Humanizing Asians in popular culture will provide racial mirrors for those of us unlucky enough to lack them.

Im not a singer, I’m not a consumer of pop culture, and I’m definitely not that into music. But when I watched this kid’s amazing rendition of Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up,” I was taken not just by 13-year-old Jeffrey Li’s unquestionable talent but by something else completely.

Through my work as a transracial Korean adoptee, I write a lot about racial mirroring and its importance for children of color. Without families or communities resembling them, many Asian adoptees grow up insecure about, ambivalent toward, or hating everything that makes them Asian, all characteristics–like their adoptions–completely out of their control. Unsurprisingly and without remediation, such attitudes become deeply ingrained in children who grow into adults with complex racial identities.

As I kept pushing replay on Li’s video, though, racial mirroring wasn’t on my mind–until I discovered my interest wasn’t caused by Li’s goosebump-inducing vocals. Instead, for the first time i’n my parenting life, I realized I was watching a young boy on a stage and unconsciously thinking, “Damn. That could be my son up there.”

The parents’ pride, mixed with his dad’s classic “Oh, shit” reaction to Simon Cowell’s promise of a puppy, was a monumental moment for me as a Korean adoptee raised white. I recognized that racial mirroring isn’t just about the kid looking like his parents; it’s about the parents feeling secure in their reflection of their child back at them.


“Oh great, a puppy!”

“WTF I’m gonna punch that Simon dude.”

 


In adoption, however, white parents struggle to relate to their child’s race, for better or worse. A wide selection of transracial adoption writing focuses on a parent’s sudden battle with an unhappy (ungrateful?) adoptee. The adoptee is likely facing an unarticulated racial identity crisis misunderstood by his white parents. In his parents, he sees reflected not an image of himself but a family disappointed by his behavior and, according to one study, their overall dissatisfaction with him.

Spinning this back Li’s video, Asian adoptees-turned-parents can see what happens when the mishmash of transracial adoption is absent. Once transracial adoptees become parents, what racial mirror do we reflect back to our children? Do we pass on pride in our appearance and culture, or shame in our Asianness and stolen heritage? Or do we continue denying our confusion, never accepting that transracial adoption sometimes removes us from where we’d really belong?

With the Li video, Simon Cowell’s interaction with Jeffrey–particularly with the questions Simon asked and Jeffrey’s responses–struck me. The kid’s Asianness was never discussed, as Simon was clearly seeing the kid as a singer, not a singer because he’s Asian. That’s where we need to be as a society and as a culture. If we’re going to achieve racial parity, we require consistent media representation, showing us as equals.

Interestingly, if Li presented as an Asian adoptee, the discussion would not be on his success but on his parents’ overcoming of racial boundaries. “How brave they were for taking in a child not of their own race!” reporters would coo, while the child’s remained objectified for both his his Asianness and adoptee status. There’d be no doubt he’d be asked about adoption before singing a note, making him an adopted Asian singer, not just a singer.

For those still insisting color doesn’t matter–especially in transracial adoption–imagine what happens if you find yourself in a situation where you are the outsider and desperately seek camaraderie. Not finding it at home, you turn to books, television, or your community.

Lacking anything resembling you or your conflict, you eventually turn a societal poison inward, thinking those haters were right: You, indeed, are too sensitive and ugly. One day, you see a video like Li’s and you begin questioning your family’s dynamic. Is their genuine love keeping you from a racial security you deserve?

“I have Simon Cowell to thank for giving me new insights on race, adoption, and parenting”

There might be a fix. Despite the push for Asian American mainstream representation, there’s perhaps a more pressing need for public depictions of entire Asian families–particularly the youth. In a country still dominated by white media, we have no models for racial normalization, nothing to show us that we’re not alone. Humanizing Asians in popular culture will provide racial mirrors for those of us unlucky enough to lack them.

If you’re an adoptee parent, I urge consideration of your own lack of racial mirrors and how it’s impacting your family. Just like whites who raised us, Asians need representation in every space we occupy and in every life stage we experience. As much as society needs to view us as people, not foreigners, we need to see ourselves that way, too.

Strangely, I have Simon Cowell to thank for giving me new insights on race, adoption, and parenting. I remain tentatively hopeful we’ll continue seeing Asians represented as every day, relatable people, the same way we’ve been forced to relate to whites as our normal. No matter how long it takes, though, we’ll keep chipping away at our unrelenting status as perpetual foreigners in yes, our own countries.

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