I don’t remember the first time someone told me I was White. But I definitely remember the last.
It was the summer of my junior year in college and I was a new student orientation leader. My university was diverse but mostly segregated, and this staff was about half White and half Black – plus me. Tensions became apparent early on: miscommunications, presumptions, an offensive skit impersonation. I remember feeling unsettled about how I was situated in all of this. After one of the meetings where things got heated, Sheri, one my Black colleagues, rolled her eyes at me and said, C’mon, Amy, you’re basically White.
I was pretty butt-hurt. With that one assertion, it felt like Sheri tried to erase all the times I was called Chink on the playground or was fetishized by horny White dudes. I wasn’t White. The world definitely doesn’t see me as White. But I wasn’t Black either. The violent history of anti-Blackness in the US was not something I felt like I could fully relate to.
Sheri said that to me ten years ago but it resonates with me more than ever. Police brutality and the devaluation of Black and Brown bodies is nothing new, but it grows increasingly clear that we are at a critical point right now, a new civil rights movement. And yet, anti-Blackness is a concept still largely unexplored by transracial Asian adoptees. From reading coded indignation about not wanting to play the race card like that group on adoptee forums, to hearing n*gger during a Korean culture camp skit this summer, I have generally witnessed silence from our adopted community in both live and online spaces as our Black brothers and sisters continue to fight for their lives to matter.
The short answer to this post’s title is: because it’s simply the right fucking thing to do.
But I will indulge those of you who would like a bit more elaboration.
Because we, as transracial adoptees, know that race matters
We know firsthand how we are treated differently from our White families. We experience the microaggressions; we roll our eyes when asked Where are you from? because the answer is Tuscon or Milwaukee or Sarasota. We are victims of stereotyping: the passive Geisha, the asexual nerd, the delivery person. These associations can make us feel small, less-than, and ineffective in our relationships, classrooms, and workplaces. So we know race matters, but it is important we examine how some racial stereotypes can be advantages while others are deadly. After being helped by a stranger to break into a friend’s home (to retrieve a requested package), Liz Lin reflects,
Would this person have ever let me into the apartment if I were a black man? I’m not a betting person, but even I would put serious money on the answer being no. I probably would’ve been asked to leave the premises, too. Yes, I experience a host of disadvantages as an Asian American woman, but I can’t deny that I also have a number of privileges — one of which is that no one ever suspects me of wrongdoing.
This is not to say that it is simple for us to navigate and situate ourselves within a shifting space of a racial hierarchy. Nor is this the Oppression Olympics where we clamor for who has it best or worst. Lin’s point about not being suspected of wrongdoing is well taken, but we must also remember that there have been a number of cases of police brutality and other forms of systematic violence and oppression involving Asian Americans.
Because the Model Minority Myth is being used as a tool to perpetuate Anti-Blackness
As Asian adoptees, many of us joke about how so many of the stereotypes were actually positive: good at math, hard working, can play the violin – but few of us really know the origin of the Model Minority Myth and how it was used to perpetuate anti-Blackness. In his piece about this phenomenon, Professor David Shih writes,
The model minority stereotype has always been less about praising Asian people than it has been about shaming black people.
In Jack Linshi’s article in Time, “Why Ferguson Should Matter to Asian-Americans,” he provides more detailed historical context:
The doctored portrayal, which dates to 1966, was intended to shame African-American activists whose demands for equal civil rights threatened a centuries-old white society. (The original story in the New York Times thrust forward an image of Japanese-Americans quietly rising to economic successes despite the racial prejudice responsible for their unjust internment during World War II.)
Many Asian adoptees, including myself, have benefited from this myth. It is time for us to learn the full history and context around this idea and see how it continues to perpetuate other forms of racism and classism within and beyond Asian American communities.
Because we must continue to explore the intersection of economic class and race
This is not true for every transracial adoptee, but many of us grew up with a certain level of economic privilege as financial stability is a requirement when couples are screened for adoption. This was definitely the case for me. It wasn’t until I was in a serious relationship with someone from a working class background that I really began to explore my economic privilege. I realized how the financial stability I’ve had my entire life shaped my view of the world and my inherent biases about hard work, saving, and earning money. Once I began to explore this for myself, I started to see how larger structures and institutions oppress and destabilize people of color through poverty. This is not dissimilar with single mothers in places like Korea, who were often forced to relinquish their children for adoption because they did not have enough financial support to raise the child on their own. Often, we as transnational adoptees are the result of the financial disparity between a mother in a developing country and a White, Western couple with financial privilege who want kids. Our lives have been impacted greatly by this and we should see how similar wealth inequality leads to the oppression of Black communities as well.
Because there are Black transracial adoptees. And Black-Asian transracial adoptees. And Black children of Asian adoptees.
We know what it is like to grow up in a family that does not fully understand the experiences of a person of color. There have a been a number of pieces written by White adoptive parents of Black adoptees admitting to being unable to fully prepare their adopted sons and daughters to engage safely with their blackness in the world. This has had real and violent consequences. Many of the first wave of Korean adoptees being sent abroad were both Black and Korean, as a result of US soldiers sleeping with Korean women. I spoke to one of the counselors for the Korean culture camp I taught at this summer. He told me about his struggle between his Blackness and Koreanness, feeling rejected by both these communities respectively, struggling to find a sense of self despite this. Working in solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement supports people within and connected to our expansive, shifting, and complex adoptee communities, communities that have always included and will continue to include Blackness.
Because we have unique access and privilege within White spaces
When Sheri said I was basically White, she was calling me out on my assimilation. In order to get what I wanted in my education, my work, and in many of my personal relationships, I became as American and as White as possible. I was the first to crack self-deprecating Asian jokes in school or indulged others when they made them about me. I made it absolutely clear that English was my first and only language and that I was not some foreigner or immigrant like those people. I only dated and befriended White people.
I played White. And I’ve been rewarded for that. I have been given access to White spaces in ways other people of color have not. As transracial adoptees, in these spaces and relationships: our families, friends, churches, schools, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to discuss and engage about #BlackLivesMatter. We should never underestimate the power of acting in solidarity with those who are also or further oppressed than us. Let’s use this access to speak about empathy, collective experience and healing, and undoing injustice.
Because White supremacy hurts all of us
In his poignant piece about how the story of his father connects with that of Trayvon Martin’s, Arthur Chu explores the domestic truth for both Black Americans and Asian immigrants alike:
This Is Not Your Country. You can live here. You can make friends. You can try to live by the law and be a decent citizen and even maybe make a lot of money. But you will never, ever belong. You will never, ever be one of them.
I will never fully understand my former colleague Sheri’s experience in the world as a Black woman and she will never fully know mine as a transracial Korean adoptee. But even though it manifests in different ways for us, White hegemony has impacted and hurt us both. In his brilliant post, “Ferguson to Asian Americans: Deconstructing Silence,” Nate J. Lee writes,
Given that the U.S. economy and political system are rooted in anti-blackness, claiming our place in America means that we must take a position when faced with the separate but unequal worlds of whiteness and blackness. We are either left or right of the color line. There is no sitting that out.
The decision we, as Asian adoptees, need to make is whether or not we want to change injustice or if we want to perpetuate it. We must continue to explore our own biases and anti-Blackness as products of White families, education, and media. It is time for us to acknowledge the privileges we’ve been afforded through our White upbringing, economic advantages, and our assimilation. It is time to see the ways our stories with our Black brothers and sisters intersect and the painful and tragic ways they diverge and to stand in solidarity with them.
It is time for us to start giving a shit.
Your turn: In what ways do you as an adoptee recognize areas where you are privileged? Where you have assimilated into dominant culture? What are steps you can take to engage with others about #BlackLivesMatter?
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I would like permission to republish this on THE MIX (www.mixemag.wordpress.com) in December. It’s awesome and I’m an adoptee too.
Please do! Thanks!
Thanks Amy – please write MORE soon. ❤
It will post Dec. 9!
Thank you for this very challenging and informative post. I want to come to your three questions in a moment, but first I want to respond to Arthur Chu’s and Nate Lee’s posts.
Chu makes the radical assertion that as an Asian he can never be “one of them” – American. As a Cuban and Japanese adoptee, who was born in America, there have been moments when I have felt that – sometimes in relation to what happened or inner feelings. I walked through my Albany, NY neighborhood with my dog and a woman stopped her car to tell me “you don’t belong here.” I thought she was talking about me and my dog, but my wife thought it was because of my race. My wife, who is white, never had anyone say that to her. It’s happened more than once.
As a young adult in college I didn’t feel a connection with American politics or Americana in general except scenes from nature, mountains, sky, towering thunderstorms, colors and shades. But when I listened to Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring I discovered feelings for this country. I loved America in its music. I told that story to someone and he was surprised and said he never heard about anyone having to find a way to feel American.
I am a mix of east and west. That duality affected my thinking. For example, when dating I was glad to be Cuban, a western person with European roots. I thought, girls will want me. European genetics made made me half-at-home. I also felt English roots through the Episcopal Church in which I was raised. I came of age during the rise of the Beatles and the Who. My privileged parents visited England and took me there as a child. I loved white girls and the literature of the Inklings – C.S. Lewis (his Narnia books, literary criticism and science fiction), Tolkein and Owen Barfield. Barfield took me on the philosophical journey to the Romantic roots of western society in Germany and the English Romantic poets. Here is where I as an adult worked to ground myself philosophically since I had no natural Cuban or Japanese culture. That grounding helped me as I’ve lived as an Episcopal priest. So, I’m a white English guy on the inside – but a foreigner too.
My natural mother lives in Honolulu with her sister, nieces and nephews, in an area populated with Japanese. Her father emigrated there in 1918. She still has strong ties to Japan through family and the business she and her sister direct but English is her first language. She did not learn to make traditional Japanese foods growing up. She gave birth to me in Colorado where she left me and where I was raised by white families. When I see her, I realize she has internalized a Japanese culture that I know nothing more than I can read about. America is in the way I talk to her, the way I think. It is in me. And so are all the ambiguities. I belong here but I could leave – except for my kids and grandkids.
Nate Lee grew up in Asian enclaves but I didn’t. I thought about racism – about being “a chink” or “a spic” – and deflecting Asian or Hispanic prejudice by saying that I was native American. Once, because I thought I was exotic, I told the girls at the boarding school St. Scholastica I was from Baghdad. As an adoptee I was a chameleon and did not know that people naturally integrate their body’s history with their interior life. My body’s history sailed on in my imagination because I couldn’t know who my parents were or anything solid about them. My adoptive parents, typical white parents adopting in the 1950’s, believed in adoption; they believed it solved our losses – theirs and mine. They believed in the hope of a colorblind world, that nothing needed to be learned or said about race. So, for different reasons, Nate Lee and I were blind to racism. His learning curve was steeper than mine because his body and history were mirrored and corroborated. He didn’t have to struggle to accept his body and what it means.
So, one privilege I know and experience was illustrated to me recently when my niece (on my Cuban father’s side) who (as a result of the Cuban Revolution) is Puerto Rican and speaks fluent English and Spanish visited upstate New York. I love and live and work with white people. I know this dominant white world and can offer her whatever she can take. She saw pictures from my childhood, places I grew up, people I knew. I love NYC, the Grand Canyon, the Southwest, the Vermont mountains and the Adirondack forests. My critique of America stems from the roots of the Romantic philosophers – who did not take-up later discoveries like racism. I’ve been able to live life as an Episcopalian which is like living as an Englishman in America without an English accent.
There is a different privilege with my Japanese American mother. When I left her on the porch of her house last month after my first and only visit to the home where I might have lived had she not given me up for adoption, I spoke American without conflicted cultural values. I asked, “how do you feel?” Was she hearing ghosts from Japan when she reacted to not answer? For me, the first thing I learned from Joe Soll and his Adoption Healing was to recognize and acknowledge what I felt. I have become 100 percent American. My ghosts are adoptee ghosts. I am not haunted by old culture, traditions and values.
Saying that I am not haunted by old culture, traditions and values is to deny where I am and the life I’ve been given. Amy’s essay challenges me to own the moral history of America more than I have and in ways that I haven’t considered. I’m working on it.
Thank you so much for sharing this part of your story, Mark! I think so many of us have had similar and overlapping experiences of how aspects of our identity intersect and how that relates to privilege and power. If you are Albany based and would like to meet up in person around Christmas, let me know. Will be there then!
I was adopted in the 1960s into a lower middle class family in an all white neighborhood in an a very segregated city. Most of the white people I knew intensely disliked blacks. I was told I was one quarter American Indian, and was raised as white and defined by others as white. In society in general, Indians were thought of as extinct. I have remained in the state where I grew up and to this day people find it laughable if I identify as Indian. In my 30s I came to know some members of my natural mother’s family, and it was such a relief to feel “real”. To visit the area where she grew up, I experienced some of the prejudices that Indians in Indian Country face. People did not treat me like a nice, harmless white girl there. They were suspicious of me and would deny services. As for the point of your article, I have always felt some sensitivity for blacks, even though so many whites around here didn’t, because I always had that sense that I am from the side the white man has always tried to keep down. I appreciate your reminder that I too should do more to support the black lives matter issue.
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I’m coming to this very late. I’ll leave the personal out of it for now; I might come back to it though. What I have found most inspiring in the #BlackLivesMatter activisms are the spaces where common cause is made with other struggles. For example, “From Ferguson to Gaza” maps out the bridges that must be made by peoples oppressed by police states, colonialist ghettoization, etc. The move here must be away from personal identity politics and to the struggles concerning economic and political oppression. In this light, there is so much room for those “seen as” white to join in. But it does require a certain “stepping down” from one’s social stratum in terms of class identification. I don’t state that this is easy; I know personally that it comes with a lot of repercussions in terms of comfort, employment, etc. But it has to happen. Amazing piece Amy, thank you.