Invisibility Amongst the Invisible

Back of a female-identified person holding a flower behind her back. She has shoulder length black hair. She is wearing a black and white dress, in front of a background that matches.

As an infant, I was adopted from Korea and brought to live with my white parents in rural Wisconsin. Growing up in this white community, I was taught the myth of assimilation and colorblindness. While never explicitly stated, I quickly learned to fit in, to not discuss race, and to understand that I was just like everyone else. The belief when I was growing up was that assimilation would keep me from experiencing racism. This belief in assimilation was further perpetuated by friends and adults in my life telling me “I don’t see you as really Asian”, as if to celebrate my ability to fit in. I, too, came to see this as something to be proud of.

Looking back, I am not surprised that I developed internalized oppression. I can see the ways it impacted my childhood at a young age. I was one of about six children adopted from Korea around the same time, and we were playmates while we were in diapers. But as we grew, we quickly began to forge our own ways. I distanced myself from them for fear that we would be labeled “the Asian kids” and viewed as weird outsiders. This distancing continued well into college, where I avoided other Asian students for the same reason. I often found myself tense up around Asian foreign exchange students, afraid I would be viewed as “one of them.” This need to distance myself was so strong that I didn’t go to a Chinese buffet or out to sushi until my senior year of college- as I was terrified that someone would make an uncomfortable joke or recognize that I was “one of them.”

A group of Asian teen girls looking at one girl on the left. The girl they are looking at has her arm bent and is looking up.
The “Cool Asians” from Mean Girls (2004)

As I began to gain confidence in myself and understand the world in racial terms, my relationship with other Asians became even more complex. Rather than avoiding other Asians because I didn’t want to be seen as “one of them”, I now began to avoid other Asians because I was afraid I wouldn’t be seen as “one of them.” Despite how much I was drawn to other Asians with the hopes of catching a glimpse of something that was familiar, I was also terrified of what they would see. I was sure that they would see right through me, and recognize that I wasn’t “a real Asian.” Suddenly, the statement “I don’t see you as really Asian” that was once such a compliment, now worked to add to my shame. This is termed “racial imposter syndrome,” and it explains the constant fear that you “aren’t enough”. This is often felt when one’s racial heritage doesn’t match the stereotype- for instance, the Black child who grew up in a rich suburb, the Latinx kid who can’t speak Spanish, or the gay youth who didn’t have a difficult coming-out story. Often adopted children experience this because of the lack nuance they see in their racial identity, mixed with the misalignment between stereotypes and their experience. For instance, I held the same one dimensional stereotypes of Asian women that we see in the media.

Female identified Asian woman with a mask in her right hand of a face.

For me, my racial imposter syndrome bubbled up when I thought of all of the experiences I had lacked. I didn’t have an immigrant story, my parents didn’t have an accent, I didn’t have a “Tiger mom”, I wasn’t good at math, I wasn’t quiet and submissive, and I hated kimchi. While many other Koreans likely have these things in common with me, I missed this complexity because of stereotypes that led to my lack of nuance in my identity.

This racial imposter syndrome, mixed with the unconscious belief that “assimilation would keep me from experiencing racism” kept me from recognizing the way that race impacted my life. I easily brushed off microaggressions around “where are you really from” and “I really like Asian girls” as annoying, but not truly acts of racism, because I wasn’t really Asian.

On March 16, 2021, the Atlanta Anti-Asian hate crime happened. A gunman, whom I will not name, intentionally went to three different Asian-run day spas and killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women. And many of those Asian women were Korean, like me.

I struggled to place my feelings around it- I wasn’t an immigrant and it wouldn’t happen to me here in my neat little suburban neighborhood. I went on a walk to clear my head and gain some clarity. And then, as I reached the furthest destination and turned around to head home, I noticed a car coming towards me. And suddenly, my gut told me how I felt. I stepped into the snowbank, quickly making space between myself and the car. My shoe and my pant leg got soaked. The driver passed slowly, smiled, and waved. There was nothing to fear, it was just someone passing me in a car. At that moment, I realized what I had known all along- I was Asian and I was read as Asian. A racist wouldn’t know that I grew up in a white neighborhood, that I didn’t know anything about my heritage, or that I wasn’t “one of those” Asians. Rather, I was Asian, and that’s all they would see. In fact, that’s all anyone would see. Regardless of how I saw myself, everyone else saw me as Asian.

Or nearly everyone else. My husband, a white man who has progressive values, didn’t say anything about the hate crime. He mentioned it in passing, as if to be commenting on news so unrelated to us that it didn’t need a pause. He fell into the same unconscious belief system as my parents- that my assimilation protects me from racism and random acts of violence like what happened in Atlanta. My parents didn’t call to see how I was doing. And my white, liberal, race-conscious friends didn’t check in for a few days. It isn’t that they didn’t care about me. In fact, I got three check-in texts in a matter of minutes as news broke about the Boulder shooting only six days later. It wasn’t that they didn’t care, they simply “didn’t see me as Asian.”

As I talked with other Korean adoptees, our stories were similar. Rarely did parents check in. Rarely did our partners check in with how we were doing, or even recognize that we saw ourselves in the victims of the shooting. And often, there was a belief that “this couldn’t happen here.”

Picture of a picturesque row of houses with a blue sky background and lots of green trees. There are white picket fences in front of the houses.

A big conversation in the media after the Atlanta anti-Asian hate crime happened was around the invisibility of violence against Asians. We as a nation have been aware that crimes against Asians have gone up exponentially since COVID-19, when politicians used racist rhetoric about “Kung Flu,” “China Virus,” and suggested that the Chinese intentionally made it in a lab. And yet, these crimes have been silently experienced, with the crimes viewed as singular and random acts of violence, and not part of a racist epidemic.

Finally, this anti-Asian sentiment is getting media attention. Unfortunately, it took a tragic and violent shooting (and even now there is no consensus on if it was in fact a hate crime), but at least the pattern is being discussed. But in the discussion, the focus is on the stereotypic depiction of Asian women- those whose names the majority of Americans can’t pronounce, immigrants from “some Asian country”, in a nail salon with a neon sign. It leaves out Asian women who don’t fit that stereotype- those of us who are Indian, who are multiracial, who are 3rd or 4th or 5th generation, and those of us who (like me) are adopted. We are the invisible amongst the invisible- and yet we still carry the burden of being viewed as Asian women.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Hannah Matthys

Hannah Matthys uses her multicultural background as foundation to make Equity Diversity and Inclusion concepts accessible. Learn more here: bebravediversity.com