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.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

9 thoughts

  1. And very brave of you to put such a close part of yourself out there in order to help others.
    With my boys, I have had some hope that diversity would help. Living in an environment where everyone else isn’t the same.
    But then I see then in Korean language class, singing songs they don’t even understand the words to yet (but remember whole songs worth of the words!) and being called by their Korean names and I see them so happy they could burst.

  2. You know, the checklist of three things so much defines me. I remember an earlier post from my early blogging days where I mentioned that I always felt a bit different, yet that my friends never saw me as Asian.
    In many ways, I defined myself “white” without consciously doing it.

  3. Have you ever read any of Mahzarin Banaji’s work?
    I went to one of her lectures and asked her afterward about the specific phenomenon of expecting to see a different face in the mirror than the one you see. She told me that she is currently in the process of seeing how transracial adoption affects some of her parameters. She also, interestingly, told me that she has had this experience herself many times – she is surrounded by white people, she said, and often is surprised to see her own face in the mirror.
    Anyway – maybe you will find some of her work interesting, if you are not familiar with it already.

  4. Thanks for sharing. It’s always good to know that I am not the only one who has struggled/is struggling to balance the dissonance. It’s was a lot of work just to figure there was dissonance!

  5. Thank you for this post. Part of the reason I so strongly want to adopt a second child is because I don’t want our daughter to feel so out of place in our family. That when she is feeling as if she doesn’t fit that there will be someone next to her that can relate and share with her. Additionly, I try hard to find more diverse set of friends and acquaintances to fill our lives with not just for her sake but for our boys.
    I am not sure if this means I am succeeding or not but we belong to a small church of 40 people. Not very diverse, but there is one Phillipino family with 3 older children (14, 12, 8). The other day my daughter (age 3) put her cap on backward and said “look, I am Alfonso” (the Philippino father). I had to laugh because it was funny but it made me think about how and who she picked to “look like”.

  6. Responding very late to your post here, but as the parent of two children adopted from China, this is an issue I worry about all the time. It is not the only reason we decided to adopt a second child from China, primarily we wanted another child, but it certainly was a factor. I didn’t want my daughter to be the “odd person out” in the family, the only one who looked different from the rest of us.
    Yesterday, my daughters and I attended Chinese school for the first time. I deliberately picked a Chinese school that is primarily for Chinese speaking families, but also offers some classes for children who speak English at home. I happen to work in a department where at least 40-50% of the employees are Asian, and some of my colleagues send their children to this school.
    When we arrived there yesterday, I was thrilled to be one of literally hundreds of people streaming into the building (it’s held on a community college campus) and hearing snippets of conversations in Mandarin all around me. And only a few faces like mine here and there. For a couple of hours every Sunday, my daughter can be just another face in the crowd.
    I don’t know if my efforts will be enough to combat the types of feelings you had as an adolescent but I am constantly looking for ideas on how to help my children value and cherish their own ethnicity even though they don’t see it reflected in my face.

  7. Astonished. I have spent my entire life avoiding mirrors and photos and only now, at 36, am I beginning to make peace with my reflected image and the image in my mind.
    I always thought I would look like my older sister when I grew up; tall, buxom, long wavy brown hair and Italian! What an emotional fracturing to realize that I was not one of “them,’ but “other.” Thank you for this posting. We are not alone.

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