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It’s a Journey, Not a Destination

In this post, Kim Jackson shares part of her identity formation journey.

Imagine for a moment that you are filling out a job application when you stumble upon a section that asks you about your race/ethnicity. The question asks you to choose one of the following identities that best describe how you identify:  

  • White (not Hispanic or Latino),
  • Black or African American (not Hispanic or Latino),
  • Hispanic or Latino,
  • Asian (not Hispanic or Latino),
  • American Indian/Alaskan Native (not Hispanic or Latino),
  • Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander (not Hispanic or Latino),
  • Two or more races (not Hispanic or Latino).

For someone who is bicultural/biracial these forms pose a serious challenge. In my experience with such forms, I have always checked “white” instead of “Asian” even though I am from both Korean and white racial backgrounds. For most of my life, I had not considered how my identities develop until I began working at Building Bridges where we integrate racial identity development into our work.

Stages of Biracial Identity Development

Before getting into my “why”, I feel like it is important to first touch on the stages of biracial identity development as proposed by W.S. Carlos Poston.

Stage 1: Personal Identity – This is when one begins to develop their sense of self without relation to ethnic groupings. This generally begins in childhood when the young child is realizing their separateness from their parents; that they are their own personal being.

Stage 2: Choice of group – This stage occurs when a biracial person feels pressured to choose one racial or ethnic identity over another.

Stage 3: Categorization – During this stage, choices are influenced by the status of the group, parental influence, or cultural knowledge.

Stage 4: Enmeshment/denial – This occurs when a person feels guilt or confusion about having to choose an identity that doesn’t necessarily encompass all of their cultural identities, and they may begin to explore identities that they did not acknowledge in stages 2 and 3.

Stage 5: AppreciationThe biracial individual has learned to appreciate their multiple identities.

Stage 6: Integration The biracial individual feels a sense of wholeness and is able to integrate their multiple identities.

My journey of identity development

I grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan in a family of 5. My dad (white), my mom (Transracial Korean-adoptee) and my two younger brothers. A transracial adoption occurs when a child of one racial group is placed for adoption by parents of another racial group. My mom was adopted from Korea when she was around the age of 2 by a white family.

The problem with transracial adoptions is that often, as in the case of my mom, when the adoptive family holds a racial identity different than the adoptee, they raise the child based on their own cultural norms which completely hinders the adoptee’s ability to develop a racial identity based upon their country of origin.

Considering how young my mom was when she was adopted from Korea, she was raised to know and understand the cultural norms and values of a white family. When she met my dad and had children, these were the norms and values they both passed down to us. My identity development, as most others, really began to take shape and understanding when I was a child.  

Going through the education system in the United States, I learned fairly early how others perceived Asians. I was called “chink,” I was made fun of for the way that my eyes are shaped, and I was subjected to comments such as “well, you’re Asian, aren’t you good at math?”

[Image description: A photograph of six eggs in a carton. The middle egg in the front row is brown and has two eyes and a straight line for a mouth drawn on it. The rest of the eggs are white, with the two on either side of the brown egg bearing angry drawn on faces turned toward the brown egg.  Underneath is a quote from Kim's blog post, "It wasn't until much later in my life that I realized that these comments were rooted in racism."]
[Image description: A photograph of six eggs in a carton. The middle egg in the front row is brown and has two eyes and a straight line for a mouth drawn on it. The rest of the eggs are white, with the two on either side of the brown egg bearing angry drawn on faces turned toward the brown egg. Underneath is a quote from Kim’s blog post, “It wasn’t until much later in my life that I realized that these comments were rooted in racism.”]

It wasn’t until much later in my life that I realized that these comments were rooted in racism.

I felt embarrassed to say no. I began to think that if I could not speak Korean, or if I didn’t eat kimchi, or know anything about Korea in general that I shouldn’t be claiming that piece of my identity. I, unlike my brothers, began to cling to my white identity and began identifying myself solely based upon the racial background of my dad.  

As a child, being subjected to such demoralizing and demeaning acts of aggression, whether intended or not, took its toll on how I saw myself in terms of a bi-racial identity. I disassociated myself with anything that had to do with being Asian. I hated when people would ask me about my racial background, and then subsequently ask me about things related to being Korean such as “do you speak Korean?” or “do you like kimchi?”

As an adult, I feel guilty about not knowing more about my all of the pieces of my racial identity. I check the “white” box because from a cultural perspective it is all I have ever known and the one that I most closely identify with. At the same time, I feel like I should invest more time in learning about all of the pieces of my identity.  And I feel like I could be the one to teach my mom about her culture of origin.

I think that what I have realized is that this journey I am on is one that may never be finished.

[Image description: Photograph of a path through a dense, lush forest. The sun is slanting through the trees from the upper right of the image. Superimposed on the image is the quote, “Life is a journey, not a destination. Ralph Waldo Emerson.”]

In my time at Building Bridges I have learned that while I may not have much exposure to my Korean cultural identity, I can still appreciate that I am different and acknowledge my biracial identity. I have learned that I do not have to feel pressured to choose one identity and that my identities intersect in unique, different ways. I have made a commitment to myself to become more educated about all of my identities and how they play a role in my day-to-day life.

Food for thought:

  • How has your relationship to your racial or ethnic identity changed over time?
  • What are some of your earliest memories of your own, or other’s, racial or ethnic difference? How did those early experiences inform your own identity?
  • Why is it important to understand racial identity formation as a process or journey instead of a static reality?

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