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Examining Anti-Blackness in TRA & Asian American Communities

by SunAh Laybourn & Shaaren Pine

Most Asian Adoptees have experienced racism, microaggressions, or “othering” at some point. We are often reminded that we do not belong, whether through assumptions about our nationality, comments about how good we speak English, or invectives to “go back to where we came from!” For many Transracial Adoptees, one of our common shared experiences is feeling like outsiders. It may be difficult to understand how we have access to White privilege or have internalized anti-Blackness.

The majority of us were raised by White families and grew up in predominantly White communities. We often feel comfortable around and accepted by White people.

Because we are well-versed in White culture, we are more palatable to White people and we are often treated as honorary Whites. It was beliefs about Asian assimilability that guided adoption practices in the first place, positioning Asian children as more desirable, docile, and racially flexible.

We live in a White supremacist society and it is impossible to not internalize the implications of this reality. White supremacy is not a feeling that White folks are superior. It is the systems that are in place which maintain and uphold whiteness through centering White people, their experiences, cultures, and needs, while creating unequal access to resources for non-White people. White privilege includes unearned entitlements, things of value that all people should have, such as feeling safe in public spaces, knowing that justice is applied equally, or going to school and being treated as a student who is valued for their contributions.

Despite our best intentions, we internalize messaging that normalizes White dominance through racialized stereotypes, racialized understandings, and racialized interpretations that demean non-Whites and valorize Whites. Because of this internalization, many of us, sometimes unknowingly, are causing harm by being complicit to the oppression of others.

Racism is not just prejudice. It is prejudice, plus power. This is why non-Black People of Color, like Transracial Adoptees, can actively oppress. Given our proximity to whiteness, through transracial adoption into White families and through the maintenance of the model minority myth, and access to resources, we have power. 

What is anti-Blackness?

“If there’s one thing missing in our country, it’s an acknowledgment of the broad humanity of Black folks. Racism—and anti-Black racism in particular—is the belief that there’s something wrong with Black people.”

—Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Council for Democratizing Education defines anti-Blackness as being a two-part formation that both voids Blackness of value, while systematically marginalizing Black people and their issues.

The first form of anti-Blackness is overt racism. This includes hate crimes, lynchings, and racist speech. Beneath this anti-Black racism is the covert structural and systemic racism which categorically predetermines the socioeconomic status of Black people in this country. The structure is held in place by anti-Black policies, institutions, and ideologies.

The second form of anti-Blackness is the unethical disregard for anti-Black institutions and policies. This disregard is the product of class, race, and/or gender privilege that certain individuals experience due to anti-Black institutions and policies. This form of anti-Blackness is protected by the first form of overt racism.

Where do we learn anti-Blackness? Where can we “see” it?

Because anti-Blackness is a part of the system of White supremacy, it is infused throughout multiple aspects of our social world – in policies, law, practices, and attitudes. Throughout history and contemporarily, laws have differentially and negatively affected Black people. Consider that citizenship was originally limited to free, White persons. We can also examine policies throughout U.S. history, such as De jure segregation, redlining, and the multiple levels of the criminal justice system, including the differential application of the law.

We can also see anti-Blackness in our education system. Consider what is and is not taught in schools, whether the minimization or erasure of slavery; the absence of Black people’s contributions to society; or the perpetuation of cultural stereotypes in textbooks.Media, including pop culture, movies, tv, and news, are also sites of anti-Blackness. In this current moment, we are seeing more attention given to state sanctioned violence against Black people via the use of deadly force when police encounter Black citizens.

As I’m writing this and watching the news, anti-Blackness is evident in the framing of the uprisings that are taking place across the country as simply riots and looting and in the explanations of George Floyd’s death, the character assassinations of Ahmaud Arbery, and which protestors the police are targeting for arrest as well as which communities police target for surveillance.

There are multiple arenas where anti-Blackness is perpetuated, but one that is closer to home for many of us is through our family and friends. This can include explicit anti-Black attitudes, or more implicit factors, such as neighborhoods, people, and activities that are actively avoided or disparaged.

Photo by Mike Von on Unsplash

How are we complicit?

We’ve all been there. Sometimes, it’s easier (or safer) to not stand up for Black people. We must recognize our complicity in staying silent. Unfortunately, whether we intend it to be or not, silence is a form of agreement.

But do we go beyond tacit agreement in our complicity?  Do we think things like, “They should have just listened to the police”?  Do we use stigmatizing or micro-aggressive language, such as “ghetto,” “articulate,” “thug”?  Do we subscribe to White cultural norms of behavior as being the “right” way of doing things?  Do we weaponize 911 or use it instead of engaging in face-to-face conversations?

In addition to silence and agreement, do we actively enact anti-Blackness through appropriative acts, such as taking on Black culture or language; through performative allyship - identifying as an ally without doing the work; or through just not thinking things through:

  • Do we whitewash Black activists’ quotes to increase our comfort? For example, sanitizing Martin Luther King, Jr’s activism.

  • Do we post gifs of Black folks that are largely outside our experiences, thereby tokenizing?

  • Are we continuing to benefit from and perpetuate systemic problems by where we choose to live and/or where we choose to send our children to school?

  • Do we act as if Black bodies are for our consumption? Have we ever tried to touch a Black person’s hair?

  • Do we use the N-word? Even in songs?

How do we respond to our complicity?

We have all internalized anti-Black racism simply by living in this world. The problems come when we deny or ignore our complicity. It is difficult to acknowledge our anti-Blackness. We may often feel helpless or a sense of fragility. We may also want to deny the existence of racism since acknowledging it also means acknowledging that we live in a society that is built upon the existence of unequal opportunities and unequal treatment for its citizens. We may also feel resistance to acknowledging our anti-Blackness because it means we will also have to acknowledge how people around us – friends, family, and loved ones – engage in racism.

Even though it may be difficult or uncomfortable to acknowledge and address our anti-Blackness, it is necessary.

It takes hard work, and a willingness to be wrong, to be embarrassed, and to be overwhelmed. The most important part of this work will be the hardest part - not allowing our own feelings of shame, embarrassment, guilt, or fear be centered in the process. We cannot perpetuate White fragility - the counterproductive reactions white people have when discussing racism that serve to protect their positions and maintain racial inequality. The pain of embarrassment is not the same as the pain of our role in another’s oppression.

What can Transracial Adoptees do to address anti-Blackness?

  • Acknowledge White privilege and Asian privilege

  • Do not engage in “Oppression Olympics” - Yes, racism affects all People of Color but it affects each group differently

  • Investigate our own internalized racism

  • Say something! Especially when it comes up in family/TRA community conversations

  • LISTEN to and BELIEVE Black people. Don’t center our own thoughts, feelings, guilt, denial, etc.

  • Hold elected officials accountable

  • Do not allow Black people to be scapegoated

  • Do not use dog whistle or respectability politics 

  • Learn Black History

  • Learn about Asian American activism

  • Support and/or join the protests and uprisings

  • Donate to bail out funds for protestors who have been arrested

Resources for TRAs and Asian Americans to Examine Anti-Blackness

A compilation of anti-racism resources, including information for parents, a list of podcasts, books, and media for self-education, and organizations can be found here:

Black and Asian American feminist solidarities: reading list

Where To Donate

George Floyd Memorial Fund

Reclaim the Block (Minneapolis -organizes Minneapolis community and city council members to move money from the police department into other areas of the city’s budget that truly promote community health and safety.)

Black Visions Collective (Minneapolis - Seeks to expand the power of Black people across the Twin Cities metro area and Minnesota.)

Louisville Community Bail Fund

Mid South Peace & Justice Center - BLM Bail Fund, Memphis

Black Lives Matter

NAACP Legal Defense Fund

For a detailed list of petitions to sign and organizations to donate to, see:

* This blog post is an adaptation of the 2019 KAAN workshop “Examining Anti-Blackness in TRA and Asian American communities” led by SunAh Laybourn and Shaaren Pine.


SunAh Laybourn is a KAAN Advisory Council Member, a podcast producer, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Memphis, and an affiliate faculty member for the Center for Workplace Diversity & Inclusion. Her work examines race, ethnicity, and cross-racial interaction.

Shaaren Pine is a writer, author, and adoptee rights activist. Read her Washington Post op-ed "Please don't tell me I was lucky to be adopted."

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