s going on.

            The font in all of these cases functions much like any other dog whistle like “law and order” where they elicit strong negative emotional responses towards a minority group in the white majority. It bypasses logical thinking by using people’s discontent and anxiety and turning it into action to vote for a candidate or ration during wartime.

            The three examples above were of a political nature which reflects a broader sense of American institutional attitudes. With popular consumption items such as clothing, we can see what regular people deem acceptable to put on their own bodies which we will look at below:

          On the right we see T-shirts sold by the hottest brand in the 2000s, Abercrombie and Fitch, using the fonts as well as images of the coolie caricature with the slanted eyes and straw hats. These were just a few; there were a lot more shirts they sold rife with regressive stereotypes. The popularity of the company and the number of racist shirts they produced shows how just normalised these attitudes are.

The graphic on the left appeared in an Instagram story by Lululemon art director, Trevor Fleming, and was designed by artist, Jess Sluder, linking the iconic Chinese takeout box to the coronavirus through a bat motif with the words ‘no thank you” written in the chop suey font. As the pandemic and the ensuing economic uncertainty revitalised old racial tensions, hate crimes and forms of hate speech like that bat-container have become more common and bolder as people sense that others may support them (like the former President).

Other examples includes Cyberpunk 2077 which was supposed to be the flagship next-gen game at the time of its release and its choice of font for its in-game gang, Tiger Claws, which is supposed to be a Japanese gang.

The game itself has a very mish-mashy collection of cultural markers from a range of Asian cultures which, as one critic notes, for a game that differentiates between Anglo and French cultures, this mish-mash reeks of intentional negligence to accurately and meaningfully portray Asian cultures. Orientalism has a strong presence in the science fiction genre whether in video games, literature or art and the aesthetic and characterisations of Asian characters in this game only serves to perpetuate that legacy.

So why does it matter? I’ve talked through a few scenarios already but ultimately, the prevalence of these stereotypes affects not only how Asians are treated in this country but internationally as well. These racial attitudes shape foreign policy and how international conflicts are resolved. As the US continues to see China as an existential threat, there is little chance of cooperation on important issues that affect all of us like climate change. As long as East Asians and especially Chinese people are overshadowed by that narrative, Anti-Asian discrimination and hate crimes will continue to exist. It limits peoples’ imaginations of what Asians could be and therefore limits the opportunities available to them. For example, Chinese American academics and Chinese international students are under unique scrutiny by US intelligence in efforts to root out spies and “defectors” as just another manifestation of the foreigner stereotype that is inherently untrustworthy(Feng, 2019). The current “model minority” myth masks a history of racial violence against Asians in the US. The proliferation of these fonts just shows we haven’t advanced very far from that violent history.

Beyond criticisms that these fonts are unimaginative and cheap, they actively perpetuate harm against the people implicated. It is time to retire these fonts, especially when used by non-Asian people.


For examples of other problematic fonts, look up Hebrew, Russian, Arabic, Thai, Korean faux fonts.

References

Agha, A. (2005). Voice, footing, Enregisterment. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 15(1), 38–59. https://doi.org/10.1525/jlin.2005.15.1.38

Collins, P. H. (2009). Mammies, Matriarchs, and Other Controlling Images. In Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment (pp. 69–96). essay, Routledge.

Feng, E. (2019, June 28). FBI urges universities to monitor some Chinese students and scholars in the U.S. NPR. Retrieved May 11, 2022, from https://www.npr.org/2019/06/28/728659124/fbi-urges-universities-to-monitor-some-chinese-students-and-scholars-in-the-u-s

Mars, R. (2020, February 18). Fraktur. 99% Invisible. Retrieved May 11, 2022, from https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/fraktur/

Meletis, D. (2021). “is your font racist?” Metapragmatic Online Discourses on the use of typographic mimicry and its appropriateness. Social Semiotics, 1–23. https://doi.org/10.1080/10350330.2021.1989296

PrintMag. (2009, June 17). Stereo types. PRINT Magazine. Retrieved May 11, 2022, from https://www.printmag.com/post/stereo_types 

Schou, S. (2020). Raising consciousness: Diversity in graphic design. ArtCenter College of Design. Retrieved May 11, 2022, from https://www.artcenter.edu/connect/dot-magazine/articles/diversity-graphic-design.html#:~:text=In%201991%2C%20the%20AIGA%20put,than%201%25%20as%20Native%20American.

Stanford Libraries. (2021, April 7). Timeline of systemic racism against aapi. Rise Up for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders – Spotlight at Stanford. Retrieved May 11, 2022, from https://exhibits.stanford.edu/riseup/feature/timeline-of-systemic-racism-against-aapi

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: