Our Differences: Let’s Celebrate Instead of Shame

Bullying is far from a childhood rite of passage – it’s a public health issue. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, “one out of every four students (22%) report being bullied during the school year.” With more research reframing bullying as an epidemic infiltrating our education system, it’s no surprise that the Centers for Disease Control and U.S. Department of Educated released a bullying surveillance and prevention report in 2014.

Generally, the targeted student is different from the majority student population by race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, physical disability or cognitive disorder. The common denominator between these bullying incidents is the emotional wounds that negatively impact the delicate shaping of a young child’s identity. While there isn’t enough evidence to cite bullying as the cause of suicide, StopBullying.gov notes that the majority of youth who commit suicide have several risk factors including “emotional distress, exposure to violence, family conflict, relationship problems, lack of connectedness to school, and alcohol and drug use.”

High profile suicides of American youth like 13-year-old Emilie Olsen continue to sensationalize the relationship between bullying and suicide. In December 2014, 13-year-old Emilie Olsen, who was adopted from China at nine months old, shot herself with her father’s gun at home. In an 82-page federal lawsuit against Fairfield City School District, administrators and Emilie’s alleged bullies, the Olsens hold the school district accountable for their daughter’s tragic death. Emilie allegedly experienced online and physical bullying and discrimination because of her race and perceived sexual orientation at Fairfield Intermediate and Middle School in Ohio.

The majority of media reports overlooked Emilie’s transracial adoption experience. Amid the predominantly white student population at her school, Asian American students were allegedly perceived as “too smart” and taunted for their “slanted eyes.” Legal documents revealed that Olsen suffered from depression and self-mutilation, and even asked her parents to dye her hair to resemble her white classmates. Clearly, Emilie wrestled with dual identities as a racial outsider in her hometown.

It is common for transracially adopted children to experience identity challenges – especially in geographic locations where they represent a different race than the majority population. While transracially adopted children may be aware of their physical differences, they still identify with “members of the majority culture due to their adoption.” As discussed in The Donaldson Adoption Institute’s “Beyond Culture Camp: Promoting Healthy Identity Formation in Adoption” report, this transracial adoption paradox entangles youth in an identity web where they often feel as outsiders to their family and peers with no direct connection to one race. Their different skin pigmentation and physical traits prevent transracially adopted children from sharing their feelings openly with their different-race parents and underlying fear that their parents will be upset if they express interest in their biological roots.

Like Emilie and many transracially adopted children, I grew up in a predominantly white town in Long Island. While I couldn’t change (nor desired to) my physical appearance, I did my best to camouflage into my white surroundings. Still, my chameleon-like superpowers did not insulate me from racial discrimination. As a shy third grader in 1992, I experienced my first racial bullying incident by a black child. The student consistently taunted me for my “slanty eyes” by giggling, spewing racial slurs and stretching his eyelids horizontally both in and out of the classroom. Since we represented the few minority children in our elementary school, I secretly hoped we would unite instead of become enemies.

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Heather posing in between a mini golf game with her friends in 1994

Being cast as an outsider and shamed for my eye shape confirmed my worst fear. I became invisible to my fellow students and teachers. I kept my head down as I zigzagged through the hallways. Although I knew the answers to questions in class, I refused to raise my hand and doodled on my notebooks.

Despite the incessant taunting and tear-filled nights, I proudly claimed my Korean heritage. While playing with Barbies in the basement with my sisters, my default choice was my Korean Barbie in her magenta, green and gold Hanbok. When my third grade teacher assigned a report on any country of our choice, I naturally chose South Korea. I quickly dived into the card catalogs of the school library to research the geography, political structure, culture and history of my birth country.

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1988 Korean Barbie Doll

My second exposure to racial bullying occurred in fourth grade. One of my white classmates refused to hold my hand in practice when we gathered in a circle at the end of our immigration play. During the final performance, she finally held my hand in the closing joint circle and quickly released it as the curtains closed on the stage. At that point, I knew my different racial characteristics – not cooties (an imaginary childhood disease) – made her hesitant to hold my hand.

Although I never desired to resemble my parents and siblings, I displayed serious withdrawal and low self-esteem issues. I hid from my peers underneath desks. I hid behind my countless drawings of Disney Princess characters. I also cried in class almost every day. I felt more comfortable confiding in my 4th grade teacher than my parents out of fear that my outsider feelings might hurt them.

This is a common fear among transracially adopted children who are unable to speak with their parents about their inability to unravel their dual identities to both their birth and adoptive countries and shame in racial discrimination events. Parents must understand the importance and become educated in order to create an open and safe environment for their children to effectively communicate their loss of connection to their birth families and cultures and racial dualities.

This includes training from adoption professionals on the proper preventive and adoption-competent therapeutic resources to ensure that racial discrimination does not hinder their identity. DAI’s “Beyond Culture Camp: Promoting Healthy Identity Formation in Adoption” report provides the effective strategies for positive identity formation among transracially adopted children including “lived experiences (managing life as adopted people of color in a predominantly white society),” visiting their native country and attending racially diverse schools.

Our differences must be celebrated rather than shamed. This responsibility falls upon both the parents and schools. Adoption professionals must make it a priority that parents are educated about what it means to be a transracial/transcultural family and what they must do to ensure healthy identity development in their children. Academic institutions must foster a supportive, open and safe environment with diversity and bullying prevention workshops and enforce a written zero tolerance policy towards bullying. In return, each parent must demonstrate a willingness and respect to their child’s country of origin like my mother.

After my first trip to South Korea in 2014, I discovered how my mother honored my heritage in her journal. In preparation for my first birthday on July 4, 1985, my mother researched the significance of the first birthday (dol) in Korean culture and dressed me in a traditional outfit and served fruit and rice cakes.

In a journal entry on my first birthday, my mother shared her commitment to the preservation of my Korean roots:

“I wanted your birthday to be traditional because we think it’s important for you to experience your own culture. It may not be important to you now but when you grow up, I want you to know we respect your culture and want to show that it is just as important to us as it will be for you in the future.”

This is a manifestation of celebrating versus shaming and just one example of how one mother – my mother – made it her business to honor my birth culture.