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Acknowledging My Internalized Racism as an Asian-American Who Barely Lived in America

We’ve heard of the classic story: Asian kid brings Asian lunch to school, gets made fun of, starts to hate Asian lunch. But that story, though unfortunately common in many Asian immigrant experiences, is only one point in the spectrum of the ways internalized racism sows its hateful seeds into the hearts of many across the globe. Yes, I’m certain this experience isn’t exclusive to the U.S., or just any predominantly White country. Even outside the Western world, any enclosed environment where Western ideas are central can be a petri dish for a far more elusive version of self-hate in POC. 

I spent a big chunk of my childhood and adolescence at international schools in Asia. That means pushing through hallways bustling with kids from a wide range of ethnic, racial, and cultural backgrounds. The student body at some schools weren’t as “international,” but, diverse or not, English was the primarily spoken language and American culture was vastly consumed. This is the environment that had raised nearly all of the kids there, including myself. 

I loved Korea. When I was in Singapore, I loved going back to visit every few years, staying at my grandparents’, taking the subway, the weather (except for maybe summertime), the food, the food, and the food. I was also proud of being Korean. Any mention of my country got me excited, even though I had never lived there for long enough at the time to confidently call it home and my Korean was, and still is, dormant at a pre-school level at best.

Yet at some point I found myself almost scornful of some sides of what I should be able to call part of my culture. I was obsessed with bibimmyeon, but I would distance myself from K-Pop (I know, it sounds absurd in 2021). I laughed hysterically at episodes of my favorite Korean reality TV show every weekend, but would turn around and judge Korean girls for powdering their face milky white and tinting their lips bright pink. 

It’s true that there is toxicity present in Korean culture that takes the shape of unrealistic beauty standards, booming dermatology and plastic surgery industries, and an almost cult-like idolization of girl groups, boy bands, and TV/film stars– all of which I’m guessing were parts of the reason I had such a negative attitude. But now that I think about it, not much can be said differently about Western societies.

Unattainable beauty standards and obsession with physical appearance? Check. Plastic surgery? Still fairly popular. Massive prevalence of pop culture? Very apparent. What was at the core of my scorn, then, was a desire to “fit in.” Because even in that “melting pot” environment I was in, at the end of the day, Western ideas dominated. 

Could it be that a stubborn persistence of the unchecked idealization of the West that wafted across history and permeated today’s society was at fault? Or maybe it was that, at least as long as I can remember, I had only thrived in English-speaking settings. Either way, or both, it’s clear that some part of me had been deceived into thinking Western societies were better in a way– it just wasn’t detected by my consciousness. 

Cultural imperialism or cultural colonialism involves a foreign culture being imposed on the local culture. In this phenomenon, the forces of the Global North may prevail against that of the Global South, and western cultures especially dominate non-Western ones. Besides in what we generally think of as colonialism, this is epitomized in the cultural hegemony imposed by the U.S. onto the world. Combined with the association of foreign and multinational businesses with economic progress, we witness things like China’s deluge of customers when McDonald’s first opened there, and a continued idealization of that pristine, clear-cut model of American businesses– not to mention a romanticization of the promising American culture that is rich in the atmosphere of these fast food restaurants.

Besides this fascination with Americana, we can sense that there’s this idealized view of (white) Europe and New-World America– at least in many East Asian countries. To be sure, European influences are very prevalent, but historically there is a harmful perception that those influences are undeniably modern while Asian technologies and cultures are less sophisticated. Add the idea of the American Dream and a general understanding of the West as the birthplace and facilitator of democracy, and a brighter light is cast on the western world, turning it into a symbol of prosperity and freedom.

Had these ideas shaped my worldview as I grew up, prompting me at some point to feel pride in having an American citizenship even while questioning whether it even had a strong place in my identity? Was it what caused me to push parts of my culture away? I don’t think that possibility should be eliminated. Though I had felt a relative discomfort in Korean-speaking settings, loved English class, wasn’t really into K-Pop, and preferred the much more open nature of my education compared to the Korean curriculum, these preferences shouldn’t have incited negativity towards modern Korean culture. That evil had to have stemmed somewhere else. 

In my final year of middle school, I moved back to Seoul and briefly attended a Korean school. The valuable interactions I had with my Korean friends were enough to convince me that K-pop, despite the shortcomings of its culture and industry, is as itself something I should be proud about as a Korean. My friends showed me all the fun they had immersing themselves in pop culture and beauty and fashion trends just like any teenager, and my respect grew for them as they returned to their desks for hours upon hours of vigorous study sessions to succeed within the country’s competitive education system. I had no right to look down on any aspect of their lifestyles, even unconsciously. My past perceptions were clearly unfounded.

As someone that has lived in Asian countries for most of my life, I believed that I had never really experienced racism firsthand. What I failed to realize, however, was that I didn’t have to leave Asia to be hated for my background – the racism was already within me, obscured. It’s difficult for me to accept that past side of myself and organize my emotions into concrete thought, much less writing, because of the shame that churns in me whenever my mind brings it up. But when I remember how important it is to fully come to terms with, and subsequently address, the negativity in my community and especially myself, I’m compelled to continue. It’s with recognizing these narratives that we are able to tend to the cracks in our identities that bind us together. It’s with catching ourselves and changing our perspectives that we can combat the adverse longstanding effects of Western imperialism that prevent us from truly loving each other. 

So as a final note to myself and anyone like me: Sit down and remember who your people are.

Photo: Pexels

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