Growing up, I struggled with my Korean heritage and what it means to be American — particularly an Asian-American. I still struggle with it every day.
As a kid, almost everyone I knew or saw in my small Colorado town was white. The books I read were about white kids. The movies and TV shows I watched were also full of white people, and minorities were always relegated to minor roles. We were always portrayed as the sidekicks, the punch line of a joke, or "that weird kid" in class. Minorities are still rarely cast as main characters, and white actors and actresses are even cast in Asian roles — we don’t even get to represent ourselves. I learned to view Asian culture as somehow bad, as the "other."
I believed that I had overcome many of the ways this lack of representation affects me in the past couple of years. I particularly thought I'd learned how to recognize the diversity the world actually holds and have been pushing myself to be more cognizant about representation. It helps that I now study at UC Berkeley, where I constantly see a level of diversity I’ve never experienced before.
Then I read a book.
It was a light read, one of those boy-and-girl-meet-and-fall-in-love books. But I was surprised to eventually realize that the main character wasn’t white. It took me a while to wrap my mind around it. The overwhelming majority of books I'd read featuring non-white main characters were racially charged, and purposely showed the plight of a specific group of people — books about war, slavery, or racial inequality; books like When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Park, which is about a girl and her family living under the Japanese occupation of Korea during WWII.
I had never read a book that featured minority characters but was just about a girl meeting a guy and falling in love or about a girl fighting against a corrupt utopia in a dystopian novel. Characters in YA adventure books and Nicholas Sparksesque romances are almost always white. Their race is automatically assumed. Taking center stage in these everyday books is not a privilege minorities have.
Featuring white characters is not bad in and of itself: It's when they're the default, when white-dominated books are the only ones available, that it's problematic. It's a problem that I was surprised to encounter a non-white main character. It's a problem that the existence of minorities in movies or fiction is usually exceptional, which perpetuates the narrative that being a minority is bad. But being a minority isn't problematic: Racism is.
For a while, I hated myself for feeling so surprised. Did this mean that I assume white people are the default? Am I unable to envision characters like me or otherwise racially diverse characters? Or did it just mean that I’ve gotten used to and accepted the fact that books are largely white-dominated?
I'm not just a lover of stories, a reader — I'm also a writer. I slowly began to realize that I, too, have largely envisioned my characters as white in the stories I've written over the years. I never explicitly decided that my characters were white, but I never really thought too hard about their race and just assumed that they were white. Even in the stories I wrote, I forgot that my own characters could be like me.
It was disturbing to discover how deeply rooted white dominance is within my own mind. Some people might write off whitewashing, but I know firsthand just how much mainstream American society has influenced the way I think about the world. I am a product of my upbringing. It hurts.
But I’m not alone. Especially as kids, we desperately wanted to be seen as normal, so many minorities in America rejected our rich ancestries in favor of assimilation, falsely believing that this is what it means to be an American. We not only saw our cultures ignored, our voices buried, and our heritages erased, but also saw white people over-represented — in books, movies, YouTube videos, shows, magazines, and other forms of media. So we, too, began to buy into the idea that white is the default and anything else is bad — that we were bad.
But as minorities, we bring so much to the table. Our history in this country is just as valid as anyone else’s. It's crucial to become more conscious of this inequality. I'm slowly learning, after spending years suppressing my own heritage, that I don't have to change in order to prove that I'm American (as if being born and raised here wasn't enough). More diverse casting will mean that children today will have access to plenty of narratives — to protagonists and lead characters of all backgrounds — and might feel more comfortable embracing their own unique backgrounds, gifts, and stories.
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