Across the Board Stories

Confronting internal racism: Relearning what it means to be “beautiful”

When I was younger, I was always very proud of the fact that my hair is not black but actually dark brown. This distinction was very important to me, and I was fiercely protective of my brown, not black, hair. All throughout elementary, middle, and high school, I attended predominantly white and upper middle-class schools. Neither of which were categories that I fit into, so I was very aware of how different I was in comparison to my friends while growing up. I remember feeling decidedly less “pretty” than my blonde friends or green-eyed friends. But, one thing that I could cling to that bared some sort of resemblance to their kind of “pretty” was my brown hair. I remember one time in middle school someone commented on my hair, jokingly saying: “You’re not a real Asian, you don’t actually have black hair.” I felt proud that someone had noticed this small trait that offered a slight separation between me and “looking” Asian.

My friend (right) and I (left)

The traits that I wished to change the most while I was growing up were my tadpole-shaped eyes and flat nose. This sentiment was shared by my sister and I believed it to be a normal part of the adolescent experience. We often talked about simply getting a nose job or double-eyelid surgery; small prices to pay for an exponential increase in confidence. The idea that my unattractive qualities were tied to traits generally seen as belonging to Asians became thoroughly cemented in my head and I never questioned it.

My sister (left) and I (right)

I never questioned it until I visited Mongolia at the age of 15. My parents are originally from Mongolia and immigrated to the US around 20 years ago, thus, I was born and raised in the US. However, I was accepted into a student exchange program where I got the chance to stay in Mongolia for two weeks during the summer before my sophomore year of high school. The biggest culture shock that I faced, and the one that was least expected, was that everyone seemed to find me conventionally attractive. When I was there, I received much more romantic interest within the span of two weeks than I had ever received in the US. I always thought that I was simply unattractive and had to accept that fact but in Mongolia, my Asian traits did not count against me at all; actually, they were considered beautiful. I never had to reckon with my internal racism until that moment when I realized that Asian traits were not, in fact, inherently ugly but simply did not fit into American beauty ideals. All the times classmates had pointed out how small my eyes were with a jeering tone were not due to my personal failure of having these traits; actually, the problem lied entirely with the ignorance taught to people raised with the beauty ideals of the Western world. This realization is glaringly obvious now and I’m ashamed to say it took me so long to see, but I guess there’s no need to confront internal racism when it seamlessly fits into the agenda of the dominant culture. 

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

I think that a lot of damage happens in the things that are unsaid. I wish that I had vocalized when I felt uncomfortable when my Asian friends or my sister said something that affected my self-image. I wish that I had overtly called out people when they said subtly racist things. When suffering occurs only in silence, criticisms of the self become the cement that builds a reinforced wall of internalized racism that gets harder and harder to tear down. I believe that as a community, Asian-Americans have a responsibility to ourselves and to future generations to be loud in fighting against Eurocentric standards of beauty, especially those of which are held self-enforced. 

Representation in the media is a very good start, but not enough. Movies like Crazy Rich Asians and Shang Chi are definitely a breath of fresh air as Asians are finally able to see their identities reflected in massively influential pieces of pop culture: however, the journey should not just end there. Something that I have picked up on is that when these movies starring Asians are released, the Western world finding typically Asian physical traits as attractive is only an exception not the rule; they look great when paired with celebrities, but not on normal people. Asians should have to look like Henry Golding or Lucy Liu to be considered attractive.

I think having an internal reckoning is a crucial step in overthrowing Eurocentric standards of beauty. We need to be aware of all the ways in which we project learned Eurocentrism onto ourselves and voice them so as not to continue the cycle of self-criticism related to feeling “unbeautiful” as a result of having typically Asian traits. This process is definitely not easy. To this day, I cringe at pictures of my side profile because of my nose and I find myself yearning for bigger eyes. It’s a shame that Asian-Americans do have to go through this mentally-draining internal conflict–but it’s a necessary course of action that will protect the self-perceptions of countless other young Asians growing up in America.

Featured Image: Chuan Ming Ong, “Race and Identity: Asia America”

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