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.
I’ve wanted to work on a reverse poem for a while. I finally sat down and made it happen. I have many themes in my head but this one is perfect for the poem structure. By reading down and back up, you journey with me “out of the fog” to face the “wound”.
“Coming out of the fog” is a phrase adoptees use when we begin to confront the reality of how adoption has impacted us. It’s a non-linear experience of grief and loss that can begin at any time in an adoptee’s life. Some adoptees never experience this.
The “wound” refers to the Primal Wound theory by Nancy Verrier, which states that even if a child is separated from the first mother the moment it is born, the infant will register that as trauma in their body, in their nervous system. Though an adoptee like myself may not have a conscious memory of that stress or my struggle to survive without my biological mom, the wound is there. Acknowledging that is part of healing.
Thanks for reading.
Title: Fog & Wound
By Tiffany Lavon
Adoption is beautiful.
I can’t honestly claim that
I need to grieve
I don’t need sympathy
Focusing on my blessings
Is how I grow, not
Lamenting a loss before memory
I should always be grateful
It is actually harmful to imply
Adoption is inherently traumatic
My adopted family
Is a deeper part of me than
My ancestral heritage
Which will never be part of my life
The bond with my first mother
Does not eclipse
My adopted mother’s love
I have no doubt that
This was God’s Plan A
I can’t imagine how
My life could be better.
[read in reverse, line by line]
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.