Beauty founder Emily Heath Rudman explores her upbringing as a Korean-born adoptee raised in a Caucasian family.
“I feel sorry for you. You know. That you are adopted.”
The little boy in the park muttered to me from a swing while I climbed on the monkey bars. At the time, I didn't know what he meant by it. Maybe it was his young mind’s way of saying “being adopted must be hard.” I was still so young at the time that I didn’t understand the complexities of being adopted from Korea by a white family.
Sure, I had heard the off-handed comments about my eyes and how my mom and I did not look the same, but to a certain extent I was blissfully unaware of the challenges I would face as a young adult. I had always known I was adopted; my parents had made a point of letting my sister and I know this fact. And they would explain that they were our parents but that we also had different “birth moms”. In the end, they wanted my sister and I to feel like we were as much their children as any biological child could be.
In some ways I saw the world through “Caucasian” eyes because I had thought of myself as such. And growing up white adjacent with most of the privileges that came with that life, made this ignorance easier for me, or so I thought. A lack of diversity growing up only made the situation harder. In kindergarten there was one half-Asian child and one Hispanic child, while everyone else was white. My outward appearance was never brought up directly to me, but I could tell that I was seen as different. I didn’t see myself as Asian at all.
A Lack of Representation
Fast forward to high school where the images I saw in magazines and media were these “all-American” (aka white) Abercrombie & Fitch models. It was around this time when I desperately wanted to dye my hair blonde and get eyelid surgery. Through this exploration, I also discovered the power of makeup as an art form that could enhance beauty but also hide and alter certain features. I would practice endless hours in the mirror to figure out ways to make my eyes look bigger or create a double-lid look. But because of my monolid eye shape, even certain techniques were not effective – no matter how hard I tried.
In high school I was lucky enough to go on an education trip to Spain to be immersed in the culture and become fluent in Spanish. On one of the last nights of the trip, one of my friends said, “you’re one of the most American Asians I know.” He meant it as a compliment. That I had somehow changed his mind of what Asians in America were like: that they were very much like himself. What he nor I realized at the time, was that his comment was a loaded and biased microaggression. The fact was and is, that I am an American. An Adopted Korean American. Other than my eye shape or my DNA, the way I was raised is just as American as him. And yet, somehow, I was still other, separate, not fully or really American.
A Rise in Hate
Fast forward to 2020 and the year of the pandemic. I had spent my life coming to terms with my Asian identity and spent years self-learning about a heritage I knew little of growing up. I had also spent many years trying to see the beauty in my Asian looks vs. trying to hide, minimize or even exploit them. I had created a brand that was inclusive and showed all ethnicities and genders; but had done this implicitly, not performative, to show that this is the way beauty is and should be represented.
Sure, I had dealt with racism my whole life, being called a “Pizza face” or “chino” in other countries. And had been asked “where I was from, where I was really from” more times than I could count. I had been yelled at on the streets; called a “gook”; hit on; touched without my consent and more. But I had dealt with it or had managed to deal with it, or so I thought.
Then, a wave of violent Anti-Asian crimes I had tried hard to avoid as a youth, struck the AAPI community. I was in shock. It was like nothing I had ever felt or seen before. I’ve lived in New York my whole life, and for the first time, as an Asian woman, I did not feel safe on the streets or on public transportation. Couple that with the fact that I have a daughter who is of mixed race, and I was scared to my core. I found myself wearing sunglasses to walk around on the streets, and gripping pepper spray in my pocket as I walked in what had previously been some of the safest neighborhoods in New York prior to the pandemic.
Finding My Voice
Something about these attacks activated my like never before. There was a fire lit within me that had always been there but had laid dormant, complacent, not wanting to fully understand how mistreated I had been as an Asian woman all my life. Seeing many others in the community stand up to these injustices drove me to action to use my platform in any way that I could to amplify the message against Asian hate.
Although not raised within the Asian community and only having my DNA as ties to it, I still belonged to it, now more than ever - and I had to fight for it.
For myself, for my family, for my daughter, and anyone who had ever been mistreated solely based on the way they looked.
I am not perfect. I still struggle with my Asian identity on a daily basis. But I can hold my head up high, knowing that I am doing my best to pave a way for positivity, healing and acceptance, so that my daughter may have a better chance growing up in a time and place that supports her and sees her for who she is - American.