On Kung Fu Masters, Hookers, and Internalized Racism (by Nancy Ohlin)

Growing up, I didn’t know about internalized racism.  What I knew was this: As a half-Japanese kid in a mostly white Midwestern town, I desperately wanted to be all-Caucasian so people would stop calling me “Jap” and “chink.”  When some blond girl came up to me in the park and accused me of causing Pearl Harbor, I believed her.

Those years, I tried really hard to erase the Japanese half of me.  I refused to speak Japanese at home.  I threw away the Japanese lunches my mom made and ate cafeteria food instead.  When the kids at my school shouted “ah-so!” or made “slanty eyes,” I laughed to show I was a good sport.  

So it seemed perfectly natural to me that the American books I read back then had mostly white main characters.  Ditto the TV shows and movies I watched.  White was not only the norm and the default; it was the superior color.  I mean, an Asian MC?  Really?  Maybe a minor character like a kung fu master or a hooker, sure, but the protagonist?  No one would ever go for that! 

Likewise, it seemed perfectly natural that when I became a writer, my main characters would be mostly white.  I frequently toyed with the idea of an Asian MC—not in the context of writing about the “Asian experience,” but an MC who happened to be Asian and did regular-people stuff like falling in love and having best friend problems and encountering peril.  But I couldn’t wrap my brain around an Asian Katniss Everdeen or Bella Swan.  I also told myself that the publishing world and Hollywood would never be interested in an Asian Katniss or Bella. 

I’m not proud of having bought into the whiteness paradigm at an early age. But I don’t beat myself up about it, either.  It’s not easy for anyone, especially a child, to recognize and stand up to bigotry singlehandedly.  And now that I’m older and wiser, I get how societal hatred of other-ness can lead to self-hatred, which can perpetuate the cycle.  Asians are no good, therefore I am no good, therefore I will exclude Asian characters from my books … and so on.

Changing this mindset was/is not easy work.  I couldn't just knee-jerk add Asians (and other people of color) to my books.  I was taught that stories have to be organic and natural, not forced and contrived.  Which meant that I had to clear my intellectual, psychological, and sociological slate and learn to believe, innately and unequivocally, that “white” was not synonymous with “better.”  

Have you ever experienced internalized racism in your life?  If so, how did it affect your attitude about YA and other novels, consciously or unconsciously, as a writer or reader?

For more about internalized racism, read Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.  Watch Chris Rock's documentary Good Hair.  Check out this excellent short monologue by Margaret Cho:



  1. Thank you for sharing that hilarious clip of Margaret Cho (I love her) and for talking about internalized racism. You asked some great questions and have given me something to think about.

  2. You're welcome, Jen! (And I, too, love Margaret Cho!)

    1. Also, you might just win for best blog title this month!

    2. Thank you, Jen! I couldn't resist it. :)


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