When people saw me with my mom, they either looked on in confusion or in admiration. Confusion because seeing a black-haired, almond-eyed Chinese girl in the southern suburbs of Minnesota was rare and seeing one with a white woman was probably more so. Or admiration because they pieced together that I was adopted. Sure I was foreign, but I belonged because I belonged to her.
White privilege is at the forefront of many people’s minds as our country reckons with its systemic and institutional racism. Like many others, I’ve been doing a lot of self reflection and have come to realize how even though everything about my outward appearance screams Chinese, I grew up shielded, covered, and protected by white privilege.
Race wasn’t something my family talked about much, if ever. As Nicole Chung, a Korean adoptee, so perfectly summed up in her memoir, “All You Can Ever Know:”
“To them, I was not their Korean child, I was their child, their chosen gift from God.”
Of course, it would’ve been terrible if my family had treated me differently because I was Chinese. But I think if they didn’t view my younger sister (who is also adopted from China) and me through a colorblind lens, it would be hard and maybe even painful. I think that if they didn’t view us as white by proxy, they wouldn’t know how to love us because I’m not sure if any of them have ever really known and nevertheless loved a person of color.
My mom was the only one who did, on some level, acknowledge and celebrate our heritage. But in the very white suburbs of Minnesota in the early 2000s, there wasn’t much else we could do besides celebrate Chinese New Year, read books about Chinese culture, and participate in a week-long China camp hosted by Macalester College. Even today, 90.6% of the population where I went to school is white, according to the last U.S. Census data.
While our recent climate has forced me to think about this even more, it wasn’t the first time I realized that my upbringing shielded me from the many vile forms racism manifests itself in.
This education of what it means to be a minority in America began once I started college.
For the first time in my life, people no longer saw me as an adopted Chinese daughter who, in reality, is more knowledgeable about her family’s Norwegian heritage than her Chinese one. Instead, they made their quick judgements based on what they saw and used their stereotypes of Asian people to shape how they talked to me.
I learned when people asked me, “Where are you from?” what they wanted to say was “Where are you really from?” because I certainly couldn’t be from America. I certainly couldn’t be the same as them.
These experiences came to a sort of pinnacle when I lived in France for a semester my junior year. Uber drivers asked me where I was from and when I said the United States, their eyebrows shot up and they’d glance in their rearview mirrors to double check with a “vraiment?” often punctuating their disbelief. One even asked me a second time in French where I was from, as I’m sure he thought I misunderstood the question.
I was sitting on a bench in La Place Bellecour (a large square in the center of Lyon) when an American missionary walked over and asked the same question. She was at first surprised when I responded in English and even more surprised when I said the United States. We ended up talking for a few minutes about home and it was honestly a relief to not have to think about how to speak.
When I traveled to other countries, I either stood out among my European and American friends or blended in with the hundreds of Asian tourists making their way through Italy.
In Provence, an old man approached my French friend and me with a smile and a “nǐ hǎo.” I was fully taken aback and muttered a “bonjour” with wave. He tried again and I said “bonjour” with stubbornness and hurt lacing my tone and kept on walking. A few weeks later, I met a friend from UGA in Dublin. As we were walking back to our AirBnb after dinner one night, two guys yelled “nǐ hǎo” again at us. We promptly rolled our eyes and kept on walking.
Just the other day, this sort of ignorance crept up unexpectedly in my day when I was talking to an insurance agent on the phone.
My mom, in an effort to preserve and celebrate my Chinese heritage, kept my Chinese name as my middle one and I constantly use it for any sort of username because I never have any problems (unlike Rachel, where I’d have to be rachel_98731.) My email address features said name and the woman was having a hard time. After spelling it out a few times slowly, I finally shared that I was adopted and that’s where the name comes from.
“Oh wow, I would’ve never guessed you were Chinese. You sound so American,” was her reply, tinged with a bit of happy relief.
This wasn’t the first time someone said something similar, either. In high school, I applied for a scholarship and talked to two of the woman who were on the committee over the phone before I met with them for an interview. When they first saw me, one admitted that she was surprised (don’t worry, it was a good surprise) that I was Chinese because I sounded Southern over the phone.
None of these women said these comments in malice or disgust, and I know they weren’t meant to hurt me. But in saying these things, it sends out a clear message: You can’t be American (or as fully American as white people are) and a minority at the same time.
These types of experiences remind me that even though I’m no longer directly shielded by my family’s white privilege, I still have it. Once I say I’m adopted, any fear or distrust evaporates in an instant and I’m no longer seen as a conglomeration of stereotypes or bias but as an exception to the rule. In fact, they can rest easy in knowing I’m almost as white as they are.
Racism and xenophobia toward the Asian community escalated following COVID-19’s introduction to the United States and I got the smallest glimpse into what the Black community faces on a daily basis.
Suddenly, questions about where I from weren’t just blissfully and ignorantly racist, but carried a threat of suspicion, of distrust, of how dare you exist in my country and be a reminder, if not the cause, of this pandemic.
And for black people in this country, these racial undercurrents have always existed and have resulted in the loss of countless lives.
Many people argue that in talking about race and highlighting our differences, we only perpetuate racism in our country. Or that in calling out racism, we ourselves are racist. But that is simply not true.
In doing so, we begin to tear down the institutions that uphold racism in our country and reshape beliefs concerning BIPOC. We learn how to listen and lean in and let compassion shape our actions and words.
I was raised under an umbrella of white privilege. So I too will be leaning in and listening and learning and reading about the experiences of the black community. I’ll be standing up when I see racism happen and be ready with a kind, yet firm response when it’s directed at me.