Ask Lisa: Coming Out Racially

Every Thursday Multiracial Media brings you "Advice for the Multiracial Community," which will address itself to issues confronting those in the Multiracial Community. Our advice columnist is Lisa Rosenberg, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice since 1999. Lisa is multiracial—black/white—and specializes in counseling multiracial families, couples and individuals including issues related to transracial adoption.

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Coming Out Racially

When a young adult adoptee embraces her Asian identity, her white girlfriend balks at her choice of “Coming Out Racially.”

Dear Lisa,

Please help me! My anger toward white people is ruining my relationship! I am 20 years old, cis/queer, she/her, born in Korea, adopted and raised by a white family. When I met my girlfriend, who is also white, we were both coming out and helped one another accept and understand our sexuality, which really brought us together. Now I’m coming out racially—as a woman of color.

Growing up, I hardly thought about race beyond wishing I looked like all the white people in my small, Midwestern town and school (Ok, so I guess I did think about race somewhat). My parents always told me that being Asian was “close to white,” so I was not really a different race from them. To my parents’ credit, they offered to send me on a Homeland visit when I turned eighteen, but I said no. Really, I was afraid of how it would feel to be surrounded by people who looked like me. At home it was easier to think of myself as just a different-looking white person.

But being away from my family, starting college during the Black Lives Matter Movement, I have become much more aware of racial issues. Talking to my Black, Latinx and Asian friends helped me see that I’m not “almost the same as white” at all. Last semester I took an African American Studies class and now I see racism and oppression practically everywhere.

I am angry looking back at how many years I swallowed my feelings when people complimented me on my English, expected me to be good at Math (I’m not), or called me a “China Doll.” I don’t mean to blame my girlfriend—who has yet to come out to her conservative family and knows what it is to be marginalized. But it bothers me that she doesn’t understand why people make a deal about race. I recommend books to her about racial oppression and white privilege, but she says I am forcing us apart by focusing on our differences. I know I am pushing the woman I love away. How do I control my feelings and stop blaming her?

Going Crazy

Dear Going,

It seems to me that there are two pieces to your dilemma. One involves your relationship with your girlfriend. The other—the bigger and more important piece, in my opinion—involves your parents and your process of “coming out racially.” Most transracial adoptive parents are more aware of the need to support their children’s full identity. It is possible that yours did not receive the pre-adoption counseling most agencies insist on. In any case, you grew up internalizing your parents’ belief that Asian is “close to white,” which left you searching for an affirmative identity. When you are “close” to something, it means you are not that thing. You can aspire to be that thing—in this case, white—but you don’t get valued for being your own thing.

When you recognized your sexual orientation, I imagine that your self-concept evolved until you could accept and value who you really were. Maybe you were never straight, but since our society is hetero-centric, your identity formed in relationship to straightness. This process is the same with coming out racially. You’ve never been white, but you were taught to see yourself in terms of whiteness. Many multiracial people who were raised to idealize whiteness go through a similar awakening: shedding dominant culture mores and embracing their “other side,” ultimately claiming all of themselves. As the pendulum swings, it is normal to be angry. It can feel as if everything you understood about yourself and the world is being shaken.

Just remember that every young person—gay, straight, Asian, black, white, multiracial, adopted or not—must discover who they are in the context of a world apart from their parents’ home. You are fortunate to have reached this amazing stage in college, surrounded by resources to nurture your quest. It is a beautiful thing that you are reading, searching, and experimenting and I hope you keep it up.

By Coming Out Racially, You are Saying, “I Don’t Fit in That Box Anymore. This is Who I Am.”

What it all means for you may change as you add years and experience. Let that be okay. Keep learning and growing.

Regarding your girlfriend, it is understandable that she is taken aback by your growth. She thought you were on the same journey, challenging as it was. But now, you’ve found an additional, unexpected path that doesn’t include her. What is the tone of your conversations about race? You describe yourself as being angry at all white people, so I wonder if you are verbally lashing out at her and if she is getting defensive. If so, I cannot imagine that these are fruitful discussions. If you really want her to understand where you are coming from, which she must do for this relationship to last, you’ll need to adjust your approach.

Many people of color grow weary explaining race issues to white colleagues, friends and family members, but this material is still new and fresh to you. Don’t blame your girlfriend for not knowing what you are just beginning to learn yourself. Instead, try to be patient and explain to her why racial identity means so much to you. Since you were raised in a multiracial family, almost any relationship you have will require some cross-cultural competency.

Explain That You’re Coming Out Racially, Just as You Did in Terms of Orientation

Engage her in conversations, hand pick articles and blog posts you think will pique her interest. But do be aware: if she resists hearing you out or reading any of what you recommend, this relationship may not be right for who you are now.

Lastly, I would encourage you to engage your parents. Be clear with them about how you feel, but avoid going on the attack, or you may risk not being heard. Be prepared: they may be slow to understand and accept what you are saying, but I believe including them will be an important step in coming out racially. I wish you the best.

The advice offered in this Advice for the Multiracial Community column is intended for informational purposes only. Use of this column is not intended to replace or substitute for any professional advice. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist.

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