Loki: An Allegory About Internalised Racism

I really enjoyed Thor when I first viewed it. Like many fans I found Loki to be one of the most compelling characters and villains I had ever watched. Then I stumbled across this short post on Tumblr, and I realised why I related to the character so much. I read Loki as a character who suffered from internalised racism, and I know that experience pretty intimately*.

All his life Loki believed he was Aesir by blood. For years he’s been fed negative messages about Frost Giants – probably that they’re backwards, barbaric and unattractive. For years he’s participated in the Othering of an entire race (species?) and hating them for just being who they are. As the victors of war, Asgard would paint themselves as the noble and courageous warriors in every story and the Frost Giants as untrustworthy, cowardly and sly. Frost Giants are the butt of every joke. It’s clear Loki views them as disposable as everyone else in Asgard when he lets them into Asgard to be killed, just so he can make a point about Thor’s inadequacies.So what does he do when he finds out he’s adopted and biologically Jotun? Naturally, he manipulates events just so that he can commit genocide on his own people.

Maybe this sounds like a long bow to draw for people who haven’t experienced internalised racism, but in my opinion his reaction is a realistic portrayal of what racism can do to people of colour. I’m not saying anyone is going to commit genocide but that’s a lot of hate that’s being directed to people who’ve done nothing to him personally. And because Loki is a Frost Giant that’s also a lot of hate directed inwards AT HIMSELF.

Realistically, those negative messages don’t melt away the instant Loki knows about his heritage. No, what he wants now is to be accepted as Aesir “in spite of” the fact he is Jotun. Because of that he has to be more Asgardian than anyone else in Asgard. He has to hate the Frost Giants more, he has to be tough (not “soft” like Thor at the end) and he has to do something that will prove beyond doubtthat he is Aesir at least at heart.

Imagine if Loki knew he was Jotun from the beginning. His friends and family in Asgard treat him well, but still make remarks about the Frost Giants and how they’re an ugly race of people. They’d try to watch what they said around Loki, but sometimes let a racist joke or remark slip. And they’ll glance at him guiltily and think they’re helping when they clarify: “No you’re good, you’re not like the otherJotun.” Loki will grow up thinking he’s loved as long as he’s a certain “type” of Jotun and one that acts like he’s Aesir and goddamn, why wasn’t he born Aesir?

After he finds out, Loki monitors his behaviour. He makes sure he does everything Aesir, divorces himself from any Jotun-esque traits he might hold. He denounces the Frost Giants more than anyone else, he hates them and their culture and everything they are more than anyone else. He makes derogatory jokes about them, maybe even encourages others to do the same.

I read much of Loki’s pain and loss through the film as an allegory for internalised racism because I experienced it for myself for many years. Internalised racism is growing up with the message that only white people can be complex and successful and happy. Non-white ethnicity and culture is, at best, regulated to a supporting role for the privileged; at worst, it is outright hated, mocked and derided. You want to be happy right? Your brain does a little irrational flip and tells you the only way to be complex, successful and happy is to emulate a privileged person, right down to the racism.

Of course you can never be as good as a white person but you can try**. You can try to be better, and you can try to out-act their privilege. You can proudly distinguish yourself as one of the exceptions to the rule, the “good” type of minority that “acts white”. The price is giving up your heritage, distancing yourself from native cultural practices, from languages, food and clothing.

The emotional toil of loathing yourself stays until you come to terms with your own oppression. But the sense of loss has never left me. When I think back to how I was operating under internalised racism, I remember the positive experiences and opportunities I refused to take because they were too “ethnic”. I remember the deep shame of being non-white, my embarrassment of being seen with other non-white people and especially those who couldn’t “act white” enough for me.

I think about the racist things I did and got away with because of my ethnicity and I’m really glad I’m not that person anymore.

When Loki announces he wants to “destroy that race of monsters” you know, on some level, he’s referring to himself as well. And then my heart breaks into tiny pieces because I remember exactly how it feels to hate who you are.

*I realise that Thor is pretty white-washed in terms of casting and there are only two characters of colour, but nevertheless I found this storyline compelling when analysing it from a racialised point of view.

**People of colour who are able to “pass” as white will have to be a subject of another post.

31 thoughts on “Loki: An Allegory About Internalised Racism”

  1. Bonus author commentary! This post was also labelled “embarassing over-projection onto fictional characters” in gdocs.

  2. I love this post. <3

    This definitely comes under the heading "It's our blog, and we'll over-identify with Loki if we want to".

    1. The urge to turn this into a “It’s our blog, we’ll spam Tom Hiddleston’s face if we want to (again)” is strong, but I will resist and refresh Tumblr instead.

  3. Brilliant. Thor is that rare movie that gets better every time I look back on it. Right after watching it my friends and I convened for a giddy re-hash of Loki’s motivations throughout and though we touched a little bit on this it wasn’t immediately clear to us. Thank you for the analysis!

    Loki striving so hard to be the most Aesir of the Aesir is exactly what makes him the perfect villain. Wow.

  4. Connie, this was beautifully written. I can tell that you are really writing from the heart, and your insights into Loki are brilliant. I had a similar feeling about the character and wasn’t sure if I was the only one who saw allegories about internalized racism and self-hatred. I was adopted as an infant from South Korea and raised in rural America as a “white” American kid. I completely understand the issues that can come with internalized racism and deep feelings of conflict that come with it. I often felt stared at by people in my hometown, especially when my parents and I went out. But I feel just as alien when I’m in more diverse areas, where I’m seen as “too white” or ignorant of my “own” culture. I love that there are characters like Loki out there (Love him so much that I cosplayed as him). Here’s hoping his character continues to grow in interesting ways after “The Avengers”! Thanks for a great read!

    1. Oh wow, thank you for your comment! <3

      I've also been in situations where I have felt ignorant of my cultural heritage, even appropriative when I try to adopt parts of it. Or, quite commonly, had it thrust upon me by well-meaning white people. Obviously our experiences are significantly different on some levels (you're more Loki than I am in this instance), but I'm glad the post and this particular interpretation resonated with you. I think one of the important functions of Sci-fi/fantasy is to provide distance from otherwise controversial issues. Whether or not Thor intended this interpretation I think it is a good example of internalised racism without automatically invoking white guilt (and defensiveness and complete unwillingness to listen).

      (Not to sound like a creepy internet lurker but I actually follow you on Tumblr)

  5. Ok, so this is the third draft of this comment, as I can’t quite work out how to tell you that this post was AMAZING.

    I started to write a response but it was at 2000 words before I decided that maybe it’s a blessay instead of a comment.

    Although I will say that before I read this, I always interpreted Loki as the vengeful geek, so I think I may qualify for the “embarassing over-projection onto fictional characters” badge too…

  6. I have to tell you that the movie and the whole story all together is an appropriation of the cultural history and religious myths of my people, not to mention our actual pantheon, into a sexist racist comic book movie. I watched it under some duress because I love the actor who played Thor and I can not tell you how uncomfortable it was.

    Of course everyone I know then shushed me. This is definitely media that falls under the problematic but pretty category!

    1. I think we need to be careful about using the word appropriation in this context. The situation is simply not comparable to the situation of non-white peoples whose culture is used in white-dominated media, particularly in ways that are used by predominantly white filmmakers to glorify white protagonists, such as with Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai. We should reserve the word appropriation for these cases.

      I feel I must also point out that no one is actually “Norse” anymore – as I’m sure you know, “Norse” refers to Scandinavian people from the 8th to the 11th century. While you clearly feel strongly about Norse myths and culture, we actually know very little about Norse religion, which has not been actively practiced for centuries. If there were people actually practicing Norse religion, we would know a great deal more about it than we do! We have their “Bible” (ie myths) but we know very, very little about their actual religious practices. It’s a dead religion which has bequeathed us a mythology, the same way the classical Greek and Roman myths come from dead religions.

      Also, as soon as you start talking about ‘Norse’ (even historically) as an identity, you also start having to talk about pillaging and raping etc. because that was the main thing they exported. (Also combs. Combs are the most common thing found on Norse archeological sites.)

      You should obviously feel free to be uncomfortable and annoyed on a personal level with the portrayal of the Norse gods in the context of Thor, but I think it’s important not to misuse the word ‘appropriation’ in this context and acknowledge that this is not really a social justice issue.

      1. I think the other thing to add here is that we usually reserve the word “appropriation” to refer to the co-opting of non-white cultures because they have been systematically oppressed, colonised and victimised by white people (and still are today). None of these things ever happened to the Norse people – not only were they white, but in fact they were the perpetrators of these acts in many cases. Just as it makes no sense for a British person to complain of someone appropriating the Arthurian legends, it makes no sense for us to speak of appropriating Norse mythology.

        1. Ugh, you are totally right. I overstated and generalized and this is definitely not a social justice issue, just a personal one.

          For me the Norse legends and gods are the foundation of my religion, so the movie made me very personally uncomfortable. When you then layer the sexism and race issues on top, it makes it personally and societally problematic.

          1. No worries, I know I’ve done the same thing with other issues myself.

            Your response to being called out has been absolutely stellar. Brava!

  7. I can only agree.
    I am white, but I had the same feeling about Loki. And being jewish isn’t far from being black in germany. you would besuprised how often people/friends tell me that “I don’t act jewish” or “look jewish” at all.

    I think they did a great job with loki in the movie.

  8. This is all so true. As a first generation American with a middle eastern background growing up post 9/11, I can’t even convey how deeply I recognize some of this in myself. Thanks for sharing and putting your experience out there.

    Loki’s breakdown into genocidal rage aside, I think a lot of people could relate to him on the basis of feelings of inferiority in general, if not specifically internalized racism. It makes me really wish more media with the hero/villain dynamic fleshed out their baddies too.

  9. Just wanted to say that I really enjoyed your article (and am so happy to have stumbled upon this entire blog)! I’m an African-American woman who grew up in an all-white town in the American South, so I totally connect with your analysis of Thor and your personal experience with internalized racism. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Hey, I just stumbled across this post and wanted to commend you. I’m one of the writers of the Thor movie , and making Loki a complex character with real motivations and a tragic case of externalized self-loathing was a huge priority for all of us involved in the film. And it’s really nice to see someone picking up on those currents.

    1. So uh, everyone here just freaked the fuck out!

      That’s so awesome you were deliberately trying to create this type of narrative. I actually had a discussion over Twitter with someone about whether this had been deliberate or was just a by-product of the narrative – and of course with a movie having so many different creators involved, messages will often get changed or diluted too.

      Thanks so much for commenting! You’ve made everyone’s day here!

  11. I have never heard or thought about internalised racism before. But, I have now, thanks to you and to Rachael’s blog on White Privilege and Korean martial arts.

    I am not sure I have seen any instances of internalised racism in India.

    May be in the way our people give us the do on don’ts for the clients? I am not sure if this could be racism since you have got to be on your toes with your clients whatever race they are from; except that almost all of our clients are whites; in which case I think outsourcing may be a good way for us to internalise racism (especially since many of us are told we should talk in the white accent (in case of VOICE processes – call centers), have us bendover backwards struggling to fit in horrid timelines etc).

    Also, I got a couple of articles forwarded to me by someone.
    – One was an open letter to all Indian Graduates published in the New Tork Times (http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/23/an-open-letter-to-indias-graduating-classes/)
    – Another a letter from a Thailand based Indian to all Indians.

    Both were very painful for me to read. I couldn’t believe it at first and then wondered if it is really true? If all Indians are like that. If I am like that.

    Then (thankfully), the thought came:- the authors could hardly have met every Indian on the planet. That means they could be wrong.

    I am not sure of it yet, because you know, they are more experienced and hence might know more.

    Still, no one should be making such generalised statements about any race, even if they are from that race. May be, if they are doing that, then they have internalised racism.

    Thank you for making me introspect more (it is painful but rewarding :-)). All you folks at SJL are great at that. And you folks make me want to go out and do more.

    Hmmm.. I am not sure if it is any use (or fair) coming and commenting after such a long while, but I would, on the offchance that it gets noticed.

    1. When I think of India and internalized racism, I immediately think of the social caste system that favors a lighter skin complexion (paralleling a similar internalized value system among African-Americans). It also calls to mind the struggle of India’s “Untouchables” — some 160 million Indians deemed “tainted and impure” by the caste system. All of the people born into this group are dark-skinned, while many of the Indian’s from more affluent social castes tend to have lighter skin tones. I can speak on this topic for ages, but to keep it concise — assigning social class, worth and beauty according to the amount of melanin in your skin, is a form of Internalized Racism. I’m a fan of Indian cinema and music, for instance, and one thing I have noticed with a fair amount of the popular actors and artists, is that they tend to be paler in complexion. I saw the same phenomenon when I was living in the Philippines. Skin-whitener was a hot commodity and skin-whitening agents are added to EVERYTHING from lotion to deodorant. Though many of the Filipinos I encountered on a daily basis were of beautiful, rich, brown hues; ALL of the advertisements (billboard/print/tv) featured only white-skinned Filipinos. In Africa it was skin-lighteners and hair-straighteners. And in Ecuador, again, higher social status almost always went hand-in-hand with paler skin tones. This would be ok, if pale skin was phenotypically natural in ANY of these parts of the world. It isn’t.

      All of this speaks to Internalized Racism…

      Here are two articles on the skin tone war/cultural inferiority complex in India:
      http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2012/05/01/skin_color_in_india_why_the_obsession_with_fairness_.html and http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2012/05/01/skin_color_in_india_why_the_obsession_with_fairness_.html

        1. Yes untouchability is an appalling vice, but I am not sure if it is the result of internalised racism.

          It has there been in India since much before the start of the white colonolisation. It has had more to do with the caste system and the ridiculous rank distinctions associated with different types of labour (intellectual pursuits being allotted a higher rank, and that of service, the lowest) than colour. After all, even the higher cast people have different colour variations among their skins: From dark brown to pale brown, which might look like white (and our Gods also vary in colour from black to white, black gods sometimes being the most popular- Ram and Krishna, Kali, Parvati. They have been anglicised recently what with the pale blue colour instead of black and all, but they were originally black and is still considered black by many).

          I agree about the fairness products. These could be attributed to the aggressive advertising of these products too, which makes you think that being fair (for women) is the way to any type of success (a recent one showed a girl being asked to use a fairness product if she wanted to win a tennis tournament;O) This may have more to do with marketing and greed for money, no matter the costs, than just internalised racism. The craze for becoming white was not so widespread before these campaigns, nor considered required (started with Indians winning the Ms World and Universe titles, I guess). ;-/

          Thankfully, we have many actors these days who are dusky and almost all of them have decent careers and portray strong roles (well not always, but sometimes) 🙂

  12. you also start having to talk about pillaging and raping etc. because that was the main thing they exported.

    From what I’ve read, and this is more of a recent understanding of history, they actually did as much or more peaceful trading and settling in & assimilating than they did raping and pillaging. Though they did that, too…as have a LOT of other cultures. Though for some reason vikings seem to be remembered JUST for that–probably because so much of the records that informs our popular history now was set down by their victims/people wanting to drum up hatred against them.
    Ironically, they weren’t really oppressive when they did settle, tending rather to assimilate.
    So while they did do bad stuff, there’s no need to limit our understand of any culture to just what we see as the the worst.

    But I totally agree with everything else you said in your comments about why this isn’t a case of cultural appropriation. (Though calling the myths the Norse bible is a little deceptive: most of (all?) the stories we have come from what Christians wrote down hundreds of years after they’d smooshed the Pagan religion into the ground, so a lot of what we read as Norse myth is actually very Christian-influenced. And it also appears from context that probably a great deal of stories were just lost totally.)

    Anyway, on the the article:

    Maybe we’re thinking of two different kinds of “white wash” here because from what I can see, the movie added CoCs in its adaptation from the comics. (I’ve always understood whitewashed casting to be changing a character who was not white from the original canon to white in an adaptation. So do you just mean it has a lot of white people?)

    I feel Marvel’s movies and comics are doing pretty well at adding more CoCs with the movies and comics universes that branch off enough from the old timey main canons to allow changing someone’s ethnicity without it being totally random. But obviously, more is always good, and I can see why someone wouldn’t be happy with just two main CoCs.

    –Anyway, great article. (Sorry I tend to go on about what I disagree with or am unsure about: otherwise I’d just be like, “Yes, this!” So THIS! to everything else.)

    1. Maybe we’re thinking of two different kinds of “white wash” here because from what I can see, the movie added CoCs in its adaptation from the comics. (I’ve always understood whitewashed casting to be changing a character who was not white from the original canon to white in an adaptation. So do you just mean it has a lot of white people?)

      You’re right, they’re not whitewashing in the sense of replacing a POC role with a white actor. I meant it in the sense that the whole film had a lot of white people without much POC representation. I guess I feel like it is a type of whitewashing because it replaces a diverse population with a sea of white faces.

  13. Yes, this is exactly part of what’s screwing Loki up. I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but the story gets even more interesting when you realize Odin’s mom was also Jotun. It’s basically a situation where two groups have been feuding for a long time and have accumulated a lot of hate and fear of each other.

    Most widespread social racism like this seems to come from a combination of arrogance, fear of the other, and bad experiences with that group.

    It’s worse for Loki because he’s only heard all the awful things that the Jotun have done, but has probably never heard the other side of it. I would imagine it feels like having to sit through a World War II lecture if you’re German.

  14. While completely agreeing with everything in the post, I also wonder if Loki’s story can be seen in relation to queer narratives, specifically to queers who have grown up in an environment that condemned anything other than hetero- and cisnormativity?

  15. There is one point about the character of Loki that you seem to forgot. I mean you make him out to be this innocent person who is devastated and changed by the news of his heritage right?

    But the thing you forgot is that the very movie starts with the raid of the Frost Giants. As we later learned Loki is the one who let the Frost Giants enter the palace enter the place where their most powerful weapons were being held. And during this raid two innocent Asgardians died. Loki committed treason just to annoy his brother and didn’t show an ounce of remorse over the death of two Asgardians

    And then his first reaction when coming back from Jotunheim? How the servant should be flogged because he wasn’t as quick as Loki wanted him to be

    So even before Loki understood that he was a Frost Giant he wasn’t extremely cruel man bordering on being a sociopath who cared little about the lives of others or even the well being of his realm.

    1. This is the interpretation of the film that I most enjoyed and resonated with me. Whether or not you agree with that interpretation is up to you.

      It’s difficult to say whether Loki intended to for people in Asgard to get hurt. IMO he didn’t do it “just to annoy his brother” – from Loki’s point of view (and I think he is correct at the start of the film) Thor was unfit to be king, but because he was the golden child Thor had to do something really serious. I definitely think a part of it is jealousy, but I don’t claim that Loki is a perfect character either. Nor does he need to be for my interpretation of the film.

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