The Unfortunate Reality of Racial Self-Hatred
The concept of hating yourself due to external racial prejudices is brought to light in two literary works
Society is undoubtedly an enormous influence upon the lives of each and every individual, and the ways in which groups of people are viewed in society can have a profound impact on the lives of said people. More often than not, these effects are negative, specifically in the case of racial discrimination and the reality of self-hatred based on race which is unfortunately prominent in society.
Both the historical text Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong and the literary fictional text Pachinko by Min Jin Lee specifically discuss the severity of anti-Asian racism both in American and Japanese culture, and argue that this discrimination against Asians has contributed to mass self-hatred, shame and paranoia among the Asian community.
Presenting to the reader a first-hand account of the racism which many Asians were forced to endure and still endure to an extent, Minor Feelings is an autobiographical book written by Cathy Park Hong and published in 2020. The book, which is completely non-fiction, is a collection of essays by Hong which document her experiences in America as a Korean, and specifically focus on the hardships she faced, focusing on systemic racism and prejudice, as well as the self-doubt and shame she experienced during her life.
Hong offers the reader a thorough glimpse into her life and various examples of the prejudice she faced, including growing up in a predominantly-white society and facing language barriers, and how these experiences pushed her towards being ashamed of her own Korean culture, rather than embracing it further. She does not pull punches with Minor Feelings, making it extremely apparent right off the bat that she has been severely affected by racism in her life. This stems from the fact that she is an Asian-American, and paints a brutally honest picture of the troubles she has encountered due to this. In the first essay, United, she describes the way she thinks Asians are viewed in society, directly stating:
In the popular imagination, Asian Americans inhabit a vague purgatorial status: not white enough nor black enough; distrusted by African Americans, ignored by whites, unless we’re being used by whites to keep the black man down. We are the carpenter ants of the service industry, the apparatchiks of the corporate world. We are math-crunching middle managers who keep the corporate wheels greased but who never get promoted since we don’t have the right “face” for leadership. We have a content problem. They think we have no inner resources. But while I may look impassive, I am frantically paddling my feet underwater, always overcompensating to hide my devouring feelings of inadequacy.
Hong feels that in society, Asians are looked down upon by both African Americans and whites, but more-so by whites. Because of this, they feel as if they are not good enough and can never move up in the social ladder. This is a phenomenon she calls racial self-hatred, or in her case, the “self-hating Asian”, and it is a problem which stems from the systemic racism and prejudice against minorities, but in Hong’s case, specifically Asians.
Racial self-hatred is seeing yourself the way the whites see you, which turns you into your own worst enemy. Your only defense is to be hard on yourself, which becomes compulsive, and therefore a comfort, to peck yourself to death. You don’t like how you look, how you sound. You think your Asian features are undefined, like God started pinching out your features and then abandoned you. You hate that there are so many Asians in the room. Who let in all the Asians? you rant in your head. Instead of solidarity, you feel that you are less than around other Asians, the boundaries of yourself no longer distinct but congealed into a horde.
To Hong, racial self-hatred is not about seeing yourself the way you wish to, but rather the way you are forced to by society — in her case, it was by whites, as she was living in a predominantly-white society at the time. A person undergoing racial self-hatred begins to hate themselves and their characteristics due to the way others look down upon them, which is fueled by social stereotypes. Rather than serving as a unifying factor among the group in question — again, in this case, Asians — it serves as a dividing factor which leads them to become ashamed of themselves and who they are, and promotes paranoia among the community. Due to external societal circumstances, Hong felt as if she was not good enough solely due to her race and ethnicity, and hated herself because of it.
The struggles of an Asian growing up in a predominantly-white society are further expounded upon in Hong’s third essay of Minor Feelings, entitled The End of White Innocence. She recounts feeling immense shame due to her racial self-hatred, stating:
I am a dog cone of shame. I am a urinal cake of shame. This feeling eats away at my identity until my body is hollowed out and I am nothing but pure incinerating shame.
To Hong, this racial self-hatred stemmed from a variety of reasons all linking to anti-Asian views among society and whites, but also resulted from the cultural differences. Hong recounts an example of this when she was a child, a time when her mother sent her to school with a Playboy shirt, but they had no idea what the logo meant. Sure enough, Hong was made fun of at school for it and felt immense shame, with her recounting this by saying, “I knew yet again that something was wrong but I didn’t know what was wrong.”
It is worth noting that Hong says that she knew yet again that something was wrong, indicating that this feeling of being shamed by others was, unfortunately, a common occurrence. This feeling continued as Hong learned English as a child, which she recalls being an extremely challenging feat.
I associated English with everything hard: the chalkboard with diagrammed sentences, the syllables in my mouth like hard slippery marbles. English was not an expression of me but a language that was out to get me.
Hong even states that she was mocked by her first-grade teacher for her hardships. However, one of the most degrading aspects of racism to Hong that she had to endure was the degrading of her parents, stating that her parents were often mocked and talked down to by white adults. Hong speaks for both herself and all Asians facing the same or similar experiences as she did, writing:
“To grow up Asian in America is to witness the humiliation of authority figures like your parents and to learn not to depend on them: they cannot protect you.”
To Hong, Asians experience these feelings of self-hatred, fear and paranoia because they are powerless in a white society. It appears to be a never-ending loop for Hong, since “the problem is not that my childhood was exceptionally traumatic but that it was in fact rather typical.” This sums up Hong’s view on anti-Asian discrimination and proves that it is both exceptionally cruel and, sadly, commonplace.
Carrying over this overall theme but presenting it to the reader in a slightly different light is Pachinko, a book written by Min Jin Lee. Pachinko, which is a fictional story, can serve as both a literary and historical work, but in this case it works best as a literary work due to its fictitious nature. However, the themes that it covers, particularly with racism and stereotyping, are not fiction, as shown with Minor Feelings.
The book was published in 2017 and takes place over a lengthy time span, featuring a large collection of characters across three separate sections or Books, similar to the essays of Minor Feelings. However, the primary difference between Pachinko and Minor Feelings is that while Minor Feelings primarily takes place in America and discusses anti-Asian racism and prejudice from whites in a predominantly-white society, Pachinko actually takes place in Asia, specifically Japan, and focuses on anti-Asian racism and prejudice from Asians themselves.
Both Minor Feelings and Pachinko deal with the themes of anti-Asian racism from a Korean perspective, as both Cathy Park Hong and Min Jin Lee are Korean. However, as mentioned, Pachinko covers the struggles of racism and prejudice coming from the Japanese rather than Americans. Pachinko deals not only with racism but covers a wide variety of themes involving tragedy, as many of the characters throughout the book experience hardships. This is especially the case for women, as Sunja is told by the ajumma, or middle-aged married woman, that her life will consist of “…endless work and suffering. There is suffering and then more suffering…but no matter what, always expect suffering.”
However, Pachinko’s primary theme undeniably is, like Minor Feelings, racism and prejudice, and this is shown throughout the book. When the Japanese boys steal Sunja’s melons from her basket near the Yeongdo ferry, they shout racist pejoratives and stereotypes at her, with one boy yelling “Yobos eat dogs and now they’re stealing the food of dogs!” The Japanese boy is calling Sunja a yobo, which was “a derogatory epithet used by the Japanese to describe Koreans,” according to Lee, and the boy claims that because she is Korean, she eats dogs and dog food, which is of course a hostile racist stereotype. They eventually tried to rape her, but fortunately, she was saved by Hansu, who threatened the boys, scaring them off.
Due to the anti-Asian and specifically anti-Korean racism that the characters must endure in Pachinko, a sense of racial self-hatred can be noticed, similar to Minor Feelings. After Noa appears flustered in front of Akiko, she asks him, “What is it? Is it that you are embarrassed that you are Korean?” to which Noa denies this claim. However, Noa refuses to meet Akiko’s Japanese family, whom Akiko claims are racist against Koreans, indicating that Noa is experiencing slight racial self-hatred as he feels it is useless for him to meet people who will hate him for his race.
In this conversation, Akiko further confirms the anti-Korean racism present in Japanese society as she admits that her family, who are Japanese, will hate Noa because he is Korean. Like in Minor Feelings, this can lead to racial self-hatred as Noa already feels unwelcome due to his race; Lee states that “his cheeks were flushed; he was having trouble getting the words out,” which is an indication that he was feeling shame and self-doubt, in a similar fashion to how Hong felt throughout Minor Feelings.
The severity of the anti-Korean racism is displayed throughout Pachinko, even after Sunja’s encounter with the Japanese boys. Japan is depicted as a nation extremely prejudiced towards Koreans, with it being described as a “nation where Koreans were treated no better than barn animals,” and this view only got worse throughout World War II and the Japanese occupation of Korea, which is covered in Pachinko.
In the eyes of Koreans, the Japanese viewed them as inferior, and there was absolutely nothing they could do to mask their ethnicity as they would always be looked down upon no matter what they did. This contributes to the cycle of racial self-hatred, as the Asian, or in this instance specifically the Korean, feels trapped due to circumstances beyond their control and no matter what they try to do, there is no escape.
Further contributing to this feeling of no escape, particularly for a Korean in Japan, was that the society did not offer Koreans a fair and honest opportunity to thrive. It is stated that in Japan, “No one will rent to the Koreans…There’s nowhere for them to go,” and even wealthy, well-off Koreans from Korea have been “reduced to nothing” in Japan. This rejection of Koreans, both on a personal and societal level, will lead to feelings of shame and paranoia, which is a theme present in both Minor Feelings and Pachinko.
It is an unfortunate reality that racism did and still does exist in society, and its roots are impossible to ignore. Both the non-fiction historical work Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong and the fictional literary work Pachinko by Min Jin Lee highlight this reality, in the case of anti-Asian discrimination. While one highlights the systemic racism present in American society that appears to be aimed towards Asians, the other highlights the systemic racism present in Asian society itself, but specifically Japan.
Both of these literary works aim to spotlight the truly tragic prejudice Asians, but specifically Koreans, were forced to undergo throughout their ventures abroad. They emphasize how these prejudices have contributed to mass shame, paranoia and, of course, self-hatred among the Asian, but specifically Korean, community.
By reading, analyzing and understanding the works of Minor Feelings and Pachinko, a further understanding of the racism Koreans endured can be achieved, and the argument that it has led to mass self-hatred can be made.
Chris is a writer and publisher who travels America, and loves doing it. He also loves pizza, video games, and sports, and can tell you a thing or two about each. Follow him on Twitter and on Medium to be informed of new articles.