I was once told by someone that my “ethnically ambiguous” look confused them. Whether or not it was meant as an innocuous comment, I couldn’t get over how it made me feel: defensive, and honestly, baffled. I was surprised by how direct they were, usually people will ask the standard “What are you?” question and I’ll say, “I’m half Japanese, a quarter Filipino, and a quarter Irish.” Or, you know, a human just like you. While it can be tiring to repeatedly answer this question, I think it’s OK to talk about my heritage when people are genuinely curious— because I would be, too. In this case, this person didn’t ask. They gave their unsolicited opinion. And I had already spent years defending — or rather, justifying — my looks to myself. While I’ve always appreciated being from a mixed-race background, learning to love the qualities that I thought didn’t fit into “ideal” beauty standards (read: Eurocentric features) didn’t come so easily.
I realize now that I was desperately seeking validation from something I was constantly exposed to: the media. The characters I would watch on shows never looked like me— and if I didn’t see myself reflected in film and TV, then what did that say about my place in society? I’ve since learned that embracing the traits you always thought were “different” and acknowledging that you are so much more than your appearance is enough — but representation is also incredibly important.
I was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, and although I grew up around people who were primarily East Asian, Pacific Islander, and Caucasian, I also came across a number of mixed-race individuals. In fact, according to a 2017 report released by the Pew Research Center, it found that Hawaii had the highest percentage of multiracial or multiethnic infants in the nation (44%, to be exact). And while I can’t speak for everyone’s experience, being multiracial in Hawaii never made me feel out of place. Both of my parents are biracial, or “hapa,” a Native Hawaiian term that translates to “half.” I had classmates who came from similar backgrounds and even the ones that didn’t never treated me differently or acted like I was some enigma they couldn’t wrap their heads around. Growing up, I never gave my non-Western features a second thought: my downturned eyes; thick, black hair; and wide nose were just part of who I was — but it didn’t define my worth. That began to change once I transitioned from middle school to high school when I started watching more television. The show I was obsessed with at the time? The O.C. And while I’ll admit I’m still a fan, there’s no denying the main characters were all white and shared the same traits I would see on the majority of other people on TV. And, yes, I know it’s based in Orange County, whose population is predominantly white — but it doesn’t take away from the fact that there were a number of other programs (i.e. Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill) on at the time that featured similar casts — none of which I could relate to, but I accepted as the status quo. And as a teenager, I was especially self-conscious about my looks, which led me to pick apart the features I thought didn’t conform to European beauty standards. I would wish my nose was slimmer, my hair was lighter, and that I appeared more Caucasian than Asian. These insecure feelings were proof you can be surrounded by diversity in real life, yet still feel invisible and unworthy when you don’t see yourself reflected in pop culture.
When I left Oahu for the West Coast, I started to question the lack of diversity that surrounded me on and off-screen. And while I’ve met a number of people from all backgrounds in California, there were times when I would notice I was the only woman of color at an event or in a room. It can be extremely isolating when you look around a space and don’t see anyone else that looks like you. Through this, I suddenly began to realize the importance of representation and the effect it can have on your self-esteem and mental health. These experiences paralleled my frustrations with the constant stream of shows, advertisements, and movies that didn’t feature diverse roles. I started to open my eyes and pay attention to how many people of color appeared in a movie or were featured in a campaign; I was no longer accepting a lack of inclusivity as the norm. And while I wasn’t as critical about my looks when I was a teenager, the insecure thoughts were still in the back of my mind.
It didn’t help that when I would travel internationally, my ethnicity was either constantly questioned or blatantly misjudged. I would meet people who automatically assumed I could speak more than three languages because I’m mixed, was told “Ni Hao” by strange men, and was asked by every taxi driver about my background. Like I said, I’m open to questions about my heritage, but I wondered if people were trying to put me into a box — to understand why I look the way that I do — because they weren’t used to seeing someone like me in, well, anything.
Over the past few years, representation has become more prevalent in entertainment thanks to films and shows like Crazy Rich Asians, Black Panther, Fresh Off The Boat, and Jane The Virgin. And while it’s inspiring to see people of color in lead roles, it’s not difficult to notice Hollywood still has a long way to go. According to USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s study, the ethnicities of minority characters that appeared across 100 films in 2017 were 12.1% Black; 4.8% Asian; 6.2% Hispanic; and 3.9% mixed-race. That same year, a staggering 70.7% of white characters were portrayed on-screen. It’s also worth noting that as of 2018, those same ethnic minority groups made up 40% of the U.S. population. Despite the statistics regarding underrepresented roles, there’s proof that when given the opportunity, diversity sells. On their opening weekends, Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther dominated the competition — grossing $35 million and $242 million, respectively — making it clear that audiences are eager to see themselves reflected on-screen. And, yet, while the films’ phenomenal box office performances were promising, until a seismic shift happens in Hollywood, the future of representation still seems daunting.
Until then, I’ve learned that you can find acceptance within yourself and your community. Even though I can’t change how I was influenced by the media growing up, I can change my mindset and how I view myself. The real turning point for me was when I began to notice that I wasn’t alone in feeling like my looks didn’t meet typical beauty standards after hearing friends, who were also minorities, voice their insecurities. I had friends who talked about wanting nose jobs to appear more Western, traveled to Korea to get double eyelid surgery, and complained about their “plain, straight” Asian hair. I’m all for doing whatever you want to your appearance, as long as it’s for yourself and not to please anyone else. But I knew my friends felt this way because they felt pressured to look like someone they were not. Hearing my friends talk negatively about their looks and listening to my own internal dialogue made me realize we need to embrace what makes us different, despite the media’s reluctance to do so.
This is especially important for not only women of color, but all minorities. And adults aren’t the only ones affected: The impact a lack of representation in the media can have on children has been proven to alter their self-esteem in a negative way. According to a study published in the journal Communications Research, researchers at Indiana University found that watching TV makes young minorities feel worse about themselves. Conversely, their research found that if you’re a white boy, exposure to TV makes you feel good about yourself. For the study, authors Nicole Martin and Kristen Harrison, surveyed a group of around 400 black and white preadolescent students from the Midwest over a yearlong period. Martins pointed out the reasons behind the low self-esteem in young girls, “If you are a girl or a woman, what you see is that women of television are not given a variety of roles. The roles that they see are pretty simplistic; they’re almost always one-dimensional and focused on the success they have because of how they look, not what they do or what they think of how they got there.” In regards to black boys, Martin explained, “Young black boys are getting the opposite message: that there is not lots of good things that you can aspire to.” All of this further proves there is an onus on the film and TV industry to create more diverse characters — with positive qualities — to inspire and act as role models for impressionable children. It’s also just as important that roles aren’t made out of tokenism. Minorities should be able to see themselves reflected as layered, nuanced characters in lead roles that don’t perpetuate stereotypes or check a box.
After I read Kelly Marie Tran’s essay for the New York Times (which she wrote as a response to the racist harassment she received after she was cast in The Last Jedi), I couldn’t stop thinking about something the actress said: “Their words reinforced a narrative I had heard my whole life: that I was ‘other,’ that I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t good enough, simply because I wasn’t like them.” Her words deeply resonated with me because it illustrated those same sentiments of not belonging and feeling out of place. And while I hope the media will continue to be challenged to reflect the world I see today, I will no longer give in to feeling like I’m not good enough because I don’t see myself represented. I am who I am, and I won’t compare myself to anyone else or accept the “ideal” standards of beauty. And, let me tell you, there’s nothing confusing about that.