Growing Up Asian in a White Family Does Not Prepare You for the Adult Realities of Racism (True Sentence No. 13)

I started this blog to just write. And feeling stuck, I decided to just write one true sentence a day. That’s an easy enough writing prompt, right?

From there, the blog has morphed into a catch-all stream-of-consciousness dump for everything from kids’ clothing to vulgar passwords to Spotted Cow beer.

But I want to restore this blog to its original purpose and actually Write One True Sentence A Day.

I don’t know if I’m on True Sentence no. 13 or not. Maybe I’ve lost track, or mislabeled a previous post.

But plowing onward, here’s the truest sentence I know today: Growing up as a transracial Asian adoptee, in an all-White family, does not prepare you for the adult realities of racism.

As a child, I traveled to all corners of the country with my family. Rural. Urban. Truck stop diners in Tallahassee. Greasy spoons in Coeur d’Alene. All-white neighborhoods in conservative, Midwestern suburbs. (The kind with neighbors who openly hoped “A black family doesn’t move in. I was around enough of them in the Army.”)

No one took issue with my race when I was under the auspices of my White parents and White younger sibling. I was in-grouped: White by association.

Often, I would receive some looks of curiosity. But more often a “That’s so adorable” sort of gaze. Because it was an adorable sight to behold: White parents with small East Asian children in tow.

And there were lots of knowing nods. I grew up in Minnesota, where everyone has a transracial adoptee in the family. Whenever another White Minnesotan finds out I’m a Korean-born-adoptee, there is instant recognition. They have a niece or cousin or sibling like that. And in the unlikely even they do not have a transracial adoptee in their family, they grew up with a friend or classmate or neighbor.

I grew up in a “good schools” neighborhood, with White parents and White extended family.

As a POC, I was able to inherit White privilege. I had access to White institutions and White suburban rites of passage: summer camp, T-ball, tap dance lessons, Disney World vacations, and camping at a cabin on the lake.

I was comfortable around White people.

Occasionally, I would go to events full of other Korean-faced adoptees. “Isn’t it nice to be around people who look like you?” I was asked.

It wasn’t.

It was weird.

It wasn’t bad weird. As a 9-year-old girl, I felt as comfortable at a summer camp, with 300 Korean faces, as any White 9-year-old Minnesotan girl would.

Truthfully, it just felt more comfortable to be around White people. (Duh.)

As a child, I wanted so badly to be White.

I wanted to look like my parents and look like my peers.

I’ve never admitted that aloud before. Never told anyone. Never put that in writing.

I will spend the rest of my life unpacking that childhood longing.

I didn’t need to have blonde hair and blue eyes. I just wanted my skin to be lighter and have that peach-colored, pinkish hue. I wanted to match Crayola’s aptly named “Flesh” colored crayon. (That crayon label hasn’t been in production for decades.)

Neighborhood kids called me n-gger. Well not all of them. There were two kinds of neighborhood kids: the ones who called me n-gger, and the ones who watched me get bullied and beaten up for being one.

Minnesota had very minimal Hmong or Asian immigration at the time. It was a time of innocence, when small children knew only one racial slur to describe non-Whites. In grade school, I was the only non-White kid in my classroom. There was always at least 1-2 kids of color in every grade at Richardson Elementary. And they too were Korean adoptees. Always. Even my fourth grade teacher had two adopted Korean kids. Korean adoptees were everywhere.

I never told my parents that I was picked on because of my race. I never told my teachers or other adults either. Because it was humiliating. I was picked on for being different, and didn’t want to advertise that difference to others. As if to hand-deliver them reasons (they may have overlooked) to reject me. I wanted to be just like everyone else. And for everyone to think I was just like everyone else.

That’s persisted into adulthood.

Here’s something I’ve observed about East Asians and South Asians: We experience racism but don’t like to talk about it.

This is a general observation made from my limited perspective. I’ve not met nearly enough Asians to say this is a broader cultural truth that applies to all Asians everywhere.

But Asians I have met and observed want to be in-grouped with White people and the power and social privilege that come with lack of melanin. Asians do not want to be in-grouped with Blacks or other POC and the lack of privilege and negative stereotypes that go with.

Asians don’t like to talk about the racism they experience.

It reminds me of my childhood. I don’t want people to know or be reminded that I’m different. I just want to be one of you.

In googling “Why Asians Don’t Talk About Racism”, I see a common theme emerging in the search results. Other Asian voices say they are taught to not speak out. Or they choose to not talk about being bullied. Racism is rarely discussed within Asian families.

Other Asian adoptees I know downplay or just don’t discuss racism.

And really, what can an Asian child tell their White parents about racism? A child shouldn’t have to be the one explaining, to their parents, the features of racism.

When you’re bullied it’s an embarrassing experience. There is shame. Why invite other people to that spectacle? Is that the rationale?

I don’t know how I’ll talk to my own children about race and racism.

They’re half-White, half-Asian. And if I’m honest (and I have an ability to be brutally honest with myself, and to demand that of others) my choice of mate reflects how I’ve chosen to double down on Whiteness.

White people aren’t better, but being White is clearly a better Life User Experience, as Louis C.K. points out.

“I’m White. Thank God for that, that’s a huge leg up. Are you kidding me? I love being White. I really do. Seriously, if you’re not White you’re missing out. This sh-t is thoroughly good… I’m not saying that White people are better. I’m saying that being White is clearly better. Who could argue? If it was an option, I would re-up every year. Oh yeah, I’ll take White again. I’ve been enjoying that I’m going to stick with White. Thank you.”

There are benefits to having a White spouse, to say nothing of how unintended sexual racism plays a role in who we date or are “attracted to”. (You know, how people say they “can’t control who they are attracted to.” Or when someone says, “I don’t date Black people” even though they identify as non-racist and liberal. Roughly 80% of the White Liberal Male dating profiles I read said they were only open to dating a “White” woman.)

Which brings me to True Sentence No. 14: Having a White spouse is thoroughly good sh-t. I highly recommend it. I give the experience 4 out of 4 stars. Michael and I can go places and do things, with no dirty looks or threats of violence, that we could not do if he were also Asian or if either of us were Black. We can go to a peony festival 50 miles outside of the Twin Cities metropolitan area or to an all-White campground in Maple Lake and cause other people minimal discomfort.

And I’m painfully aware that if I were a different race, say a Black woman in a hijab, peony festivals and Maple Lake campgrounds would be rough-going. If you’re going to be an interracial couple, White Man with Asian Woman is clearly the path of least resistance.

And if my husband were an Asian male, or I was on a solo trip, I would not go camping anywhere.

But as a non-White adult, I’m discovering many people are openly unaccepting of my race. As an adult POC, I offend them in ways I did not as a child or college student.

I don’t know quite how to make sense of it. I think it’s to do with the fact that when you see a foreign-looking child, fluent in Americana, you assume second-generation immigrant who was born here to immigrant parents? But when you see a full-grown foreign-woman, you assume she’s an immigrant who’s here to take your jobs and change your cultural landscape? It’s unclear to me.

As a child, I was embarrassed by the realities of racism I experienced. As an adult, I am still embarrassed by the racism I experience. I know I should not feel embarrassed, but that does not erase the shame.

I am not going to hide it. I am going to stop saying “not really” when people ask me if I experience racism. And I am not going to talk about it in other people’s terms, in ways that make people feel comfortable (un-offended) yet compelled to action (like sticking a political sign in the front yard).

When people ask me if I experience racism ever, I’ll answer “yes”. And if asked to talk about it, it’s going to be a hard “no.”

I don’t want to have conversations with people about race and racism. It’s too much emotional labor, and I don’t want to wind up consoling you because I’ve made you feel bad about your favorite childhood restaurant or apple orchard. I don’t want to hear about how those really nice people must have been having a bad day. I don’t want to have to spend my energy comforting you and letting you know that you’re one of the good guys.

And I definitely don’t want your angry wrath when you tell me the racism I’m recounting simply can’t be true.

If you were ask me about the racism I experience, and I actually wanted to answer, you would hear about ways you too are racist.

That’s the thing.

When people ask or want to learn about racism, they want to learn about how other people or other things are racist. They don’t want their own racism reflected back to them.

And besides, even though I’m a person of color, I don’t understand racism.

Until I was about 30, on most days I could actually forget that I was a person of color. Being a transracial Asian adoptee young woman, visibly fluent in Americana, was completely unremarkable.

Sometimes, I feel like a fake POC.

Sometimes I feel like a fake POC because I know I should be experiencing worse racism – and more of it. Because I’m not an Asian man, or Black, or wearing a hijab.

Mostly, I feel like a fake POC because I don’t “act” non-White and because I was raised “White” by a White family. Through my parents, I’ve directly benefited from White privilege.

I’ve got White privilege that doesn’t match my non-White skin. I am a walking paradox. When it comes to being a victim of racism, I have major imposter syndrome. I’m not a good enough or real enough POC to actually be able to lay claim to the R-word.

I’ll just end the musing with the two true sentences I’ve called out in this post:

  1. Growing up as a transracial Asian adoptee, in an all-White family, does not prepare you for the adult realities of racism.
  2. Having a White spouse is thoroughly good sh-t.