8 Hapa Women Who Made History: Actress Merle Oberon


Merle Oberon (February 19, 1911 – November 23, 1979)

Merle Oberon was the first women of Indian/Polynesian descent to be nominated for a Best Actress Award at the Oscars. And she might have never received such an honor had her mixed-race background been public knowledge.

Merle Oberon was born Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson to a mixed-race mother; there are reports that her mother was part-Maori, or part-Indian. Merle’s family background was a secret and it’s an epic read by itself. But once Merle became an actress, she left her family history behind. She went on to become a major Hollywood actress, taking the lead in films like Wuthering Heights, co-starring with acting legend Laurence Olivier, all the while squashing her racial background. Reportedly she used makeup to lighten her skin and help her “pass.”

Merle probably wasn’t the first, and she certainly won’t be the last performer to “whiten” up to make it in Hollywood. But she’s an example of how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go in terms of representation in film and TV.

Read more about Merle Oberon here.

Merle Oberon


Melissa has lived in all four time zones in the contiguous United States. A former actor in Seattle, WA, Melissa now resides in NYC as a content creator. She is the producer of the We're Not All Ninjas podcast, which she also hosts with fellow Hapa Mag writer, Alex Chester. Melissa also writes for online blogs Nerdophiles and The Nerds of Color. Find her @NotAllNinjasPod.