Racism is the practice of instilling the consciousness of racial disparities in a person. In the novel Native Speaker there is evidence of racism. The early immigrants were subjected to racialization on the basis of their color, culture and labor. A good example is seen through Henry and his relations with the people around him. He struggles to fit in and so goes to great lengths in order to get the racial burden off his shoulders. He is forced to make decisions which are geared towards making him more white than Korean. Racism makes people make choices that are geared towards denouncing their personalities and cultures in an effort to become acceptable to the ideal society.
Leila plays a major role in the refashioning of Henry so as to fit into the white middle class norm. In fact, ever other race was inferior to the white standard way of judging other races. That is the reason why Henry would opt to be considered more of a white personaliry. In order to resolve his identity crisis, he opts to cast himself as a white manqué (45). The interaction between Henry and Lelia makes the former get to accept some of the things that the latter says about the way he should act and live, that is being in the whitest raw (1). This is a man who wanted to embrace whiteness. If only he could then he could fit into the world of Lelia, a white middleclass American. The driving force is the desire to fit in and be accepted.
Racism and whiteness is also evident when Lelia and Henry meet and then escape into the parking lot and share their first kiss. While there Lelia makes honest observations that are rather racist about Henry’s behavior. She even goes ahead and tells him that he looks like he is not a native speaker (12). Such a comment is one that may jolt a person because of how; a person can make judgments about their racial backgrounds on their very first meeting. At one point, Henry asserts that together with Leila, they had their share of issues with regard to their identities. That some of his traits were not to be obliged to but then, her traits and habits were beyond question. The issue of race and identity takes a toll on them because according to Lelia, Henry’s Korean heritage was inferior to her whiteness. She is clearly discontent about the fact that he is Korean and that his racial background was unmatched to her whiteness. This in the long run forms the basis for Henry’s identity quest.
Racialization can also be seen in the case of Mitt, when he spent holidays at his grandfather’s place. While there the neighborhood boys taunted him because of his mixed race. In fact, “The first summer was difficult for Mitt. The neighborhood boys taunted him in a racial manner and even once beat him. Henry and his father went around to the parents' houses to discuss the issue.” (23) This is clear that they could not easily accommodate another person who was considered an outsider. Even to that innocent childhood level, the children are well aware of their cultural and religious background a fact that dictated how people related and integrated with each other. Even children were well aware of racial prejudice and discrimination and this led them to isolate the one they felt did not belong to their social, cultural or religious circles. It is unbelievable that even at a very tender age, these children know what it means to belong to their circles and this is the reason why they do not accommodate Mitt into their group and this led to Henry talking to the parents of these boys in order for them to helping solving this problem.
Lee does not seem to understand the reason why Henry and his family have to keep a low profile. “ Henry wonders why his family always feels the need to keep a low profile. He remembers working on one of his father's stores in a wealthy neighborhood and hearing the patrons make negative racial comments about the Korean employees” (56). Thus is a clear indication that there was racial prejudice at the time. The patrons did not seem to like the fact that there were Korean employees there. There was literary no difference between Korean and non Korean employees but due to the issue of racial prejudice at the time. Non whites were considered superior and deserved better than other racial groups. They were not left with much of a choice but keep a low profile because of their racial background. They were considered inferior to the white and when this is the case, the Koreans or any other minority groups had no choice but to do so lest they end up being taunted by the majority white American society.
Lee exposes the cost of assimilation in the American society. Through Henry, the protagonist in this story, there is a path that one has to take in an effort to achieve something that gives them the satisfaction they seek so as to belong. Race defines who people are and the ability for society to accept them. This is the reason why Henry rejects and denounces some of the Korean elements in him. The pressure comes from outside of him and within him; he has to contend to the fact that he needs to do something for him to be accepted. He has to define a new identity that gives him the satisfaction that he so desires and make him acceptable by not only Leila by the entire American society. The whiteness of the society therefore determines how people think about themselves, whether they feel inferior or superior, it is dependent on the society itself. Henry is in an identity crisis that has been the case in the American society for very many years because there are prejudices against come racial groups which have for a long time determined which the best race is and which are the inferior ones.
John Kwang is another example of a person who had to shed off his native culture and practices in order to fit into the American society. This is typical of what racism can do to an individual. He is of course a Korean immigrant but then he has shed many of his Korean cultural foundations in order to fit into the political space that he occupies. He wants to be accepted by all as a politician and he has to embrace the superior race and abandon his inferior one. He has to make an impression in public even though, given room; he could be more Korean in private. He even fights so hard to suppress his Korean accent in public in order for him to look like the American he desires to be so that he can be liked and accepted.
All in all, Henry is an epitome of those people who undergo major challenges in life in an effort to fit in and be accepted in society. It is through him that the theme of racialization is well illustrated by Lee. The end result of this is not good enough because it affected the people’s personality as seen in the case of Henry and even Kwang. Racism can make people go to extreme lengths in order to fit in and abandon their true identities.
Lee, Chang- Rae. Native speaker. New York: Penguin Books, 2013. Print.