white like me

When I was twelve, my mother – who loved surprising me with books – brought me Black Like Me.  Until then, she’d never shown any interest in racial studies.

Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash

Because of her unusual book choice, the story stuck with me. Although John Howard Griffin’s experiment gets the side eye today, at the time his work validated my struggle. Griffin felt the stares, got asked the probing personal questions, and experienced society’s subtle way of disenfranchising minorities. To me, he was the first White person who got it.

Of course, minorities can speak for themselves now, eliminating the need for a White male translator (though some still try). However, transracial adoptees occupy a unique space in racial conversations. Since we’ve lived as racial others within our families and communities, we know that sometimes it is what’s outside that counts.

But what does being Asian feel like? Or White? Does it feel like…anything? I believe the question should really be: What does not being White feel like?


Dr. Anna R. McPhatter, Dean of Social Work at Morgan State University,  suggests that  “[w]e are all burdened with the Eurocentric bias that is the foundation of our formal and informal education.” I’d also apply this to family structure: We assume that families in the United States are racially homogenous. Anything different still raises eyebrows.

Transracial adoptees, though, challenge that belief: We take on our White family’s identity despite our visual appearance.

Korean adoptees desire to perform a White identity, but these performances are disrupted when others initiate communication about their Asian identities. – Sarah Docan-Morgan

But identities are fragile. In 2010, Sara Docan-Morgan reported that adoptees often find their family status challenged.  Questions like “Now who is this?” and “Is she really yours?” frustrate adoptees; as noted above, these remind us of the “exclusive conceptualization of families as biologically related and also [cause] confusion about how people could question the bonds between [the adoptee] and the only people [s/he] knew as family.”

Intrusive interactions, defined as “interpersonal encounters wherein people outside the immediate family question or comment on the adoptee and/or the adoptive members’ relationships with one another,” threaten an adoptee’s sense of security, as both a family member and an ethnic individual.

As McPhatter says: “People of color are adept at reading the slightest nuance or cue that carries even the most carefully concealed message of disapproval, discomfort, or nonacceptance because of one’s race, culture, or ethnicity.” Transracial adoptees are no different and in fact, may be slightly hypersensitive because of our constant racialization by others.


In any case, transracial adoptees spend their lives as outsiders, regardless of how well-accepted they were by their families. Our status as both immigrants and racial minorities makes us particularly vulnerable to how others perceive us.


I think this is an important start to a larger conversation that could truly benefit transracial adoptive parents. Many TRAps ask how they can support their children in racial identity development, so I’ll be continuing this topic in my next post!


All references can be found here.

Like this? Want more? So do I! Find out about my upcoming ventures on my Patreon page!

dance for me, kid

When I was old enough to understand basic commands, my father trained me to perform a Mexican hat dance on cue. Another bizarre trick had me headbanging when he said “DONG!” This continued until I was around age three or four; I discovered humiliation and refused to put on any more shows for the video camera or family friends.

It was then that I, their little Korean refugee, was no longer considered “fun.”

mexican hat dance
Position assumed, followed by tap-dancing around an imaginary sombrero. #unfortunateimplications

Halloween was their chance to shine. Like a doll, mom forced me into a gifted Chinese dress (I’m Korean), caked on white facepaint, and squeezed my chubby toddler feet into pointy rubber Chinese shoes. The following year, I wore a hanbok; instead of a trick-or-treat bag, I carried a pillow with a South Korean flag pinned to it.


As I struggled toward adulthood, I remained their perpetual Korean orphan, an amusing participant for their parlor games. Through growth and distance, I bastardized their original presumption that Koreans were “quiet, trouble-free, responsible and achieving people”; in fact, I was regularly reminded that if I were still in my home country, I wouldn’t make it because I’m too loud, too demanding, too me.

The adoptee is caught between, spoken for, treated as a purpose, or a context, as a way to improve the adoptive parent or agency, as something to be learned from or ignored, as less an individual with her own agency and more a contribution to the agency of someone else. –Matthew Salesses

In the above quote, Salesses pointedly offers a nuanced view of an adoptee’s self-defined purpose. I agree with him, and would argue that it’s partially because the “general public still broadly understands Korean and other Asian adoptees as child foundlings who are lucky to have the opportunity to become American.” When transracial adoptees grow up, we no longer wish to be marionettes for families built on misconceptions, even though some of those illusions were enforced by our placing agencies. In fact, many adult Korean adoptees “describe a diminishing relationship to family during and after the expansion of their Korean adoptee identities.” It’s no surprise they’re staging a quiet rebellion.

I discuss this subject in my book, looking at how innocent-seeming heritage appreciation and assimilation attempts by White parents can quickly transform into racial microaggressions, or in other cases, outright aggression. South Korea’s recent apologies to adoptees haven’t helped; instead, they remind the public that we’re “pathetic and pitiable orphan[s] and…lucky transnational émigré.”

Though all this leads to tangled identity crises that I hope to unscramble, I don’t believe it was totally malicious. My parents did the best they could, espousing the then-celebrated and now-derided 1980’s colorblind theory, a societal failing that I’m working on dissembling. I seek to portray them – and other well-meaning White adoptive parents – as victims of misaimed marketing, cultural norms, and – in my parents’ cases – insular upbringings.

Like this? Want more? So do I! Find out about my upcoming ventures on my Patreon page!