by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Paula
It is an honor to participate in the dialogue here at Anti-Racist Parent as a columnist. As a Korean adoptee of white parents who is married to a white man with two children – including a daughter who was born unto us and a son who, like me, is adopted from Korea – analyzing, exploring and challenging the implications of how our society and media portrays race and how it affects our sense of self is something that is never far from my mind.
I grew up in the suburbs of St. Paul, Minnesota where I honestly cannot recall ever seeing another person of color; save for the short two months when a fellow Korean American joined my 2nd grade class. It wasn’t until years later, as a 7th grader in junior high school, that I would see another student – or person for that matter – of color. Virtually all of my childhood and adolescence was spent trying to reconcile the tension of feeling like I was a white person trapped inside a Korean girl’s body. Friends, family members and acquaintances alike told me time and time again: “I don’t think of you as Korean (or Asian). I only see Paula. Race really doesn’t matter.” After years of internalizing that repetitive message, I tried in earnest to make myself and others believe that I was just as white (read: just as good) as my peers by denying and dismissing anything to do with my culture, my history and the country of my birth.
Growing up, I did not have the language to describe what I now can aptly identify as white privilege, but even from a very early age, I was acutely aware that my brothers (both of whom are my parents’ biological children) and my parents were afforded certain advantages and preferential treatment by others that simply were not extended to me. Sadly, I eventually found myself becoming accustomed to the fact that many people’s reactions towards me would undergo a radical transformation as soon as they found out I was the daughter of white parents. Miraculously, once in the presence of my white mother or white father, I somehow became immediately visible and worthy of other’s attention. Bearing witness to acts of disparities like this and countless others in my life has no doubt fueled my passion to educate our children to recognize similar incidents for what they really are and to empower them to speak out unapologetically when they or others have been marginalized or dismissed simply because of the color of their skin.
The single most defining experience in my life regarding how I thought about race and my own racial identity was when I packed my bags and moved to New York City. I was 25 years old and armed only with a subway map, my meager life savings and extraordinary dreams. In many different but equally profound ways, Manhattan was the city where I found myself, in my totality, as a Korean American woman. It was also the place where I finally started to accept and even (gasp!) embrace the parts of me that were undeniably and inherently Korean. It was in New York where I finally gave myself permission to truthfully acknowledge how being a person of color had deeply affected my life. For the first time, I felt that I no longer had to pretend or wish to be someone that I wasn’t. Spending time and forging friendships with people from all over the world helped give voice and validation to who I was. Though my husband and I have since moved from the east coast, I hope to provide our children with similar environments that will allow them to welcome and proudly claim their identity in the same way New York City did for me.
As a parent, I have no illusions that our children will be spared from the same scrutiny, the same tired, old racial and ethnic stereotypes and the same acts of discrimination that I was subjected to as a child, and still endure now as an adult. Our daughter, who is half Korean and half Irish, has already had her identity challenged by others who insist on knowing “what kind of mix” she is. I spend a great deal of time wondering if she will feel displaced for feeling neither Korean enough or white enough and even more time investing in giving her the words and the tools to instill a strong sense of self, especially as it pertains to her racial identity. Candid, age appropriate conversations with her about race are regular occurrences in our home. Our son, who is almost three years old, is already well aware of his own physical appearance, and has been for several months. Anytime he sees another Asian he will proudly proclaim to his father and me, “Look! Another boy (or girl) like me! Like me!” Already my husband and I are preparing ourselves to help him identify and address the labels and stereotypes that will no doubt be assigned to him simply because of his status as an Asian male.
Like most parents, I wish for our children to be strong, confident individuals who are proud to be in the skin they’re in. I feel one of the best ways to achieve this is to generate and encourage authentic conversations that validates their experiences, their thoughts and their feelings, especially as it pertains to race consciousness. I look forward to learning from all of those here who are willing and active participants in this critical and necessary dialogue.
Paula was born in Seoul, South Korea and adopted as an infant into her family in 1971. She and her husband, Sean, have two children; a five year-old daughter and a son who is almost three. Paula currently is a full-time mom, part-time volunteer for various social justice organizations and is also a licensed elementary and middle school math teacher. She blogs about her experiences as a transracial adoptee and adoptive parent at Heart, Mind and Seoul.