Friday, September 19, 2014

Claiming White American Identity as an Asian Adoptee: When Race and Ethnicity Diverge in Transracial-Transnational Adoption

I recently read an article, An Ethnicity Conversation Your Adoptive Child Wants You to Have, by a Korean American adoptee, Elizabeth Connolly. The article got me thinking about the incredibly complex racial and ethnic identities that transracial-transnational adoptees must learn to manage--often while having to field a barrage of scrutiny and criticism both within and outside of the adoption community.

In her article, the author addresses the tension she has experienced within her identity as a Korean adoptee who has grown up in a White family. She writes, “I am very proud to be Asian and a Korean adoptee, but if we are assuming that a person's ethnicity is defined by a shared religion, culture, language, and more, then why would I declare my ethnicity as Korean?”

She addresses a very real dilemma regarding identity for transracial-transnational adoptees raised in White families: the basic dissonance between our ethnic and racial experiences and hence, the divergence between our ethnic and racial identities.

In America, race is inextricably connected to ethnicity. One’s race assumes one’s ethnicity and vice versa. If you look Asian--in my case, Korean, then your ethnicity must also be Korean American. If you look Black then your ethnicity must be African American.

However, obviously, for transracial-transnational adoptees this is starkly and often awkwardly and painfully not the case.

Not surprisingly, I can very much relate to the author's struggle. Although I may not wholly agree with her, I understand her point. And most importantly, I appreciate her honesty in questioning the status quo by acknowledging the limitations of accepted ideas of race and ethnicity in America. Current definitions are restricting and confining for adoptees like myself, which can further exacerbate the already complicated process of trying to establish a coherent, healthy identity.

For instance, although my racial experience is that of an Asian person, my ethnic experience is that of a White American. Even though I am Asian genetically, I have often felt biracial (White and Asian) as a result of being a transracial-transnational adoptee. But I cannot claim biracialness because genetically (and physically) I am not. This is primarily due to the present-day constructs for identifying race and ethnicity, which do not have the capacity to consider people like transracial-transnational adoptees and other individuals with uniquely complicated circumstances around race, ethnicity, and identity.

Some may criticize the author of the aforementioned article for her proclamation of rejecting “Korean American” as her ethnicity and instead wanting to claim “White American” as part of her ethnicity, which I will address further after I say this: I took the article less as an indication that she wants to be “White” but more as an acknowledgment of the complex identities that we as transracial-transnational adoptees must navigate, and the identity dissonance we must manage both internally and externally.

As I’ve already stated, although I am racially Asian, I am basically ethnically a White American, if the measure is based on culture and language. However, since reuniting with my Korean family 5 years ago, I am becoming more ethnically Korean. But I will always be limited in my ability to fully assimilate within the Korean ethnicity, because my experienced family history is White American.

Yet, of course, I can never fully assimilate or be fully accepted within the White community because my racial experience is Asian. And, now that I have kids who are mixed race, the issues of my already confusing identity have become all the more convoluted.

This all exemplifies further that identity for transracial and transnational adoptees (and for anyone living between worlds, whether immigrants, adoptees, expatriates, or the like) requires adaptability and fluidity as we experience life and as our familial and social circumstances evolve, whether encountering reunion, becoming a parent, losing a parent, and the like. I know my identity has evolved dramatically over the past half decade, and I have no doubt that it will continue to do so.

I would also like to say that if the author of the above article--or any other transracial-transnational adoptee adopted into a White American family--wants to claim White American as a part of her ethnicity, she should be able to do so (because essentially that is how she was raised and to what she finds herself identifying). But she is not “allowed” to claim White American as her ethnicity because of her race and the limitations and expectations forced upon her because of her outward appearance.

Others may disagree with her “right” to claim White American as her ethnicity, and perhaps feel that she is betraying her Korean heritage or view her as an impostor or appropriator because she is not genetically Caucasian.

Transnational adoptees are not appropriators. Ironically, it is actually adoptees who have been appropriated. We were given (taken) without our consent and taken in possession by White American parents who then raised us as White American children who grew into White American adults, except for the irrevocable fact that we are not genetically White.

Hopefully you are beginning to recognize now that it truly is so much more complicated than the surface of our skin.

Some may say that a transracial-transnational adult adoptee wanting to claim White culture and ethnicity as part of her identity is a reflection of the failure of the adoptive parents to incorporate enough of her original culture into their lives. And you might be right that perhaps a particular set of adoptive parents did not incorporate the adoptee’s original culture and ethnicity into their family identity.

However, I think it is more an indication of an inherent and irrevocable consequence of transnational adoption. I think we have to realize and accept that removing a child from his origins and transplanting him into a foreign country will inevitably result in disconnecting the adoptee from his origins in ways that can never be replaced or rectified.

As the author of the article references and as I alluded to above, in America race and ethnicity are inextricable. This is understandable. But in an increasingly socially complex global community perhaps we need to allow our ideas and definitions of both race and ethnicity to be more flexible and open to evolution.

Whether you agree with the practice of transracial and transnational adoption, there’s no going back for those who are already here in America and have been raised within White families and White communities.

Adult adoptees need the freedom to form our own identities without people judging us or telling us what we have the "right" to claim. It’s time we be allowed to be authentic and true to not only who we feel and believe we are but to how we experience our own identities--in whatever way that may manifest for each individual.

We, as transnational and transracial adoptees, should not be barred from claiming our racial and ethnic origins nor should we be barred from claiming our experienced ethnicity. I, personally, feel BOTH White American and Korean American, because that is the inevitable intersection of my inherited origins and my experienced upbringing. Don’t tell me, “You’re not Asian, you’re basically White!” But furthermore, don’t tell me, “You’re not White, you’re Asian!”

I am both.

Because it isn’t nature versus nurture. It is nature and nurture. And adoptees are unwilling exemplifications of this classic debate and experiment in nature versus nurture. By nature, I am Asian. But by nurture, I am a White American. And I claim both. Whether you accept this or do not does not change the fact that I am.

Obviously, I know I’m not “White” by race. And I’m not trying to be. But the truth is that I was raised within a White family as a White child in a White community. And that truth will always be a part of my familial and ethnic history and experience, whether I prefer it or not. In the same way, my Korean origins are an undeniable part of my familial and racial history and experience, whether I prefer it or not. But it is now up to me how much of these experiences and inheritances I engage and cultivate as a part of my individual identity.

To be honest, for so long I felt ashamed to claim either. I felt ashamed to claim my Koreanness because of my experiences of racism and otherness. I felt ashamed to claim my Whiteness because I do not look White. But why should I be ashamed of either? And why should I allow the expectations and perceptions of others to be imposed on me and hold me back me from embracing who I am as a whole?

As I stated above, adult adoptees need the freedom to form our identities as we see fit. We need to have the capacity to create an identity that includes not only the color of our skin and the shape of our eyes but the sound of our music and the memories of our childhood. We did not have a choice about who adopted us or to what country we would be adopted. Conversely, we did not choose to whom we would be born or in what country we would originate.

But what we can choose is what pieces of each we want to claim and be. And if we change our minds along the way, do not accuse us of hypocrisy or flip-flopping--instead recognize that our circumstances demand that our identities be adaptable, and furthermore that they do not belong to you or to anyone else.

I hope we will continue to question and rethink the currently narrow and myopic concepts of race and ethnicity. Let's stop trapping people who need to cross the boundaries. Let’s stop demeaning them with terms like “twinkie” or “oreo” and so forth, and realize that our world and the individuals who compose it are far too complex and intricate to confine within a box of your making for your comfort.

Break out! It’s so much more fun and meaningful.


*Note: Some may note that I chose to reference "White American" as an ethnicity rather than "European American" (which would technically be more accurate). I realize that generally "White American" is not viewed as an ethnicity. I chose for the purposes of this article to use "White American" as an ethnicity because it seemed appropriate in the given context. Firstly, the issues discussed in this article are incredibly complicated. Therefore, I chose to use a broader term in order to try to simplify an already complicated discussion. Secondly, I wanted to emphasize that there is indeed a traditional culture and experience associated with being White American--just like with any other "ethnic" group. "White American" represents and connotes more accurately than does "European American," my cultural, familial, and social experience growing up in a White American family and community. Hence, again, I thought this emphasis necessary and relevant in the given context.