‘Riverdale’ Star Charles Melton on Anti-Asian Hate Crimes: ‘I Failed to Defend My Heritage in Fear of Retribution’ (Guest Column)

Jazz Tangcay
·4-min read

I’ve often been told that I’m not Asian enough. Not white enough. And I question whether I am enough at all. I am conflicted by my racial identities and the trauma that comes with that. In light of the recent horrors, I am compelled to share my story.

My parents met in Korea when my father was stationed there as an Army soldier. My parents fell in love despite the negative connotations attached to their union. Soon after, they welcomed me and my two sisters, Patricia and Tammie. We were born in Juneau, Alaska and spent our childhoods at military bases: Camp Humphreys in South Korea, Fort Hood in Texas, and Stork Barracks in Germany.

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For two years, my father was deployed and fought for our country, leading soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. He dedicated most of his life to our freedom. I recited the Pledge of Allegiance. I always thought of myself as a proud American citizen who was grateful for my civil liberties. What could be more American than having a father who risked his life to serve and protect my country?

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Over these past few months, I’ve reexamined my roots. With that, I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother. My earliest memories are with her, out in the world among friends and strangers. But there was always pain in these interactions. I remember people talking down to my mother as if she didn’t belong. It demeaned her and in turn triggered something in me that I’ve long buried deep inside. A truth that at my young age, I didn’t know how to protect her, and it broke my heart.

Comments from friends about my house smelling funny because of my mother’s home-cooked Korean meals and kimchi caused me to carry shame. At school, I never learned about my Korean American history – or Asian American history at all. If you never learn about your own history, how can you really exist? Trying to fit in at school, I chased the American dream by being a star athlete, all the while suppressing my Asian identity. I remember even beating everyone to the punch by making Asian jokes before anyone else would.

All the while, my mother held our collective pain – the feelings of displacement and shame – and carried the burden on her shoulders, blaming herself.

With the continued rise in horrific hate crimes towards my community, I have been in deep introspection by recalling my own experiences, unpacking my past, and trying to understand it all. Through it, I’ve realized that I never stood up for my Korean heritage. I’ve willfully ignored the racism and microaggressions directed towards me and my people. I failed to defend my heritage in fear of retribution. And now I can’t help but wonder what I did to contribute to the violence against Asian Americans.

What did I do to perpetuate these cruel stereotypes?

Could I have done more for my community? Could I have spoken out more? What was I afraid of?

Today, that all changes.

I will no longer remain silent about my lived experience. The hate crimes that have swept the country have forced me to realize how important the platform I have is and the responsibility that comes with it. Domestic terrorism and hate-driven violence have plagued our nation and continue to do so. What’s clear in all of this is the rampant violence against Asian people.

While I’m still trying to figure out how to merge my past and my present, I know the first step is to acknowledge that the problem exists. I intend to do the work in learning my own place. To be honest, I don’t know where my voice lives in all of this, but my new intention is to challenge this very broken system. I do know that I want to use media and entertainment as advocacy. I want to tell inclusive, representative stories. I want to reconcile my identity and come to terms with who I am, despite the pain. I want to uplift the AAPI experience through storytelling, caring, understanding, and kindness that I can share with the world.

This is where I’m at. I am Charles Melton, and I am a proud Korean American.

Charles Melton is best known for playing Reggie Mantle on The CW’s “Riverdale.” He appeared in his first feature in 2019, “The Sun Is Also a Star,” alongside Yara Shahidi and John Leguizamo. Next up, Melton stars in “Swing,” a drama set in an Ivy League school about a former army vet taking over the school’s rowing team.

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