Windows and Mirrors

"Other people are the mirror in which we see ourselves."

— Beverly Tatum, PhD., author of "Why are  all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?" [citing Charles Cooley]

I came across this quote the other day while reading, Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race by author and professor Beverly Daniel Tatum and it really resonated with me. I think that for transracial adoptees like myself who experienced growing up in all-White settings, it truly does reflect the cognitive dissonance we experience of knowing we are Asian (or Black or Biracial or Latino, etc) but not ‘feeling it’ so to speak, because we don’t ever see anyone that looks like us.

I’ve heard TRA’s talk about avoiding mirrors because they remind us of our difference and that we’re not really White.

According to Yeung (2003), there are three main components of the looking-glass self:

  1. We imagine how we must appear to others.
  2. We imagine the judgment of that appearance.
  3. We develop our self through the judgments of others.

Growing up, in spite of the support I received from my adoptive parents, I always felt insecure about being the "odd one out." My parents tried to compensate by telling me all the time how "special" I was, and by attempting to use the "it’s better to be unique" line – only it didn’t work for me because it rang so false. After all, they were not the ones who had to deal with being unique, I was – and as a child I didn’t have the ability to really grasp what was so wonderful about being unique. No, all I saw was difference and after years of collective experiences of being different, by the time I was a teenager the only thing I wanted was to be the same.

But no amount of the "in" jeans or the cool sneakers or flipped out hair made me same. No wonder I was struggling with cognitive dissonance! On the one hand I was supposedly so special and unique and it was valued – yet on the other hand I knew this wasn’t true for me the minute I stepped outside my front door.

Family photographs were the worst for me. I could mostly avoid mirrors on a daily basis – I just learned to lower my eyes when necessary. In the same way I learned to ignore the family photos on the walls. I ripped up photographs. In my junior high yearbooks, I erased my photo or scribbled over my face. Anything to keep from remembering that I was different.

In thinking about the Looking Glass Self, I realize now why I had such cognitive dissonance regarding my self and my identity; as Cooley and Tatum expressed, the people who were the mirrors in which I saw myself did not look like me, nor did they provide a racial or cultural model for the young person that I was and the future woman I would become. I imagined, as Yeung outlined, that I was perceived as different by the social world around me. And while my family did not judge me as different they did judge others who looked like me as different.

I thus developed my self through those around me. And sadly, that did not include positive images of Asian Americans.

As an adult, I have worked to remedy my mirror and my windows – both for me and for my children who may also experience the "looking glass self" without positive images of people who reflect them. I can only hope that what they see reflected back to them are strong positive self-identities. And that they won’t avert their eyes to photographs of themselves or scribble out their photos in the yearbooks.

And that they will look in the mirror and be proud of who they see looking back at them.

Yeung, King-To, and Martin, John Levi. "The Looking Glass Self: An Empirical Test and Elaboration." Social Forces 81, no. 3 (2003): 843-879.

© Jae Ran Kim. A building in Chicago, photographed in 2006.