Why the Anti-Asian Murders in Atlanta are so Distressing for Adoptees of Color

SAPCA
8 min readApr 1, 2021

It’s been two weeks since the horrific murder of eight people near Atlanta, Georgia, six of whom were Asian women. Since then more anti-Asian hate crimes have occurred. Asian and Asian American communities are still talking about it. Asian adoptee communities are talking about it, and so are BIPOC progressive allies. But did adoptive parents, adoption agencies, and U.S. liberal America get the memo that our communities are angered, hurt, and distressed?

We are enraged not only by the murders but also the media coverage and discussions (and lack of discussion) that have ensued. While not all of the Asian women who were killed were massage (and possible sex) workers, the fact remains that Asian spas were targeted, and this must be understood in the larger historical context of Asian sex work in the U.S. that has long been fetishized yet criminalized because of the ways it has been racialized, gendered, sexualized, and classed.

The news media — parroting law enforcement officials — continually reported the murderer’s reasoning — that it was not “racially motivated” but due to his desire to “eliminate” his sex addiction. This did little to help us understand the complex and intersectional nature of what happened and why it was so disturbing for Asian, Asian American, and Asian American adoptee communities.

These murders and violence affect adoptees of color in general and Asian adoptees in particular because we are also targets of racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination. Being mostly adopted by White parents, we have experienced, to a small degree, the benefits of proximity to whiteness (e.g., not seen as an immediate threat or outsider when accompanied by our white adoptive parents). Nevertheless, we have felt the sting of white supremacy up close, both subtle and explicit. We often face such harm without the protective factors of cultural socialization practices that would prepare, buffer, and mitigate, hopefully, the damaging effects of racism. Worse, we may be targets of racism within our own adoptive families. One Chinese adult adoptee who was born in Wuhan, China shared (on the condition of anonymity) that since the pandemic her adoptive parents have begun referring to her as “the China virus” instead of using her name. Being a transracial adoptive family is not the equivalent of an anti-racist family.

Last November we highlighted the default anti-racist narrative surrounding Amy Coney Barrett because of her transracial adoptive parent status. Similarly, we draw attention to former Capt. Jay Baker, the now removed Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson who infamously described the Georgia murderer as having a “bad day,” and promoted racist t-shirts on Facebook that read, “Covid 19 Imported Virus From Chy-na.” What is not as well known, is Baker’s personal connection to transracial adoption through his brother, adopted from Vietnam. Baker’s proximity to Asian people, through his adopted brother, did not exempt him from racist beliefs and behaviors. Transracial adoptees may achieve “honorary White status” within their adoptive families, however, it does not shield them from experiences of isolation, within their adoptive families and cultural communities, when confronted with racism and other types of discrimination.

The fetishization of Asian women specifically hits close to home for Asian female adoptees, whose experiences have been shaped by their racialized and sexualized bodies. The thought for many is, “that could have been me.” The violence that happened in Georgia has roots in the 1875 Page Act. It was the first restrictive federal immigration law that effectively prohibited women from “China, Japan, or any Oriental country,” whose labor was for “lewd and immoral purposes” or “prostitution,” from entering the United States. As Eithne Luibhéid explains, the Page Law designated certain undesirable immigrants (e.g. convicts, contract laborers, and prostitutes), but primarily targeted Asian women prostitutes even as women from other nations were also engaged in this form of labor. From this, Asian women were socially constructed in a contradictory fashion — as exotically submissive and desirable on the one hand yet diseased, deviant, and unassimilable aliens who threatened racial purity, making them unwelcomed on the other hand. Thus, Asian women (and later Asian men) were reviled, dehumanized, and excluded because of their race, gender, sexuality, and labor.

The racial and sexual social construction of Asian women continued to be built in the context of U.S. military imperialism in Asian countries such as the Philippines, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Indeed, U.S. involvement abroad produced dire conditions for Asian mothers and families who relinquished their children for adoption to the United States, many of which were mixed-race from the relationship between Asian women and American GIs. Cultural representations such as Madama Butterfly (opera 1904), Miss Saigon (musical 1989), and The World of Suzie Wong (film 1960) portray Asian women as the self-sacrificing “lotus blossom” who are submissive sex objects. (All three Asian female characters are orphans, and the former two relinquish their child to their U.S. “husbands” before committing suicide.) At the other end are representations of Asian women as a dragon lady — sexual, cunning, and dangerous — such as Anna May Wong in The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and Daughter of the Dragon (1931). Films like Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) present both the sexy geisha and dragon lady.

These ideas of Asian womanhood persist today. Asian women — including Asian adoptees — are presented with expectations of exotic sexuality and submissiveness throughout their lives. When they refuse to meet those expectations, there is a very real fear that they could be deemed a dragon lady, i.e. a sexual threat that needs to be dominated, or murdered as was the case in Georgia. This continued reality is why we are so troubled by the Georgia violence and the inability to understand the intersecting nature of it.

Religion is another component of this violence. The perpetrator in the Georgia killing spree proclaimed to be a devout Christian and wished to eliminate temptation caused by his “sex addition.” But it is not just the moralization against sex outside heterosexual marriage that troubles us. Evangelical Christianity, the kind associated with Crabapple First Baptist Church that the killer belonged to, has a long, complicated history with adoption, in particular with transracial and transnational adoption. Following the armistice of the Korean War, Harry and Bertha Holt, an Evangelical Christian couple in Oregon, established Holt International in 1956 to physically and spiritually “save” Korean children.

Since then, Evangelical Christian groups have turned to adoption to “rescue” children from an “immoral” or “bad” future of a prostitute birth mother, assuming a role as the child’s “savior.” In other words, Christianity has perpetuated racist beliefs about non-Western countries as uncivilized and dominated by patriarchy (as if that were not a systemic issue in the United States). This fervent coupling of belief and action has led to a global industry so rife with unethical and illegal practices that sending countries have instituted transnational adoption moratoriums and even the Netherlands has suspended such adoptions, citing abuses and child trafficking.

One of the main issues we have as adoptee professionals of color is the way Evangelical Christianity has oftentimes at best ignored racial violence and at worst been used to justify racism, criminalize sex work, or the reject non-white immigrants and refugees, while offering color-unware, self-congratulation for “saving” overseas “orphans.” The cognitive dissonance between “we love you” but “we do not love your people or people who look like you” deeply affects our psyche and emotional well being as well as the communities that are targeted. This approach to ignoring how race and gender affect transnational adoptees has produced yet another moment where transnational adoptees, Asian adoptees specifically, are wondering: Do my parents and family even realize how and why this affects me?

Yet, the phenomenon of racial ignorance and apathy is not limited to conservatives. Kimberly McKee offers insight into how many Asian adoptees are feeling about white adoptive parents across the political spectrum, asking if they know about the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, if they have intervened when others called the coronavirus the China virus or kung flu, and if they have brushed off racist and xenophobic incidents faced by their children. Did oblivious adoptive family members post Happy St. Patrick’s Day messages on social media (like some of ours did)? We know these incidents happen because as clinicians, social workers, and scholars we hear countless stories of adoptees whose adoptive parents ignore both the everyday and monumental realities of racial and gendered violence.

It is dangerous to assume that transracial families are leaders in anti-racism. More than 50 percent of U.S. transnational adoptions are from Asian countries to white parents. To be concerned for Asian adoptees is to understand the deeply-ingrained racism, xenophobia, patriarchy, and discrimination against Asian women. By not understanding this history, adoptive parents — regardless of how much they love their adopted child(ren) — may unwittingly be perpetuating it and thus putting them directly in harm’s way.

Each member of The Society of Adoptee Professionals of Color In Adoption has an “origin story” that starts with a family who chose to adopt us and bring us into their White families, and sometimes the origin story even includes the women who gave birth to us. For adoptees, the biological connection and the intimacy of that relationship is something foreign to us. For those of us who identify as Asian American, having a mother who is Asian is also part of our origin story but images of those Asian women can shift and change over our lifetimes. To us, Asian women trigger something in us where we search the features of strangers for some reflection of our Asian selves.

Even as we search for these mothers explicitly and implicitly, we must navigate the challenges posed by racial stereotypes, microaggressions, and internalized oppression. We absorb the messages — from adoptive parents, strangers, and adoption agencies — that these are “failed” mothers who had pasts that are mysterious, tragic, and even possibly shameful. Some adoptees’ records are intentionally falsified, misrepresenting the adoptee’s origin story as coming from an “unwed mother” despite the reality of coming from married families in some cases, further perpetuating the “saving” perspective from a “less moral” situation. In the internalized images and narratives we have of our birth mothers based on societal messages, our birth mothers are the poor, the illiterate, the sexually promiscuous, the possible prostitute, the factory worker, the farmer, or the war widow. Asian women who have been oppressed, sexualized, minimized, and misunderstood become both familiar and frightening. For those of us who identify as Asian women, these realities and images haunt us.

We grieve the losses of Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, and Daoyou Feng. We fully support Asian immigrant and Asian American communities, including sex workers who should be protected rather than criminalized. We believe the movement to #StopAsian Hate is necessarily tied to larger movments, such as Black Lives Matter, to end white supremacist and heteropatriarchal structures. We are heartened by expressions of solidarity from BIPOC communities, as well as white family and friends who have been paying attention, who have reached out and check in on us, and who have actively sought to be anti-racist as opposed to non-racist and therefore complicit.

Adoptees of color (transracial and not) often find themselves caught in between worlds, not White enough and not fill-in-the-blank enough. For those of us who are transnational adoptees, despite being raised in the U.S., our immigrant bodies signify foreign (among so many other things), which is why these murders of Asian immigrant women resonate so deeply for us. Supporting us in painful moments like these acknowledges that our identities and lived experiences are valid, even if they do not match perfectly with other Asian and Asian American experiences. We know that this type of love and solidarity is what is required for collective humanization and liberation.

Society of Adoptee Professionals of Color in Adoption (SAPCA)

In reverse alphabetical order: Angela Tucker, Kit Myers, Ph.D., Hollee McGinnis, Ph.D., Holly Grant-Marsney, Ph.D., Susan Branco, Ph.D., Amanda L. Baden, Ph.D.

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SAPCA

Society of Adoptee Professionals of Color in Adoption (SAPCA)