Asian adoptees raised in the U.S. describe the challenges of forging a racial identity

Julia Munslow
·Editor
·8-min read

Last week, Cherokee County, Ga., Sheriff’s Office Capt. Jay Baker drew the ire of the Asian American community when he described the suspect in the March 16 killings of eight people, including six Asian women, as having had “a really bad day.”

While Baker’s comments prompted his superiors to issue an apology for what was deemed an insensitive and, to some, racist depiction of the horrific crimes, Cherokee Sheriff Frank Reynolds noted Baker’s “personal ties to the Asian community.” Baker’s older brother Anthony, who is now a superior court judge, had, it turned out, been adopted from Vietnam.

Neither Baker brother provided comment to Yahoo News, but in a January article in Enjoy Cherokee magazine, Jay Baker reflected on the addition of Anthony, who goes by Tony, to the family.

“Adopting a child is a huge responsibility, and at the time, I certainly didn’t understand the magnitude of what my parents agreed to do,” Baker said. “I now know how blessed I was to be born to Elliott and Ginnie Baker and how remarkably fortunate Tony was to find his way around the world into our home.”

Yet Baker’s press conference performance, as well as the revelation that he had posted photos of T-shirts describing COVID-19 as being the “imported virus from Chy-Na,” illustrate a difficult reality faced by Asian adoptees raised in the United States: They are often seen as too white to be Asian and too Asian to be white.

Yahoo News spoke to 10 Asian adoptees in the U.S. with white parents, who say the rise in anti-Asian hate and the recent Atlanta spa shootings have led to a harsh awakening to the realities of their racial identities. Since the start of the pandemic, they’ve grappled with what they perceive to be a slow but persistent rise in anti-Asian sentiment. Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit that tracks racially motivated attacks on Asian Americans, said that between March 2020 and February 2021, 3,795 incidents of racially motivated attacks against Asian Americans were reported in the U.S. Near-daily headlines of such incidents have served to increase fear in the broader Asian American community.

Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office during a press conference at the Atlanta Police Department Headquarters on March 17. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office during a press conference at Atlanta Police Department headquarters on March 17. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

“I truly do think [my mom] doesn't see [my sister and me] as different as her in terms of skin tone and race,” said Rita, a Chinese American adoptee in Atlanta who asked to be identified by just her first name out of safety concerns. “But … there’s so much of our cultural history that she’s not willing to open herself up to.”

Rita lives down the street from Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa, two of the Atlanta businesses where the killings took place. After she posted about the incident on Instagram, her mom asked her if she wanted to leave Atlanta and come home to be safe. Despite her mother’s concern, Rita said her attempts to discuss anti-Asian discrimination with her mother have strained their relationship. She has tried to broach the subject several times, she said, but lately has been feeling as though the conversations aren’t progressing.

In November, Rita, concerned about the increasing number of anti-Asian attacks, asked, “Mom, what would happen if I was one of those people who got attacked?”

“Good thing it wasn’t you,” her mom replied.

The majority of adoptive parents in the U.S. are “white, older, well-educated and relatively affluent,” according to an Institute for Family Studies report. In the days since the Atlanta shootings, the adoptees who spoke with Yahoo News said they’ve been feeling frustrated and isolated when trying to explain their grief and outrage to their families.

Aramotherapy Spa, one of three Atlanta locations where deadly shootings took place last week. (Chris Aluka Berry for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Aramotherapy Spa, one of three Atlanta locations where deadly shootings took place last week. (Chris Aluka Berry for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

After the shootings, Patrick Armstrong, a 31-year-old Korean American adoptee, turned to social media to grieve with others in the broader Asian community. But for Asian adoptees raised by white parents there is an added complexity, Armstrong said, because of the pervasive feeling that their personal ties to the white community make them too whitewashed for Asian spaces. One adoptee recalled being taunted as a “yellow Oreo”: Asian on the outside, but white on the inside.

So Armstrong, who hosts a podcast about adoption, began hosting Clubhouse rooms specifically for adoptees, where many said their parents weren’t reaching out to them after the Atlanta shootings. Many adoptees who spoke to Yahoo News said they were the ones to initiate conversations about anti-Asian hate with their parents. For some, even if their parents responded positively, the lack of contact led to intense feelings of loneliness.

“I’m not in a space yet where I think I can explore [race] with my parents, who I love dearly,” said Maria Robinson, a 33-year-old Massachusetts state representative who was adopted from South Korea. “It’s just a tough conversation to have because — not because I think they'll be cruel about it or anything — it’s more of the not understanding that’s really hard, and not wanting to put myself out there, to have my concerns brushed off.”

When Robinson told her mother about the Atlanta shootings, her mother said, “Oh, that’s so awful,” and then the conversation moved on. “We’ve had much longer conversations about who’s marrying whom back home,” Robinson said.

While Baker described his adopted brother Tony as an “instant playmate and friend," Deborah Johnson, a social worker who works with adoptive families and is herself an adoptee from South Korea, believes a close sibling relationship with a person of color doesn’t mean an individual isn't racist.

"Some really racist people have people of color [as] siblings, and they really believe they can say or do whatever they want and get a pass because of their proximity to a person of color," Johnson said.

Patrick Armstrong now, and as a baby with his adopted parents. (Courtesy of Patrick Armstrong)
Patrick Armstrong now, and as a baby with his adoptive parents. (Courtesy of Patrick Armstrong)

According to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, people of the same ethnicity who share what it’s like to be part of that group can act as biological mirrors for adoptees, which helps them understand and embrace their racial identity.

As a child, Armstrong prayed to God to make him white, like his family. “Why did you make me Asian?” he asked. But as much as he tried to make other people understand he didn’t want to be Asian — making racist jokes before others could, or laughing off microaggressions — he was still viewed as Asian.

“I didn’t think about being Asian when I was growing up,” said Armstrong. “It didn’t affect me until I started … realizing people, when they see me, they see me as an Asian man.”

Adoptees don’t always view themselves as people of color. Rather than “that Asian girl,” the adoptee becomes “so-and-so’s daughter,” according to Johnson. But the divisive political climate has caused the “soft gray area” of identity to vanish, she said.

“There’s these newly awakened adoptees who are either for the first time experiencing verbal harassment or physical assault, whether they’re young or whether they’re just now conscious of 'that's what this is about' because they’re seeing it in social media,” Johnson said.

Adoptees not only have to contend with the "model minority" myth, but they are used as the prime example of the assimilated Asian American, Armstrong said, propped up against the broader Asian community.

“We’re also carrying the false narrative of adoption ... that we have to be good, we have to be well-adjusted and good-natured,” Armstrong said.

Supporters of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community demonstrate after the spa shootings in Atlanta. (Robin Rayne/ZUMA Wire)
Supporters of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community demonstrate after the spa shootings in Atlanta. (Robin Rayne/ZUMA Wire)

Johnson advises adoptive parents to be allies to their children and validate their concerns. “It doesn’t take a lot to say, ‘I don’t really understand what’s going on, but I see that it is causing you pain, and I’m here for that because you’re my kid,’” she said.

Above all, she urges compassion. Conversations about race can be difficult for adoptees, who aren’t always equipped to talk about race, as well as for their parents, who can’t understand being a person of color and don't want to witness their child being hurt.

Tony Baker’s biological mother had feared that her son, the child of a Vietnamese woman and an American man, would suffer discrimination in Vietnam, and sent him to the U.S. for safety.

Although Tony arrived at the Baker household traumatized by the dislocation, he eventually committed to the family, and later in his career he even returned to Canton, Ga., to practice law alongside his father, Elliott. “I’m a person who doesn’t look back,” he told Enjoy Cherokee magazine.

But as many Asian adoptees raised by white families search to define their identity by returning to the countries of their birth, there’s no guarantee that doing so will help them reach their goal.

“There are people who look like your parents saying and doing horrible things to people who look like us,” Johnson said. “How do we reconcile that our parents were the face of the oppressor?”

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