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Asian American Kids With White Parents Grapple With Racism and Identity

Racism has forced these Americans to wrestle with race, culture, and ethnicity in new ways.

At a Kansas City area Stop Asian Hate event in March, 17-year-old YiYi Pauls fielded questions about the recent onslaught of racist violence targeting Asians in the US. Dozens of people around her chanted and held signs as passersby honked in support. 

Born in China and adopted by a family in the US when she was 10 years old, YiYi had some previous exposure to rallies through climate change and BLM events over the past year. But this rally was different. Instead of advocating for a broad goal or as an ally to others, she was giving voice to her own experiences.

Suddenly, with a surge of passion YiYi broke away from the cameras and the voice recorders and headed down to the street to join the rest of the rally participants. She thrust her sign as high above her head as her arms would carry it, and joined the chants with the full intensity of her feelings. All of the fear and the anger and the exasperation.

A local news photographer captured the moment. Even with a mask covering her face, it was apparent in her eyes and her neck that she was going to make her message known to all who could hear or see. And what people saw was a confident young woman holding a sign with an incisive message: “Proud To Be Asian American”

“It looked like she was jumping,” her mother Nikki remembers. “She wasn’t, but it looked like she was jumping, so proud and so invested to stand there. She realized the bigness of the decision that she made to walk up to the sidewalk and do that separate from her family.”

Finding Identity During a Season of Hate

Since the onset of the COVID-19 epidemic, violence against Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities has risen sharply. A recently released national report from the advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate detailed the 6,603 hate incidents reported to the group from March 19, 2020, to March 31, 2021.

In response, the AAPI community has banded together in solidarity and picked up advocates and allies along the way. One cross-cultural subgroup of the community is the estimated 200,000 Americans who have been adopted from Asian countries and very often raised by white parents in predominantly white communities. How each of these Americans has processed their identity over the past year has varied, depending on their birth country, how they were parented, and the community in which they grew up.

In his book Extraordinary Journey: The Lifelong Path of the Transracial Adoptee Mark Hagland describes the process of cultural realization that transracial adoptees experience as “coming out of the transracial adoptee fog.” He was brought to the United States from Korea in the first wave of international adoption that began in the 1960s and points out that throughout the history of international adoption most kids are raised by white parents and detached from their birth culture and from members of their race and ethnicity. 

“We were essentially raised to be white, but we were never allowed to be white,” he explains. “So we grew up with a strange cognitive dissonance of having experiences as people of color, yet no access to the understandings that we might have had if we had had parents of color.”

23-year-old Mitchell Stone grew up in Denver after being adopted from South Korea as an infant. Aside from his siblings, Stone had few interactions with other Asian Americans as a child. A notable exception was an annual Heritage Camp for Korean Adoptees and their families which provided him opportunities for cultural engagement that he didn’t have at other points throughout the year. Having attended most years since he was in preschool, Stone has spent the last couple of summers as a counselor at Heritage Camp.

“Camp was one of those experiences where I got to see people who looked like me and other people with similar backgrounds,” he shares. “And although I didn’t really know it at the time, I think it was very important in the development of my identity. I’ve seen a lot of kids struggle with their identities during that time, and I did as well to an extent.”

“Sometimes kids can kind of push away that cultural piece of who they are,” Stone continues. “So the connection is especially important now in terms of re-identification, because as a country and just as just everything that’s been going on including hate crimes against Asians, I think a lot of Asian adoptees and Asians in general, are rethinking a lot of their identity and who they are right now.”

From Model Minority to a Movement

This process of cultural identification is now especially difficult as hate crimes against Asians have increased and conversations about racism against Asians have gone more mainstream. “We were taught to see ourselves as exceptional,” Hagland says. “Exceptional Asians and exceptional people of color. Now in the wake of the pandemic, this exploding expression of racism against Asians, people are waking up. It’s very jarring.”

Hagland acknowledges that prejudice and racism against Asians have always been present in America. But as we move further away from egregious events like the Chinese Exclusion Acts of the late-1800s and Japanese internment camps during World War II, the abhorrence of those racist acts has faded from collective memory. So while Asian Americans of Hagland’s generation and those who followed have had an awareness of prejudice, the current reality of violent racism is a new experience.

“Now, as the pandemic hit its peak, we had a sitting president of the United States insistent on demonizing Asians and blaming them for the global pandemic,” he explains. “So we are targets. And it’s a crisis for many people because they had thought that maybe they would never become demonized scapegoats in our society.” 

It was a Monday morning in March when a group of adoptive mothers in Kansas City were lamenting another hate crime committed against an Asian American.“One of the moms said, ‘I’m so sick and tired of doing nothing,’” recalls YiYi Pauls mother,  Nikki “So sick and tired of sitting here and doing nothing and then figuring out all day how I’m going to tell my kid what happened after school is over. I just can’t believe that we’re just not doing anything about it.”

By the end of the morning, they had decided to do something: a Stop Asian Hate event the following weekend. But they also quickly realized that while they had tremendous passion, they needed other people out front in the leadership roles. 

“We really wanted to be cautious so that this did not just become another ‘white parents and their Asian kids’ event,” reflected Pauls. “We knew we wanted to figure out a way to incorporate the Asian community more than just the Asian adoptee community.” As the week progressed, members of the Asian community in Kansas City took leadership of the rally, and the parents transitioned to support roles.

How to Raise a Kid from Another Culture

The dance of advocating for your child while truly empowering them as they navigate their racial, ethnic and cultural identity is a challenging one for adoptive parents. It’s a group that Hagland has extensive experience working with after years of being active with educational events, speaking engagements, and panels in the transracial adoptive community.

 “Every white adoptive parent and transracial adoptive parent needs to read White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, and needs to help their child figure out and build their identity as a person of color,” he says. “If you’re raising a kid who is Asian, and you’re not giving them the tools to figure out what’s going on right now and to be able to manage it intellectually and emotionally, then you’re disabling them.”

Hagland also encourages transracial adoptees to gain exposure to their birth culture and to learn more about other non-white cultures both through study and personal interactions. While understanding it can be difficult at first, he sees moving toward a place of self-realization within the broader struggle of justice for people of color as necessary for transracially adopted kids.

“They realize that the identity that they thought they had isn’t going to work for them. And that’s a very difficult thing to do,” Hagland says. “I feel very, very strongly that the only mentally healthy headspace is a broad, consciously POC and aware headspace.”

Stone has seen some of that solidarity develop within the adoptee community from Heritage Camp over the past year. “I have seen a huge difference in how they treat their identity and how they’re far more supportive and far more proud to be who they are. And I think that has a lot to do with what’s going on right now. There’s a lot more solidarity than there ever has been before.”

Finding a Voice

YiYi found it meaningful that the Stop Asian Hate event was being led by Asian adults and also that her mom was helping with the effort. “I was so so happy because it was a way to let Asian people show that they have the ability to speak up for themselves. And I was just so glad to hear that my mother was helping do this rally.” 

The event in general, but particularly those moments where she made a point of raising her voice, were pivotal moments for Pauls. “I wanted to go stand on the street with my sign so I could be part of it. I wanted to show people that you don’t have to be afraid to stand up and speak up. It was good to stand with Asians. I am so proud to be Asian, and it was awesome to be standing and fighting together.”

“It changed for me because I know I can speak up and not have to be quiet because someone says mean things,” Yiyi continues. “Maybe I was afraid to speak up, but now I don’t have to because I know if anything like this ever happened, I could tell someone or speak up, and I know there are a bunch of other people going through these same feelings. It’s not just me by myself.”