Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Note to self: You’re not white!

It turns out that this whole ‘identifying as a minority woman’ deal is easier said than done. There is no switch that suddenly clicks on and you’re all set just like that. No, of course it has to be a process. I’m a social worker—I’m supposed to like this process stuff. And yet. Life has been pretty decent as of late, so I guess I’m due for some internal conflict.

Last week I got an email from my university which, upon first glance, just perplexed me. This spring I am graduating (!) and fully intend on attending the social work ceremony. What I did not count on was an email inviting me to a pre-graduation ceremony honoring the academic achievements of minority students. I had no idea such an event even existed. And then to get invited to said event? Even more unexpected! Why? How? Oh, wait. I’m Asian and last time I checked, that qualifies me as a minority. Fancy that.

I know I’m not alone when I say that, as an adoptee, I did not feel very Korean growing up. Sure, the blood that runs through my veins is Korean, but otherwise, I was culturally not Korean. I identified with my family and friends who were virtually all white. Honestly, I even remember looking at my face in the mirror some days and justifying that I didn’t look ‘that’ Asian, especially once I put my glasses on. In retrospect, my self image was quite distorted. I am undoubtedly Asian, but I grew up in white suburbia legitimately believing myself to have white privilege, even though I didn’t know to call it that at the time. It was easy to forget myself and worse? To not even be bothered by it. For so long, I have only been Korean in theory. Definitely, definitely not in practice.

I’d like to think I’ve changed since those days, but sometimes I’m still that high school girl studying her face in the mirror, needing a reminder of who I am. It is weird coming to identify as a minority when you were raised under the umbrella of white privilege. To an extent, I feel that I was somehow protected from oppression which is the narrative of most if not all racial minority groups. Have I even earned the right to call myself a minority? Maybe it’s not something to be earned. I might not ever know fully what it is to be Asian or white, but I feel like pieces of each are a part of me. Some days having both feels like a strength. Other days I quietly wish I was one or the other. Right now, I don’t know whether or not I will summon the courage to attend that ceremony. If I do, they will present me with a stole to wear for my commencement. Can I wear that stole with pride and confidence? Because that is the only way I will want to wear it. The only way I should wear it.


  1. Great post. I've thought about this a bit myself. Now that might seem weird considering I'm white but being female I've taken note of job postings that encourage identifying oneself as a visible minority which sometimes includes being female. Since I have never felt like a minority being female it always seems it would be kind of dishonest if I took advantage of that option. Also, I can't help but question those who will get a treaty card and take advantage of the financial benefits of that when they are clearly white but happen to have a tinge of say Metis somewhere in their distant background. I really don't know what's ethically correct in these scenarios, if one has to earn the right, but I do love the fact that you're thinking it all through and that whatever you decide to do will be done with pride and confidence in what you are as a person, a Korean person who is adopted.

  2. Have you seen this exhibit? It's terrific. Some of the questions you are mulling over are discussed.

    I'll be posting about it Tuesday. Please drop by.

  3. Thank you for the comment, Campbell! I think our experiences go to show that even defining what it means to be a minority can be complex.. Is it enough to simply *be* a minority? I know I have no sure answers!

    And Michelle, thank you for commenting and sharing that exhibit. It sounds fascinating! Unfortunately it's not coming anywhere near me, but the site itself is still informative. It is striking how race is really a social construction, yet so deeply ingrained into our lives.