You might have read my examples of internalized racism in part 1 and thought, “Whoa, that’s crazy! How did that happen? Where you raised by racists?!”
No, I was not. I was raised by a really loving white family. They did try to give me a positive racial identity in the best way they knew how. Simply, there were things they didn’t know and didn’t know to ask about. I’ve said it many times before; I don’t blame them for what they didn’t know, but what they didn’t know still negatively impacted me.
So what happened?
There are million ways we learn things, consciously and unconsciously. Racist narratives and stereotypes are embedded into American culture and society. So I was exposed to anti-Asian ideas in subtle and overt ways. Even people who knew and loved me unknowingly perpetuated anti-Asian racism that I was internalizing.
This happened through jokes they didn’t see the harm in (like slanting eyes) or discussions I overheard about “the Chinese” (meaning the country of China) which would often have been portrayed in my corner of the world as a competitor with the USA or a “dark place” in a Christian, evangelical religious sense.
Without being explicitly taught about race or racism, I had to make sense of all these things I was soaking up on my own.
Now, you could easily say, “Well…just because you are around people who say or do racist things doesn’t mean you have to internalize it.”
Which is true, but there are more factors at play than just what I heard people say or do. There are environmental and situational factors and social pressures that influence how we make sense of the world around us and what happens to us. These are implicit factors, things that indirectly effect our ideas and choices.
The world around me was sending uncomfortable or hurtful messages, and I had to find a way to adapt and survive in that environment. Here are some examples of the implicit factors that encouraged internalized racism to take root in my experience.
This is not uncommon for transracial adoptees. It can even happen to non-adopted persons of color whose family has assimilated to the dominant white culture.
Even though my white adoptive parents spoke positively about my ethnic heritage, I was still only learning about Chinese culture and people from a white perspective. This didn’t help me see how my ethnic identity was an important thing for me to develop and integrate into my view of self. In fact, focusing too much on my ethnic identity would have been seen as incompatible with focusing on my identity being “in Christ”.
Ambiguity is uncomfortable for the human brain because it is designed to categorize as a way of learning and knowing. Being biracial Asian/white, I am used to people having an awkward reaction to my features. It’s happened my whole entire life.
So growing up, when people acted awkwardly, I took that to mean something about me was awkward, therefore it was my responsibility to make them feel comfortable with me. One way of doing that was exemplifying the white cultural values I was raised with until they saw me as an individual, not my race.
Distancing myself from my non-white identity and embracing my “white side” benefitted me in all the ways I’ve already listed and more. I didn’t realize that was what was happening, because white adjacency is a typical outcome of being adopted into a white family. It’s just how things were from the start.
Even now, I can find more affirmation and applause from white people when I say and do things that affirm white views on pretty much anything. That may look like being chosen for leadership positions or getting my writing submission accepted and published.
This is a double whammy when you’re adopted, which inherently implies a “primary rejection” (or relinquishment) by our birth mother. The thought or threat of being rejected again in anyway can trigger that adoption trauma. Rejection is something you’ll want to avoid at all costs.
However, even outside of the context of adoption, as a minority, being rejected by the majority culture is an overwhelming thought for all the implications that has; reduced access to privileges and opportunities and increased likelihood of being targeted or scapegoated. No one wants to be on the outside looking in.
I included a lot more of the adoption layer in these examples, but I don’t believe that any of these implicit factors that influence internalized racism are exclusive to adoptees.
I set out to describe how internalized racism can happen to people of color but I have not yet fully answered that question. I’ve given you some personal context, but I think we need to put that personal context into the bigger picture.
In Part 3 of this series, we will zoom out and I’ll show you how I’ve come to understand the role that internalized racism plays in the bigger picture. If we don’t understand that part, we’ll miss how internalized racism perpetuates racism and the reason it is so important that we learn to name and deconstruct it when we see it in ourselves.
Before we begin, let me remind you that I’m speaking as a mixed Chinese/German American who was adopted at birth by my White relatives and raised in a rural, White area, as a charismatic, evangelical Christian. This is the perspective and context that I write from and shapes how I’ve seen internalized racism in myself.
To start, here is a sad yet amusing story.
I was a freshman in high school, when I had my first Black classmate. We were in a version of a homeschool co-op and had nearly every class together. We were the only kids who were not white.
One day he asked me, “Does it bother you when people call you ‘c—k’?”
My response was, I kid you not, “You mean like…in a chain?”
I would never have known if I had been called a racial slur because I didn’t know one when I heard it. Raised in a white, racially colorblind culture, I truly believed racism was a thing of the past, save for the few crazies, well into my adulthood.
I minimized racism because I had an immature and incomplete understanding of what it was. I minimized anti-Asian racist ideas because I had internalized anti-Asian racist ideas.
I experienced a lot of racial micro-aggressions as a kid, (e.g. “Of course you’re good at math.” or “What are you?”). They made me uncomfortable and hurt in a way I couldn’t articulate. So I often assumed the source of the problem was internal (i.e. something is wrong with me) rather than assuming it was external (i.e. something is wrong with how that person sees me or treats me).
This is a tricky subject. I do not want to blame BIPOC for our own oppression, but I do want us to be able to see and name when we are complicit in racism.
Internalized racism doesn’t fit cleanly into typical understandings of how racism works. To talk about internalized racism is to talk about how BIPOC can (un)consciously uphold racist narratives and policies.
Racism is often described as race-based prejudice + the power to act on it. Historically, it has been people of white/anglo European descent who have had the power to act on their race-based prejudices against Black, Indigenous, people of color. So we often see white people as being the sole perpetuators of racism.
However, with internalized racism, BIPOC are adopting the prejudices of white people (those in power) against themselves, believing the racist ideas to be true and/or racist policies to be justified.
I’ll end up saying this over and over again, that how internalized racism manifests differs based on who the person is (their race, gender, etc) and what their circumstances and life experiences are. I can’t speak for anyone but myself.
Below are six examples that span 30 years of my life, but this is not an exhaustive list by far. These examples focus on the anti-Asian racism that I internalized. I was exposed to anti-Asian ideas in the culture around me because racism is embedded into American culture and society.
For example, when I encountered harmful Asian tropes in media (e.g. Rooney in yellow face in the movie, Breakfast at Tiffany’s), I would minimize (e.g. “That’s just a comedic role so of course it’s over the top”.) and believe that there was nothing wrong with the portrayal of the Asian person, but that it was funny because Asian people were really that way on some level.
So on to my examples.
Well, if someone slanted their eyes when they talked about Chinese people, then at 4 yrs old, when I was told I was part Chinese, I felt that was what I was supposed to do; mock myself. If someone joked about a Chinese/Asian stereotype, then there must be some truth to that stereotype.
While I was internalizing racist messages about my own racial group, I was also internalizing racist messages about all non-white races. So I picked up some anti-Black racist ideas and believed some stereotypes about Latin people, etc.
Internalized racism prevents a healthy identity development and self-actualization. In my experience, internalized racism leads to shame, self-hate, self-sabotage, etc. I still struggle with believing that I am qualified to do things that I learned were “not typical of Asian people”.
For each of my examples, there has been shame and self-loathing that made it difficult to want to unpack these things. This is not a place any BIPOC chose to be. Which is why I believe truthfully addressing this must be done with an abundance of grace and gentleness.
These examples are the easier ones to share. However I have more I’m still unpacking. There is always more. I hope that by sharing it helps other connect some dots and better understand that racism can take many forms.
Internalized racism serves to perpetuate racism. I’ll explain how in Part 2.
In Part 1, I pointed out a few important differences about the kind of legal adoption Paul had in mind when he used adoption as a metaphor for salvation. Part 2 is about what happens when we confuse Paul’s metaphor with adoption as we know it today.
More things to know about me as you read: I’m a mixed Chinese/German American transracial adoptee. I was adopted at birth to distant relatives of my (white) first mother. I love all my parents.
The painful things I share here are not an indictment of them, but a commitment to the truth of my adoptee experience.
My situation is unique, and I generally think of it positively. I am also a mother of 2 bio kids + 1 through legal guardianship. I am sensitive to the parent experience also. This is the perspective from which I write.
If you’re not familiar with the American Christian (often white and evangelical) depiction of adoption being “the gospel on display”, let me give you the Tiff Notes.
Essentially, the idea is that some human things (like marriage or parenting) are imperfect reflections of the “true and better” thing, which is Christ and the gospel. If you’ve ever read a Christian marriage book that draws lessons for the husband and wife relationship from the image of Christ and the church as ‘his bride’, this is the formula.
In this formula, the gospel (our salvation) becomes the “true and better” adoption. While human adoption is flawed, this perspective claims it’s value is in how it reflects the gospel of Christ. Therefore, choosing to adopt becomes a very Christ-like thing to do. This perspective also makes people very resistant to criticisms of adoption.
Oh and one more thing; Christians often state that “we are all spiritual adoptees.” Usually this is an attempt to relate to an adoptee, to validate or normalize their experience, but often the result is adoptee perspectives are universalized into being a non-issue, and our voices are silenced.
Originally, Paul used the adoption metaphor to tell us something about God. Turning it around, as if the metaphor tells us about ourselves or mandates modern adoption, doesn’t make sense.
Christians do not feel called to vacate charges against the condemned because of Paul’s use of justification as a metaphor, right? So let’s look at how our concept of adoption today leads us to misunderstand Paul’s metaphor.
Most people believe they have a child’s needs in mind when they set out to adopt. But remember, the spiritual adoption metaphor centers the desires and actions of God as our adoptive Father. Attempting to make that metaphor apply to adoption today will tempt us to move from a child-centered approach to a parent-centered one.
And in fact, prioritizing the desires and actions of adoptive parents is exactly what the adoption industry has done. This has caused a huge amount of corruption in modern adoption for over a century.
Centered around the desires of adoptive parents, adoption becomes the response to infertility or someone’s felt calling to help children in foreign countries or “unwanted” babies. This creates a demand that outweighs supply and children are procured in horrific ways. Opportunists will kidnap and sometimes sell children for adoption. We know predatory agencies coerce and trick vulnerable mothers into electing to adopt.
Focusing on adoptive parent’s desires blinds us to how the adoption industry works in opposition to family preservation.
While this was not part of my story, it is for many adoptees. We cannot ignore or dismiss their stories as isolated or non-representative cases. Adoptees often ask “How could God have desired for my family to be ripped apart by lies and deceit so that I could be adopted?” or “Why did God allow this to happen in order to answer your prayer for a child?”. The knowledge that it did not, in fact, have to be this way is a cruel burden that cannot be dismissed by the assertion that it was God’s will.
When we center adoption around the actions of adoptive parents, we tend to celebrate their savior-ism. We often want to comment adoptive parents on their great faith and obedience in adopting. To the listening child, this makes adoptive parents appear to be their saviors who deserve unending gratitude and obedience just as Christ’s actions should stir our hearts toward similar feelings toward God.
Claiming adoptive parent’s actions are Christ-like may not be wrong, but many adoptees and even non-adoptees hear this and assume the child is obligated to be grateful for their adoptive family no matter what.
I realized my adoption was centered around my adoptive family’s good deeds when I started speaking up about racism. I had relatives (not my immediate family) tell me that I was being ungrateful to them for challenging their racist ideas.
They attempted to shame me into silence by claiming they had “loved me like family”. It’s clear they saw my adoption as being about them, a validation of their righteousness. The implication was that I did not deserve their love, which I’ll talk more about in a second.
Expecting an adoptee to respond to their adoption like Christians respond to salvation is cruel. It makes it hard for adoptees to acknowledge or talk about any loss or grief they might feel. Reverend Keith C. Griffith said, “Adoption Loss is the only trauma in the world where the victims are expected by the whole of society to be grateful.”
Imposing spiritual adoption, where God knew us and chose us though we did not deserve it, onto modern adoption leads us to a wrong view of vulnerable children. We now know trauma is inherent in adoption, even for a newborn. Adoptees frequently struggle with rejection or abandonment and adoption trauma can manifest at any point in our lives.
Talking about adoption in a way that implies adoptees are like the undeserving and wicked sinner is spiritually abusive.
While it is true we do not deserve salvation, we should never state that a child “did nothing to deserve adoption”. Yet I have heard and read this multiple times, even from adult adoptees themselves who have internalized this message.
The truth is, no child deserves to lose their family.
The truth is, all children deserve a loving family.
I could not see the trauma of my adoption until I was pregnant with my first child. Suddenly, I remembered a story my adoptive mom liked to tell about my infant days. I kept pushing her away, she recalls, so she prayed over me and rebuked a spirit and I finally relaxed and let her hold me. This story always made me feel ashamed but I was too young to articulate that. I responded as expected, showing gratitude for my mother’s overcoming love. When I finally understood my adoption trauma I realized my mother’s story is the spiritualized version of a stressed infant, struggling to adapt without my familiar mother and refusing to bond with a stranger.
I no longer feel ashamed by that story. However, it hurts to know that, as a child, I was allowed to get the impression that something was wrong with me. Really, I was normal. I was behaving like any healthy infant would. It was my situation, my separation, that was wrong.
Spiritualizing adoption attempts to make a triumph out of a trauma. Triumph demands praise, but tragedy and trauma require lament in order to heal. I did not begin lamenting my adoption until my 30’s.
Conflating spiritual adoption with modern adoption blurs the lines between God’s family and adoptive families. While we often stop short of equating being under the old authority of sin to the child’s first family, children are good at filling in the blanks. At least I was.
Without being told, I put my first father and the Chinese ethnicity I inherited form him into the place that sin and wickedness occupy in the spiritual adoption metaphor. My child brain took this comparison to places my parents did not intend. They would’ve corrected me if I’d asked, but I didn’t. Instead of questioning, I simply internalized.
I sensed that I should never look back to my first father or Chinese heritage. God had given me a new life through adoption, both spiritually and here on earth, so I should never turn back.
As a transracial adoptee already struggling with internalized racism, this mix up was spiritual proof that Chinese people and culture was inferior and suspect.
A current biblical counseling site still tells adoptive parents to minimize the importance of their child’s heritage. Without the adoptee perspective to shed light on why this is damaging, many Christian adoptive parents don’t think twice about that!
To me, my adoption does not look like the adoption Paul was using as a metaphor for salvation. Making my adoption about the gospel left me unable to see how adoption had truly impacted me. I had pain I did not acknowledge and therefore could not bring to God.
When I began to process this, I realized I had to deconstruct my faith. I had to cut out the lies and correct the half truths. At times I felt like I was losing my faith. I can see why so many adoptees raised in the church grow up and never come back. I don’t believe any Christian adoptive parent would knowingly risk this.
Family, we need to start sitting in the uncomfortable truths of adoptee stories.
This is definitely a topic I’ll cover more, but I want to leave you with a few thoughts right now.
When I think of spirit led actions to help children in need, I think of passages like James 1:27, “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.”
From my adoptee perspective, I see the emphasis on helping vulnerable families through the hardships that cause family separation instead of assuming family separation and jumping to adoption.
I see the doctrine of adoption as a beautiful picture of what God has done for us, but not as a mandate for how we must show God’s love to others. Surely opening our homes and families to children in need is a Christlike thing to do, but there are many ways to do that. Ethical modern adoption is merely one of many options. I would argue adoption should be the last resort, but I’ll save that for another post.
This isn’t the definitive word on adoption in the Bible. Just my thoughts. And I haven’t even mentioned adoption-like stories from the Old Testament (Moses, Esther, Ruth, etc)? I will write about those in the future so please follow my blog and join my reader list.
I’m attempting to share a complex personal journey. Simply and accessibly.
This is a recipe for disaster. Which is probably good. Everyone loves a good train wreck. Can’t look away, right? Well, I hope that’s the case. At least, I hope sharing the train wrecks of my story hooks you and you stick with me to see what lies past them; past the uncomfortable confessions of my internalized racism, after the dormant pain of my adoption erupted, beyond the shocking reverse polarity in my white + asian biracialization.
It’s time to begin telling these stories.
What lies past, though?
Where is this story heading? Well, to a positive place, I think. A deeper understanding of self. More love for others. More appreciation of God’s endless beauty and creativity. This is an ongoing realization that I have only been seeing in part that which God is redeeming into a unified whole, a new creation.
So yeah. I’m ready. Here we go.
Too dramatic a header? “Born into a fog.”
Well, if you don’t like it, too bad. I like it because “fog” is kind of a misty, white intangible that disorients you and keeps you from seeing what’s coming. Then before you know it, you’re crashing into something.
The fog was part broken relationships.
My biological father was married with kids. My biological mother was not his wife. The pregnancy shut it down. No further contact. I was born into a brokenness that carries an inherent trauma. And I didn’t even know it. You’ve probably heard differently about the impact of adoption on adoptees, but I’ll challenge you on that in the future.
The fog was part adoption into a white family.
I was adopted at birth. And yes it matters that my family is white. I grew up without anyone who looks like me and it turns out, that matters a lot. More on that later. For now, know that I am both white/anglo (of the German flavor) and east asian (the Chinese variety). I appear ethnically ambiguous to some and “What kind of asian are you?” to others.
Both my adoption and my ethnicity were always spoken about positively by my adopted parents.
Unfortunately, they had a very elementary understanding of race and ethnicity. And they had a shortsighted view of how adoption would impact me, the adopted child. Naturally, I inherited their perspective that my adoption was meant to be and, “Everything Is Awesome!”
Therefore, I learned to only see the positives about my adoption and the superficial positives about my ethnicity. I did not have language or space to talk about the parts that were not positive.
I knew my family loved me, but I also observed that everyone else saw me as separate and not belonging. So I felt loved, but I also felt that I didn’t belong. It was confusing.
I was told that my ethnicity was good, but my experiences taught me that it drew negative attention, unwanted personal questions and expectations about my behavior or abilities that I didn’t understand. So ethnicity was good but it made people treat you bad. This was disorienting.
I was taught that we should NEVER treat people differently because of their skin color. Yes, we could notice that God made people to look differently and that was a great thing. But I was told in so many words that racism was mostly a thing of the past. Good people aren’t really like that anymore. And we were all good people. Therefore, it was a non-issue.
So if someone treats you differently from your friends, it’s likely not because they are white and you are not. It’s probably because of other reasons.
This approach to racism has been termed “colorblindness”.
The idea is that we see people and not the color of their skin. Which is well-meaning, but the practical implications when carried out are actually dangerous and harmful. More on that later.
Being raised “colorblind” did not prepare me.
When it would happen, when I was treated differently because I looked differently, I did not recognize this interaction as race related, as THEIR wrong belief and behavior. So I internalized it. I interpreted it to mean something was wrong with ME. Somehow these recurring negative experiences were my fault. To make them stop, I had to change something about myself. Or at least I had to prove, somehow, I wasn’t who I appeared to be (i.e. someone who wasn’t white).
What does that mean, exactly? I will write a lot more about what this means and what it looks like later. For now, hold this idea in your head: when a child of color is not guided through understanding negative race-based experiences, they will make sense of it in their own way.
Without a voice of wisdom speaking God’s truth
against the specific sin of racism,
children will grasp around in the fog for answers
and wind up trapped in lies.
I was trapped in a fog that hid racism from my sight. I couldn’t see what was eating away my self-worth and God-given identity. Not seeing or understanding what was attacking me, I assumed my wounds were self-inflicted.
I assumed I just had to be more like my family and friends who didn’t have these problems; family and friends who all happened to be white. This wasn’t a difficult assumption-jump to make because their culture was my culture too. I valued the same things they valued and elevated the same behaviors and beliefs and ways of seeing/doing things.
Without ever being explicitly told or taught this, I associated the White Way with the Right Way.
I just had to work harder to think and act like them and everyone would see that I was just like them and I would be fine.
This misunderstanding of ethnic identity and racism had other side effects. I saw my “true self” as my inner self; the good student, the promising musician, the bookworm. Meanwhile, in secret, I prayed to God above that the dormant genes of my german biological mother would take over and I’d slowly become a blonde-haired and blue-eyed beauty by adulthood. I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but I believed that if God answered that prayer, then my appearance would match my inner self. Then I’d be comfortable in my own skin.
I couldn’t see any of this until my 30’s.
My whole life, I tried seeing myself as just another (white) person whose ethnicity did not matter. To better identify with the family that raised me, I sought to embody the best of our (white) culture. I had constructed a positive view of my (white) self. The (obvious to me now) problem was this was NOT who God created me to be. At least not the full picture.
I looked in the mirror one day as a 30-something new mommy and realized my reflection did not compute.
I was not embracing the part of me that was not white. God had given me a physical appearance that carried the image of an ancestral heritage from which I was completely disconnected. And that mattered. It matters because it is the history God gave me, the landscape He painted for me and placed me in. I had not been able to see any of that in the fog. I had not let any of that context inform my understanding of His purpose for me.
Until I escaped the fog, I would not be able to see where I was or what my place was in the work God was doing around me. It was time to get out of the fog.
So here we are. I am waking up to what God has for me. I am re-learning who God made me to be. There is more to me than I thought.
I am claiming this space on the internet where I can relate and release. And there is more to come. Thanks for reading along.