Adoption, Racism, and Finding My Identity

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[IMAGE] Author is a 4-year-old girl, looking into a mirror. She is a cute Asian toddler, but with a sad face looking at her own reflection. In the reflection is a hazy, white skinned version of author smiling back
[CAPTION] Growing up, I identified as white.

[IMAGE] From Author’s perspective, a close up of the reflection of her nose. It is an Asian nose – flat and wide. You can see tears down her cheek.
[CAPTION] I remember asking for a nose job at 4…so I could look like my mom.

Author’s Mom is bent down, looking concerned. Author is pointing towards the mirror with one hand, wiping her tears away with the other hand.
[CAPTION] I was ashamed of my features.
[CAPTION] I didn’t want to be affiliated with what I deemed an embarrassing people.
[CAPTION] I wanted to be like my adoptive parents instead.
[CAPTION] …That my four-year-old self could have so much self-hatred astounds me today.

Mom is hugging Author, with a heart above them.

MOM: I love you just like you were born to me.

[IMAGE] They are both hugging still, but Author looks confused.
Mom: I don’t see color, I just see my daughter.

[IMAGE] A small zoomed out image of mother and daughter hugging.
[CAPTION]- This profoundly shaped my understanding of color and race. It made me think that her love for me as a Korean depended upon me being without color, without race.

[IMAGE] Author is looking towards the reader. Around her are just images, from TV, from ads, from adults talking, to school kids, to what’s on the breakfast cereal – all white people.
[CAPTION] But I couldn’t unsee my own color, my own race. The world reminded me every day.
[CAPTION] I felt like I was wrong for not being “colorblind” like my mom. Even as I got older, I couldn’t tell her that life looked different for me, or that her experience as a working-class woman was different from the effects of institutional racism.

[CAPTION] I know I didn’t ‘fit’ but I couldn’t talk about it. It wasn’t until I was 28, and in a college class that I learned it’s ok to acknowledge my color and my experiences.

[IMAGE] Author is now 28. She is in a class, with a professor at the front of the class, teaching. On the chalkboard it says “White people have the power to define others”.
PROFESSOR: Class, we’re now going to break into groups based on your racial identities, and discuss how you experience things differently because of it.

[IMAGE] Author is surrounded by two groups (white people and people of color), looking a little panicked.
[CAPTION] – I didn’t know where to go.

[IMAGE] Author is standing there, with her hands over her mouth as if she is trying to hide her surprise. Her friend leans over to whisper something to Author.
FRIEND: UGH. This is so counterproductive.

[IMAGE] Author looks excited and happy.
[CAPTION] But I felt different.

[IMAGE] A small group of POC sitting in a circle, including the Author
[CAPTION] Being away from the rest of the class, and surrounded by people of color, I felt embraced. I could exhale.
[IMAGE] Author is talking to the group
[CAPTION] I felt hopeful, rejuvenated, and alive.
[IMAGE] Group clapping at the Author for her input
[CAPTION] I wasn’t being dominated, and denied who I was.

PANEL 15 – Close up of AUTHOR’s notebook. In it, it says “White people have the power to define others.”
[CAPTION] – Unfortunately, the story didn’t end there.

[IMAGE] Her friend’s hand comes down on the notebook and is covering the words.
FRIEND (from off panel): Hey.

[IMAGE] FRIEND is leaning over, with her hand on the notebook, looking concerned.
FRIEND: You ok?

[IMAGE] FRIEND gives AUTHOR a hug. AUTHOR looks surprised.

FRIEND: I was surprised you joined the people of color. Here’s a hug, I bet you need one.

[IMAGE] Friend gives Author a Hug, but the author doesn’t look very pleased.

[IMAGE] You can see AUTHOR being annoyed as she is receiving a hug from FRIEND.
[CAPTION] It was infuriating.
[CAPTION] All my life, my identity was imposed. And when I finally felt I could assert myself, she came and took it away.

[IMAGE] Friend is apologizing, author looks awkward.
[CAPTION] Later on she learned how it was inappropriate of her to do that. There were tears shed. It was awkward, but that’s ok.

[IMAGE] Author is walking.
[CAPTION] I have journeyed from being the non-white/non-non-white child of white parents, to asserting my true self successfully. Now if only that assertion wasn’t needed so frequently, or so strongly.

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Growing up, and even through my college days, I identified as white.

The first instance of my internalized racism was when I asked for a nose job at the age of four so I could look like my mom. I was ashamed of my features and hid from other Asians. I didn’t want to be affiliated with what I deemed to be an embarrassing race of people. My own self-hatred, then, astounds me today.

I referred to myself as a Twinkie- yellow on the outside, white on the inside. My mom raised me in a color blind vacuum insulated with “I love you just like you were born to me,” and “I don’t see color, I just see my daughter.”  This shaped my understanding of her love for me as her Korean, adopted daughter to be instilled and dependent upon my being without color, without race. Within the supposed safety net of family, I couldn’t identify as a person of color because that would include being oppressed and subject to racism. My white mom could not handle my being of color. I can’t tell my mom she’s white and I’m not, and therefore life looks and feels like this for me because she believes racial prejudice is the only form of racism. She sees her struggle as a single, working class woman as synonymous with the effects and impacts of institutional racism.

So I was always floating above my race and cultural identity. No category was ever applied to me. I was never here nor there. During my college programme, we would break into small groups, which were called “caucuses” based on our racial identites. I had never heard the word. I stood in the middle of the room. I didn’t know which group to go to. I didn’t know who I was.

I was 28 years old (just three years ago) when I realized I am a woman of color. I am Korean. I have a heritage, a history, a family of birth and a language have left dormant almost my entire life. I’m only starting to find love for myself through food, Korean adoptee community, and a birth search.

Being raised by whites as a person of color is troublesome. It’s complex. It’s an identity I will grapple with forever. I am aware of my privilege in that I know how to be just like the dominant culture. I don’t have to assimilate because I was a baby when I was adopted, but I am assimilated. No one taught me my language of birth, or even fed me the food of my native country. I know what holidays white people celebrate and how. I speak the dominant language and according to some ignorant and surprised bystanders, I even “speak English well.” I benefit by legal rights that of an American citizen.  I also know I do not share common ground with other Korean nationals, or other Asians who were born to Asian parents. This is a grave loss for me and it’s incredibly sad.

I absolutely think race-based caucusing to be a tactic for liberation. In these spaces, people of color don’t have to take care of their white classmates, friends, colleagues and peers. They don’t have to soften the burden of white privilege and guilt. White people can hold each other up and teach each other what racism means and the implications of it for people of color. People of color can speak out to each other when their guard can come down in the absence of domination. More voices are heard in a race-based caucus and less energy and time is spent on the navigation of being in the presence of privilege, which is where the real work can happen.  White people might not feel comfortable to say how they feel around people of color, and vice-versa.

Before we broke into groups, a white colleague of mine said she was nervous and felt it was counter-intuitive, counterproductive to split up like this. I started to comfort her, felt a knot grow in my stomach, and said “Go with your caucus, they’ll help you.” I shooed her away. Being away from the rest of the class and surrounded by classmates of color, I felt embraced: like I could exhale.

I felt alive, hopeful, rejuvenated and aligned with others. I felt a part of a really important, pulsating movement. Maybe a revolution! Unfortunately, when we joined back with our white classmates, a white person said to me, “I was surprised to see you join the people of color caucus.” Then she hugged me because she thought I might need a hug. I explained, calmly to her that I, too have struggled with knowing which group to go with, but I know now where I’m supposed to be.  Coincidentally, I had taken down this note from class which said, “White people have the power to define others.”  This was exactly what she was doing here – whether she realized it or not.  Her walking up to me and imposing her assumptions of where my complicated, heart wrenching and beautiful identity as a transracial, transnational adoptee should go in terms of race, infuriated – and still infuriates – me.

I addressed this issue in a general sense in the next class. I brought it up generally because I didn’t want to approach her by myself and have that conversation, yet again. I didn’t want to see her face or hear her reactions to what I was feeling because I knew she’d have pain for causing me pain. So, I told the whole cohort of 30 something students. I urged the class of scholarly learners to be aware of the complexity of identity when one does not fit neatly into one box or another. Know how damaging it might be to oppose your sense of someone else’s “self” onto them.

The woman knew I was referring to her.  She was sobbing and blowing her nose on her blouse. I ended up talking with the Professor privately and he suggested I utilize a white ally to do the job of talking to her. I did.

That crying woman emailed me later.  She was very forthright, and apologized for asserting her sense of my identity onto me, instead of stepping back and allowing me to identify as I chose.  She learned something – and I while I feel no obligation to teach, it was an affirming moment, when I knew I could stand up for my identity.  Things are awkward now between this women and myself, and that’s ok: that result is a risk I’m willing to take in order to preserve my identity. I have journeyed from being the non-white/non-non-white child of white parents, to asserting my true self successfully.  Now if only that assertion wasn’t needed so frequently, or so strongly.

This week’s comic was illustrated by Rachael Smith.

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12 responses to “Adoption, Racism, and Finding My Identity”

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  1. Marylee says: |
    October 25, 2016 at 8:33 pm

    I am an adopted peron, and I loved this! My adoptive parents are white, as I am, but there was still a separation that was not acknowledged.
    I’m happy for you, that you are able to be your true self, and happy with the wonderful person that you are.

  2. Jill Davis says: |
    October 25, 2016 at 9:36 pm

    Thank you! I am the “white” mother to a “Chinese” daughter. This made me cry, but most of all it made me think.

  3. Lynelle says: |
    October 28, 2016 at 2:06 am

    this is one of the best comics I’ve seen on intercountry adoption and the racial experience we often deal with! thankyou!

  4. Laura says: |
    November 2, 2016 at 3:09 pm

    Thanks for this! I’m the white adoptive mom to a Chinese son, and I greatly appreciate this writer’s willingness to share her story so I can do better for my son.

  5. Enso says: |
    November 18, 2016 at 6:08 pm

    Thanks you for sharing this. I am a non-transracial adoptee. While I cannot speak of the transracial consequences of adoption, I identify with finding a more authentic sense of self at a later point in life. I am in my 40s, and its only in the last decade of my life have I really started to grapple with the with the loss and trauma of being given up; and how I lived a life for my parents not for myself. (Not their fault either actually, but I had a lot of anger at them for a long while).
    Ironically, this last week I have started writing my own comic about these issues!

    • Enso says: |
      November 18, 2016 at 6:10 pm

      I pressed return before I’d added my thanks to the author for sharing. I found her viewpoint illuminating. I genuinely hope she maintains and builds from this.

  6. Sarah Myer says: |
    November 19, 2016 at 1:00 am

    Hello! This story really captured my interest and has my empathy because I am also a Transracial Adoptee (coincidentally I also have a facial mole in the exact same place as the girl in this story!). I draw a webcomic about my experiences with racial identity, mental illness and other topics. It is called “Sketchbook Shrink” and can be read at – the autobio comic I drew for my MFA thesis last year begins at this point:

    Thank you! I hope more attention can be brought to racial identity and personal identity.

  7. Barbara Grimshaw says: |
    January 11, 2017 at 12:09 pm

    Excellent work! As the adoptive Caucasian mother of a, now adult, Korean adoptee my words of advise to parents/parent involved with trans racial adoption is to worry less about teaching your child about their culture, but more about teaching your child about race and white privilege. When your adopted child is with you they get a free pass into the “white” world. When your child is out in the world, without you, they can encounter a varying degree of acceptance. They need to know this.They need to know that without you, white privileges are no longer shared, and there will be those that may view them as a “foreigner.” Adoptive parents enter into adoption with the best of intentions; however, we must realize and accept the fact that the child we adopted had absolutely no control or say over what has happened to them – it is our responsibility to ensure they have a racial and personal identity that is theirs not ours.

  8. Joy says: |
    January 19, 2018 at 4:42 am

    Love this! I’m currently going through this exploration in to myself. THANK YOU for writing this experience! It’s a hard journey to take alone but it ultimately will make me into a whole person. I’m also a transracial adoptee and also have a mole in the exact same place like the little girl. I really appreciate your ‘story’. I actually emailed my adopted mom cause it’s hard to verbalize my experience as a Korean adoptee growing up in a white neighborhood and community. Thanks again

  9. Streets says: |
    October 28, 2018 at 12:38 pm

    Wow, your comic blows me away with its honesty. Thank you for being a voice for transracial adoptees.

  10. Judy Preator says: |
    October 29, 2018 at 5:32 pm

    Barbara: In our experience, there was no ‘whilt prilvidge for our east Indian daughters. everybody noticed them and spoke of it. out loud, to them, about they were different. our close friends saw them as our beautiful children, but other people were rude . they made it hard. our oldest daughter went to college and on to grad school and friend invited her to church, a Black church! For the first time in her life she felt ok. surrounded by brown people of every shade and singing loud andamps etc, but what we should have done was move to an area with more people who were not all white. still I wold not give them up for anything, and I would do it all over again. they are my babies!off key! we went to culture cm

  11. Una says: |
    November 9, 2018 at 4:52 pm

    I’m a Korean American adoptee who was raised in a white family. I was never ashamed of my being Korean but culturely Koreanness was never a part of my life in any way that related to me. I recently at 52 reconnected to Korea throught Youtube videos and Kpop (yes I’m a 50+ kpop fan) and it has been a healing and amazing start to a journey for me. I feel Korean and proud of my culture. Its definitely something new. You never realize how much of you is lost growing up and living in white culture. Getting it back is reclaiming alot of yourself you lost when you were adopted. I am fully me now for the first time ever in my life!

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