My 5 Year Identity Crisis: Born One Race, Feeling Like Another

Photo from Abdulrahman Abu Shaer on Pexels

If you search for the word ‘transracial’, you’ll probably come up with dozens of articles mentioning the controversy surrounding Rachel Dolezal, a white American woman who, in her own words, identifies as black. It caused a national stir when the story broke in 2015 that she had been serving the Spokane chapter of the NAACP under the guise of a black woman, and it was probably the first time that the word transracial appeared in the mainstream media in such a context. Unlike the word transgender, most people don’t take the word transracial seriously. Some people think it’s offensive. Before Dolezal was making headlines, I’d had the impression that I was the only person to ever utter the word. I thought I’d been the first.

Today, I guess I am an ex-transracial. I know you probably hate that word, but I have to use it because no other word describes my experience better. It’s quite possible you’ve already begun to judge me, but chances are you can’t guess what caused my identity crisis any better than I can.

Lest you get the wrong impression, being transracial by no means entailed a party. It’s not like sampling hors d’oeuvres at a multicultural buffet or dressing up to go to a masquerade ball. Nor was it about fitting in or being fashionable. Feeling like I was a different race “on the inside” did nothing to make me more accepted by anyone, anywhere, whether I expressed it or kept it to myself. Inconveniently enough, it was not something I could just sleep off, either.

I sought therapy in my mid-twenties. During my intake assessment, I was interviewed about my mental health history by a young, attractive blonde. I described a traumatic event from childhood which just about brought her to tears, and then at the end of the interview I announced my preference for a therapist who wasn’t white. I admitted to her that it was because I was “kind of racist”. Her posture stiffened and her demeanor shifted after the revelation, as if she felt foolish for displaying empathy. I felt like an awful human being, embarrassed of myself yet again. I’m not saying correlation equals causation — especially since other peoples’ stories may vary — but concurrent to my transracial experience, I was prejudiced towards my own race.

I never attempted to make anyone believe I wasn’t white, but on the inside, I felt more like an Asian. What the hell is it with us white people? Well, I can only speak for myself. To tell the whole story, I’ll have to first go back to my childhood.

I was a sensitive introvert born into a white family. Our ancestors had been among early North American settlers from Europe. I was always freakishly pale, even for a white person, and my aversion to summer activities did not help matters. Starting in middle school, I was viciously taunted about my skin tone, by other white kids, no less. I was regularly referred to as a vampire, and hurtful jokes were made about me fearing the light, etc. “Get a tan,” they’d say, laughing. At the same time, I was struggling with the budding awareness of my sexual orientation, which I’d soon be harassed for until the end of high school. My conservative Baptist family would have surely raised hell if they knew I liked men. I was very uncomfortable with who I was, inside and out, at school and at home. There was nowhere to escape.

My hometown in NJ was remarkably homogeneous. Noncomformity was discouraged. There was a palpable racism against African Americans, Mexicans, and Chinese — people didn’t seem to know there were other kinds of Latinos or Asians, not that they would care. My close friend was teased relentlessly just for looking Mexican. I even saw the occasional confederate flag on display, if you were wondering. Based solely on my experience growing up, I internalized that “white people are racist”. I felt wholly alienated growing up amongst closed-minded people.

Based solely on my experience growing up, I internalized that “white people are racist”.

At 20, I had not yet begun to feel like an Asian, but I’d grown extremely tired of America. The war in Iraq had gone on for several years already, and I was not a fan of it. Nor was I a fan of living with my parents, under whose roof my sexual orientation was repressed. It was as though I had no right to my own identity while living there.

A secret online romance developed between me and a man from Thailand, 14 years my senior. He was more popular, more confident, more successful, and more assertive than I was. He seemed to bring out the best in me. We talked every day by phone and webcam for a few months. At last we met in Orlando and split the cost of a vacation, enjoying Disney World and Universal Studios together. Afterwards, he immediately became distant. Heartbroken, I figured I had not lived up to his expectations in person. Though many times I buried it in denial, over the course of the next several years I would be mourning the loss of my first love, my first kiss.

One of my online friends who was also Thai moved in quickly to be my rebound. He was my age, but he actually still lived in Thailand. I didn’t have any gay friends where I lived, let alone someone who showed romantic interest. I was as eager as ever to run away from my parents, so soon enough, I was on a flight to Thailand to meet my new boyfriend.

Being in Thailand was a surreal and spiritual experience. I had a sense of déjà vu, as if I’d returned home. The landscapes and colors and sounds seemed eerily familiar. I did not feel at home in my actual home, back in the USA, so this was a sensation I’d never encountered before. Witnessing third world poverty fueled a resentment for the relatively privileged and greedy American consumers I’d left behind.

I stayed with my boyfriend in his tiny one-room apartment in Chiang Rai for four weeks before I went back to NJ. It felt like my spirit was torn between the two different worlds. The relationship was soon over, unsurprisingly, but the psychological effect of visiting Thailand would linger much longer. I started to refer to Thailand as my “surrogate motherland” because in the good old US of A, I often felt more like a foreigner — unwelcome and unwanted. Who would deliberately co-opt such a feeling? Who enjoys feeling like a cultural outsider?

At 22, when I moved to New York City, it was primarily Asians who took me under their wings and cared for me, helping me transition to the new and intimidating urban environment. A Chinese friend had even driven down to my parents’ house to help me transport my belongings during the initial move. I thus internalized, “Asian people are good”.

Buddhism became a fascination for me while living in the city. It seemed so much more comforting than whatever had gotten into the people at my old Baptist church with their hands waving around in the air. Strong emotions came over me when I visited a museum of Tibetan and Himalayan art, bursting with Buddhist imagery.

Why couldn’t Christianity do that? I wondered.

As I read about Buddhism, I was seduced by the Buddhist belief that I’d lived past lives as other people.

I started to realize I felt like a Thai in an American’s body. I would have loved more than anything to have woken up one day and see my ugly white body gone, an attractive and bronze Thai body in its place. I surely must have prayed for it; I was so filled with envy. While I did accumulate a small social circle online and in person with people from all over the Asian continent, I never once felt Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino, or Malay. A month I spent in China did not persuade me that I was Chinese. It was Thailand alone which could cast that spell, and claim me as one of her children.

When Rachel Dolezal was exposed as a white woman, there was outrage — it was claimed that she was using her white privilege by choosing to be black. My Asian friends who knew I felt Thai weren’t offended. On the contrary, I got frequent comments from people of various races that I was unlike most Americans; some even flat out said I acted particularly Asian. A few people of color actually understood to a degree what I was going through, as they too had experienced alienation by their respective cultures. I remember a young African American who recalled how he was bullied for dressing like a “skater boy” and listening to “white music”, and various others members of the LGBT community whose cultures were slow to embrace them, Asians included. I don’t know about Rachel, but I don’t think a person would choose to feel the way I did, because it was born of hurt.

I lived in minority-dominated neighborhoods so I rarely saw other whites on the street, but if I did, it would feel really weird. I would avoid going to white doctors because they creeped me out. I blamed my race for making me feel like I was guilty until proven innocent — I had to show people of color that I was different because most people who looked like me, in my opinion, were no good. On the rare occasion when I visited my hometown, if I found myself in a room with all white people I would feel like an outsider. It was like I was the one Asian guy in a white crowd. Yet on the other hand, if I was in a crowd of Asians, I’d be perceived as the token white guy. That’s how I felt joining an Asian non-profit in the AIDS walk.

My prejudice towards white people hardly manifested outwardly. I treated people equally. My best friend at the time happened to be an adopted white Romanian, which was fine with me, yet my generally negative attitude towards white people was giving me a lot of stress. I was constantly judging their looks and behavior as if doing so would make my own whiteness go away. It didn’t. I started thinking to myself, “I need help.”

There were a lot of psychological issues I began addressing more, both in therapy and on my own. It was not an easy road to travel at all, and I can imagine how hard it must now be for someone who feels the way I did to even bring up the topic. The internet rapidly turned Rachel Dolezal into a sort of joke. I don’t know what caused her to feel and act the way she does, but I must caution that outward appearances never tell the whole story.

I am now 31 and no longer feel as though I am a Thai man trapped in an American man’s body. In hindsight, I’ve tried to come up with a rational explanation for why it ever occurred, but I cannot say for certain.

What I do know is that when I fall in love with someone, I have a tendency to blend into that person. My personality may be strong, but my identity is not. It never was. Thus I mirror those I love and admire the most, and that all occurs subconsciously. I’ll only notice it after it’s happened. For a long time after meeting my first love, the way I laughed changed to conform with his bird-like squeals, and I had no conscious control over it. I lacked a definitive role model as a child, and it is possible that I am attracted to potential role models who I subsequently model myself after in a profound way.

I lacked a definitive role model as a child, and it is possible that I am attracted to potential role models who I subsequently model myself after in a profound way.

Another tendency I have is to be escapist. When my reality is too painful, I may wind up adrift in a non-reality that I didn’t intentionally create. I think we have all done that at some point, but I’m sort of a king at it. I was in a state of racial dysphoria, encouraged by bad experiences in my youth. I wanted to be something else, something not associated with all of that pain.

Whether or not people currently identifying with other races manage to find home in their own bodies, I wish them well on their journeys. I hope that if any kind of prejudice or self-loathing has taken root in their minds, as had been the case with me, that they may find the means to cut it down. I hope they heal from any damage that might have exacerbated their circumstance so they may be at peace with the world and themselves. I finally got over the pain of losing my first love, and I eventually became interested in seeing people of all races, including white men. Maybe I was reincarnated — in my past life, I was a man who didn’t accept who he was, but in this life, I am.

Henry is an avid reader, writer, composer, and consumer of documentary films. He supports dialogue about mental health, race relations, and the LGBTQ community.

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