Learning to use my privilege as a Korean adoptee in the cause of racial justice | By Christine Heimann (Summer 2020 issue)
People say that adoptees should be grateful, that we are lucky. Some of us escaped poverty or extreme discrimination in our homelands, due to our being born to single mothers, or having birth defects, or perhaps being born a daughter when our birth families longed for a son.
When we were adopted, we lost our birth culture, birth language and birth families. What is lucky about that?
When I was adopted, I admit I was launched into a world of privilege, one that I would not have experienced in my birth country. But I lost so much because of adoption. Is it privilege being abandoned by my birth country and colonized in a white country. How is this privilege? While I didn’t have a say in any of this, it is still true that I have benefited a lot from these privileges —- even the white-sounding name I was given, which is now my legal name.
However, the reality is this:
I am a Korean American adoptee. I was adopted into a middle-class white family, and except for my brother (also adopted from Korea), I grew up in a predominantly white community. I grew up with an American-sounding name, speaking English, eating instant white rice, and for the most part living in a way that erased my Korean language and culture. Even though our family would go to the local Chinese restaurant for takeout or the Korean restaurant in St. Paul to celebrate our “arrival days,” nothing could replace living in Korea and experiencing a Korean upbringing.
Because of my adoption, there were many times that I not only thought of myself as white, but wanted to be white. I would wish I could be white —- to have blonde hair and blue eyes. I did not know how to talk about race. I would even use the phrase “let’s not make it about race.” This gaslighting of myself, and denial of my own race and identity would add to pain and confusion about identity later in life.
For most of my life, I was comfortable in the white world. Because I grew up in a white community, I sound like a native English speaker. Many times, people do not even appear to know or be curious about my race. I am the first to admit it: I identify as culturally white and I understand the privilege that comes with it. Being raised in a white family, in a white world, has brought not only cultural, but economic privileges. For many adoptees, the white world is all we know. But as a trans-racial adoptee, I will always be missing a piece of my cultural identity.
In fact, I come from two communities —- the white world and the Korean community. Both of these worlds have historically been racist and biased towards people of color, especially when it comes to the Black community.
I have heard people proclaim they “don’t see color,” but I don’t believe it. Our beliefs about people’s race are affecting our judgment before we even meet a person face to face. I know that most of the world sees me as Asian, and that the first thing people will see when they meet me is my Asian appearance. They don’t know how white I feel.
Sadly, because of racial inequities in our society, our society’s racial grading system of people from most- to least-favored seems to place Asians ahead of other minorities. This is not to say Asians and Asian adoptees have not experienced racism and xenophobia. I have experienced my fair share; the recent increase in racist attacks toward Asians and Asian Americans over the presumed Chinese origin of COVID-19 is only one recent example.
I have been lumped into so many of the Asian stereotypes, from the “China doll,” to the quiet, submissive, model minority. I have the model minority privilege —- one that has come as a byproduct of colonialism and racism. This privilege is a byproduct of white colonialism that extends privilege to whites and sets minorities against one another, as we all buy into our society’s reinforced systemic racism.
With my Asian identity, the recent racism (due to the racist nickname of COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus”) was, of course, hurtful. But it is not even close to what black Americans have felt historically and up to the present. History has shown that racism and xenophobia towards Asians climaxes in times of intense economic or military challenges. But eventually, it dies down, although it never really goes away. Anti-blackness, however, is a steady and continuous form of oppression that has plagued American society, robbing African Americans of wealth and power for hundreds of years.
So, I have privilege from growing up in a white community, I have Asian privilege associated with the model minority. So what can I do? As I reflect on how I can better serve and advocate for communities of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), the cause of Black Lives Matter, and myself, I need to acknowledge and remember the following five important points:
1. Everyone is prone to racism — even Korean Americans and other BIPOC communities
Internalized racism is in all of us, and in our own communities. No one wants to be called racist. No one wants to be labeled as a bad person. But this is the truth. We all have implicit biases; it is human nature. As I learned more about my Asian-ness and my Korean culture, I was ashamed to learn of the racist and xenophobic views the Korean American communities have historically had towards non-Koreans —-especially towards the Black community. Even today, some Asian American/Korean American communities sadly continue to hold these harmful and stereotypical views.
In the Korean American community, this bias is coming from people who were treated as racially inferior, even as subhumans, by Imperial Japan for over 30 years during the Japanese occupation of Korea. As a people who have already suffered from racism, I would think that this history would make Koreans welcoming to oppressed groups, but this is not the case. Koreans place a lot of value on maintaining a homogeneous society. This is the same mythology that made Korean international adoption possible and African Americans unwelcome in Korean American places.
2. Colorism is real, and it perpetuates racism towards the Black community
These days, Korean skin care products are in high demand. Interestingly, many of these products contain “skin whitening” ingredients. Some of the products are even named “skin whitening cream,” or variations like “Snow White cream.” For years, Asians have preferred light skin over dark, from which comes the popularity of Korean skin care and make-up products. This colorism can be seen across Asian cultures, not just Korean. The idea of skin whitening as a sales hook sells a lot of face cream all across Asia.
Lighter skin historically represents a higher socioeconomic class (while the lower-class farmers are working outdoors getting darker, upper-class people stay indoors and stay lighter). In many traditions, not just Korea, wealthy and educated means lighter skin, whereas poor and uneducated means darker skin. While I am proud that my birth country has produced so many top-quality cosmetics, I am not proud of the colorism they perpetuate.
3. We need to remember Black Asians
Korean adoption started because bi-racial children were born to Korean women and American soldiers during the years following the Korean War. Approximately 40,000 children were the products of these relationships. Some of the biracial children were Black and Korean. Many fathers went back to the U.S., some knowing and some not knowing they had fathered children with Korean mothers. Because of financial hardships and severe social stigma in Korea, towards both single mothers and mixed-race people, many single Korean mothers relinquished their bi-racial children for adoption.
We cannot forget biracial and multi-racial individuals, as this new wave of the racial justice movement continues.
4. There is racism even within adoptees’ own families
I’ve met so many adoptees whose own family members outwardly express racist views. People are surprised to hear this, that some transracial adoptees have grown up seeing racism not only in the outside world, but also in their own homes. Many transracial adoptees may have endured microaggressions from family members or friends —- people we thought we were close to. This emphasizes how racism can grow at home, behind closed doors, reinforced in us by those we know (or thought we knew) and those we love (or loved). We have been taught to love our family members, but what is this saying in our journeys as BIPOC and transracial adoptees if our family members continue to have racist viewpoints? The answer is that they don’t see our race. They don’t see the color of our skin.
We may be in a moment where racial justice means something to us as Korean adoptees, but if our race is erased or not even recognized by our family members, they certainly cannot be advocates for us. If I speak up against these racist viewpoints, it might not change the family members’ viewpoint, but there is a slim chance it will. However, if I don’t say something, they will never change.
5. In the past, I’ve denied my identity as an Asian, as a Korean, and as an adoptee in order to fit in with the white majority
As I reflect on past friendships, I realize I was the token Asian friend (or the only BIPOC) in many of my former friends’ lives. I know that until I was a teenager, the majority of my friends (if not all of them) were white. I admit that I somewhat set myself up. To fit in, I wanted to be white and in doing so, I surrounded myself with white friends.
When I was little, I remember joining in on a hand-clapping game. It went like this:
I went to a Chinese restaurant
To buy a loaf of bread, bread, bread.
They wrapped it up in toilet paper
Then asked me what my name was,
And this is what I said, said, said:
I’m Choo Choo Charlie,
I know karate! Oops, I’m sorry.
I’ll call your mommy!
Chinese, Japanese, Indian Chief.
I remember I always wanted to do this game (it also included several racist gestures), not realizing the racist tone of the lyrics. I would even eagerly ask my friends to say these chants.
I was the first to make an Asian joke with my friends and was uncomfortable with topics about race. Why? I did it out of the need to belong. I wanted to be clear that I was an American, that I had no ties to my birth country and that I was not like the “other” BIPOC. But what was I doing? I was denying my true identity as an Asian American. I was harming only myself.
I acknowledge I have had many opportunities other BIPOC have not had. Sometimes I feel guilty because of these opportunities, and I admit that I previously was not very outspoken about racism and discrimination. However, over these past few years, I have found my voice. As I have observed the recent campaign for greater racial justice, I realize I can use my privilege to help support movements such as Black Lives Matter. Now that I have found my voice, I must use it to help call for change, to speak out against systemic racism. I must act, not react.
As a Korean American, transracial adoptee, I didn’t choose to come to America. I didn’t choose to be adopted. But what I can choose to do is to stand up and speak out. I can choose to add my voice to the thousands of others who call for change. I can choose to continue to explore the biases and privileges I absorbed from my white upbringing and decide if I want to hide or confront these biases. I can constantly challenge myself to step out of my comfort zone.
If I refuse to address my privileges and the bigotry that has plagued American society, I then only fulfill the stereotype I have worked so hard to fight against —- the complacent, quiet Asian. The risk of complacency is allowing more of our Black community members to stand up for racial justice and and to potentially be added to the list of casualties of violence and systemic racism. I recently heard the phrase “silence is violence.” That reminds me of the consequences of staying quiet during this movement.
This model minority woman can no longer stay quiet. I won’t have all of the answers and I won’t always know what to say. I have made mistakes and I will continue to make mistakes. I am human. But if I behave as an obedient model minority, I will only help to reinforce the silence that the majority culture has maintained for hundreds of years. While I didn’t have a choice to be adopted, I can choose to elevate my voice and not be silent anymore.
Christine Heimann has worked with children, youth and adults in the field of post-adoption services. In 2017, she founded the service and education organization AdopteeBridge, which provides post-adoption support services to transracial/transnational adoptees and their families (website: adopteebridge.org)