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I am not confused: A transracial adoptee’s reflections on the confines of racial categories

March 5, 2018 Aeriel Ashlee Miami University-Ohio

I am not confused about where I belong. Rather, I am not content with the confines of my cage.

Imagine a bird that has gotten out of its cage.

What could be possible if we thought of that bird as brilliant and brave, rather than admonish her for being disobedient?

I am transracial; I am a transracial adoptee. I am most regularly read as monoracially Asian. Yet I most intimately resonate with theories and models of multiracial identity (Harris, 2016; Johnston & Nadal, 2010; Johnston-Guerrero & Pecero, 2016; Renn, 2000, 2003, 2008; Wijeyesinghe, 2001). This has made for a complicated hybrid racial identity; one that lingers in the liminal space between Asianness and Whiteness. For most of my life, I was made to feel that my racial complexity was incoherent and problematically ambiguous. Finally, in my early 30s, after years of studying the social construction of race and racial identity development and formation (and after a few years of therapy), I have my own two cents to share. The messy way (Johnston-Guerrero, 2016) I experience race does not mean that I am lesser developed or worse off. My racialized experience simply means (although not simply experienced) that I do not fit into the rigid racial categories society currently maintains. I may defy racial norms, but I am not derelict. I am not lost or confused. While I realize that my racial experience may make others uncomfortable, I refuse to be minimized by their criticism. Their thinking small, will not limit my expansive potential.

This is a manifesto, a public declaration of my commitment as a student affairs educator and researcher to shift from viewing students who do not neatly fit within existing racial categories as deviations from the racial norm (e.g., transracial adoptees and multiracial people); and to instead consider them brilliant racial border crossers and theory expanders. Rather than judge those who do not meet my racial standards and expectations as misfits or anomalies, I will be open to the insights they might provide about the nuances of racial identity. I will not measure these students against the racial boundaries they break, but instead by the brilliant ways they expand my thinking about what any given racial category could or should be; does or does not include. These students are not race traitors. They are race transgressors and are powerfully and boldy living beyond society’s dictates.

Does this expansive approach to racial identity complicate how race is enacted in society? Yes. If we are willing to entertain more fluid conceptions of racial categories, then, in turn this will mean we will also likely experience greater difficulty when trying to put people into racial groups. This is the threat of post-racialism; the false idea that we have somehow surpassed racism and so race itself no longer exists. This is not what I am advocating. I wholeheartedly believe, and have experienced firsthand, racism to be a central power in everyday life. But, if we can agree that race is socially constructed, then why is it so hard to imagine that the very categories that have been created by society can change? Why are we so averse to exploring what it might mean to stretch and bend the racial categories that are presently familiar? Why are we so afraid to escape from our birdcage? Why do we blindly adhere to the same categories that serve as the source of so much oppression and pain? Do we really think that blurring the racial lines ascribed by society will somehow wreak havoc on the existing social order? In truth, would that really be so bad considering the existing system is upheld to enforce white supremacy and monoracism?

This expansive approach to racial identity can have profound impact on how we relate to and understand people, but it can also be taken advantage of. For instance, when expansive approaches to racial identity are undertaken to pivot away from acknowledging racial privilege. [This is not the focus of this post, but in case you want to know more about the co-optation of “transracial” in the case of Rachel Dolezal or how being transracial is real, but not what racist White people claim it is check out these resources]. I know what it is to feel like a caged bird; restricted by the racial expectations and assumptions others project onto me. As a student affairs educator and scholar, I will not conform to or perpetuate for others this confining and reductive mindset. I am of both Asian and White racializations. This may be a challenge for others to initially understand, but existing in a culture and society that deems my lived experience a racial aberration is also challenging. So I will say it again, loud and proud: I am not confused. I am expansive.

To read other narratives of transracial adoptees in student affairs, check out past MRKC blog posts by Christopher Pheneger and Hing Potter.

About the Author: Aeriel A. Ashlee (she/her/hers) is a third-year doctoral candidate in the Student Affairs in Higher Education program at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Adopted from Seoul, South Korea into a White family from Minnesota, USA, Aeriel’s own transracial Asian American adoptee identity and experience serves as the catalyst for much of her research. Aeriel’s dissertation explores the racialized experiences of transracial Asian American adoptees in college; specifically examining how Asian American college students raised in and by White adoptive families describe and make sense of their race in college. Aeriel is co-founder of Ashlee Consulting LLC, serves on the Advisory Board for the Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network, and in 2016 co-created the Transracial Adoptees in Higher Education Collective, which now includes more than 100 members.


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