A red rectangle of fake Chinese silk has been embroidered with the letters"F.O.B." on a patch of deep yellow.
Sarah Whyte's first solo exhibition, “What Color Am I?,” expresses her complex relationship with race and identity as a transnational adoptee. Credit: Bun Stout

When Sarah Whyte was a child, her parents said it didn’t matter that she was Asian and they were white. What mattered, they said, was that she was their daughter. 

That didn’t stop adults from reminding her she was adopted, telling her to be grateful she’d been “saved” from the orphanage in China. Nor did it stop other kids from calling her slurs like “twinkie”—yellow on the outside and white on the inside. “I struggled with the feelings of being too Chinese to be American and yet too American to be Chinese,” Whyte later wrote.

Her first solo exhibition, “What Color Am I?,” on view at the Chinese American Museum of Chicago, expresses her complex relationship with race and identity as a transnational adoptee. “There are so many questions I have that may or may not have answers,” she said. “I use art to explore what I’m thinking and as a way to visualize that internal dialogue.”

“What Color Am I?”
Through 5/7: Wed and Fri 9:30 AM-2 PM, Sat-Sun 10 AM-4 PM, Chinese American Museum of Chicago, 238 W. 23rd St., 312-949-1000, ccamuseum.org, suggested admission: adults $8, students/seniors $5, free for members

Whyte, an MFA student at the University of Illinois Chicago, was adopted from Jiangxi province, China, and grew up in Virginia and Texas. Because she was raised without a cultural connection to her birthplace, many Asian Americans have labeled her “fake” or “whitewashed.” Her best models of authenticity were local Chinatowns; sometimes, she wonders if she’s appropriating Chinese culture while trying to get in touch. 

Her parents’ privilege offered security and some protection in public but never masked her appearance. “Although my parents are white, their presence cannot erase the fact that I still experience slurs, jokes, and other racial stigmatization as someone who is ethnically Asian,” Whyte said. “These slurs have affected and shaped my racial consciousness.” 

Each hand-stitched work, a close study of hateful language, took months to complete.  
Credit: Bun Stout

For the exhibition, Whyte embroidered slurs including “GOOK,” “CHINK,” and “F.O.B. (Fresh Off The Boat)” onto pieces of fake Chinese silk, playing on authenticity with the material. Each hand-stitched work, a close study of hateful language, took months to complete.  

Also on display are large clouded self-portraits reflecting Whyte’s ambiguous racial identity and obscured personal history. White gesso primer conceals her face and other images from orphanage photographs. Red Chinese characters in one painting question her name; in another, white English text tries to define her race. A closer look reveals more poetry, embroidered onto the canvas and neatly redacted by lines of acrylic paint. 

“I think with adoption, there’s a lot of erasure,” said Whyte, who doesn’t fully trust the few photos and documents she has from the orphanage. “By adding a gesso wash, I’m erasing and covering up what was there before. But at the same time, all those layers have a history.”

In March, Whyte spoke about her work at the UIC Women’s Leadership and Resource Center. Associate director Ramona Gupta said that any immigrant or child of immigrants understands the tension between identity and culture, which can be magnified for a transnational adoptee. 

“What does it mean to be raised by people who are not of the culture of the home country that I was taken from?” asked Gupta, hypothetically. “How is assimilation approached or handled differently, versus acculturation—are folks who are transnational adoptees encouraged to learn about and embrace the cultures of their home countries?”

Artist Sarah Whyte (right) with artist Dianna Frid
Courtesy the artist

Whyte’s exhibition is the seventh feature in the Chinese American Museum of Chicago’s spotlight series. The recent initiative is designed to revitalize the museum by showcasing local artists from across the Chinese diaspora. 

“The spotlight series is an opportunity for the community to expand its voice and embrace not only the past and the present but the future,” said series curator Larry Lee. 

As a community organizer, Gupta said she notices Asian adoptees are often excluded from Asian American spaces. “It’s really exciting that the museum is opening the door to these kinds of conversations,” she said. “I really hope it’s well received by the community and that folks are paying attention.”

In her next series, entitled “No Space to Mourn,” Whyte is tackling white saviorism in transnational adoption. When she was a child, people often called her parents “angels” and praised their humanitarianism. 

The artist’s large clouded self-portraits reflect her ambiguous racial identity and obscured personal history.
Credit: Bun Stout

“They would point out how grateful I should be for being saved from the country that is my motherland,” Whyte said. “They placed an invisible debt on my shoulders, the debt of needing to prove my worth as someone given the opportunity to navigate a white reality.” 

Ömür Harmanşah, Whyte’s advisor and director of the UIC art history department, noted the role of Whyte’s studies in her work. “She’s taking classes and mobilizing ideas that she learns about: feminism, transnationalism, immigration, racism,” he said, adding her art is “based on her own experience and trauma but also touches the lives of so many people.”

Funded by a research award from UIC’s provost, Whyte is prioritizing audience engagement and connection in her new series. She’s expanding the conversation through collaborative panels, creating spaces for fellow adoptees to share and unpack their experiences. 

“I’m networking, saying hello, and just putting myself out there to meet people—which is really hard as someone who’s a natural introvert,” Whyte said. She’s never had a community of other adoptees but is excited to build and take part in one through her art. 

“Whether I had an audience or not, I would be making this work,” she said. “In a way of being true to ourselves, we find community.”

The panel “Adoptee Identity: Are We Asian American Too?” will be held April 30, 2-3:30 PM at the Chinese American Museum of Chicago, 238 W. 23rd.

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