Posted on July 31, 2023

Inside the Online World of People Who Think They Can Change Their Race

Emi Tuyetnhi Tran, NBC, July 30, 2023

Since before she hit double digits, Alisa, 15, said she has felt a special connection with Japan. The high school student, who asked to be anonymous for fear of being doxxed online, was born in Ukraine and lives in Maryland, but she now goes by the Japanese name Miyuki and listens to “subliminals” that promise she will wake up and be Japanese. So far, she believes that by listening to YouTube videos with lo-fi music and photos of East Asian facial features while she sleeps, her vision has cleared, her eyelids have become smaller and her hair is just a bit darker.

Practitioners of what they call “race change to another,” or RCTA, purport to be able to manifest physical changes in their appearance and even their genetics to become a different race. They tune in to subliminal videos that claim can give them an “East Asian appearance” or “Korean DNA.”

But experts underscore that it is simply impossible to change your race.

“It’s just belief,” said Jamie Cohen, an assistant professor of cultural and media studies at Queens College, City University of New York. “It doesn’t ever really work, because it’s not doing anything, but they have convinced themselves that it works because there’s other people who have convinced themselves, as well.”

Though they do not constitute a full-blown trend, a number of racial subliminal creators have popped up on YouTube in recent years, with videos racking up on average over a half-million views apiece. On TikTok, dozens of accounts have emerged in recent weeks sharing similar goals and aesthetics and documenting what people describe as their race-change journeys.

Media experts also point to the potential dark side of the exocitization of Asian culture, saying it could be a form of modern yellowface, or the act of non-Asian people’s making their appearance more “Asian-like.”

Korean American poet Margaret Rhee, an assistant professor of media studies at The New School in New York, said the RCTA phenomenon reflects the current media climate in which East Asian media enjoys widespread popularity internationally and in the U.S.


Experts agree race is not genetic. But they contend that even though race is a cultural construct, it is impossible to change your race because of the systemic inequalities inherent to being born into a certain race.

David Freund, a historian of race and politics and an associate professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, corroborates the idea that a “biological race” does not exist. What we know today as “race” is a combination of inherited characteristics and cultural traditions passed down through generations, he said.

In addition, Freund said, the modern concept of race is inseparable from the systemic racial hierarchy hundreds of years in the making. Simply put, changing races is not possible, because “biological races” themselves are not real.

Freund added that the idea of changing one’s race operates differently depending on a person’s racial background and that white people who seek to “transition” to other races can often sidestep the harms of racism.

Kevin Nadal, a professor of psychology at City University of New York, said: “There is a privilege in being able to change your race or to say that you’re changing your race. There are many people who would be unable to ever change their race. Particularly, Black people in this country would be unable to say all of a sudden ‘I’m white’ and be treated with the same privileges that white people have.”

Certain people of color throughout history have been able to “pass” as white to survive. Walter Francis White, the son of two enslaved people, for example, used his ability to blend in as “white” to champion civil rights for African Americans as the leader of the NAACP. But most people of color are not afforded the same opportunities.

RCTA and transracialism — which came to the forefront because of controversial figures like Rachel Dolezal — have been compared to being transgender. However, psychologists and activists push back against comparisons.

Tiq Milan, a Black transgender activist and writer, said it is a disservice to transgender people to compare the two. Race historically emerged as a social construct to establish a racial hierarchy with the white race at the top, whereas variances in gender identity have existed for thousands of years, he said.

“When it comes to who we are as racialized people, it is how we present to the world, but it’s also how people treat you,” Milan said. “It’s not just putting on the hair and the makeup and talking and walking [in] a kind of way. That is fetishizing, and it’s objectifying, and it reduces the beautiful and complicated cultures of people of color.”


For white Americans, racial trauma can take the form of being ashamed for engaging in racism, having failed to stop others from engaging in racism or not having lived up to a nonracist ideal, said Naomi Torres-Mackie, a psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. That racial guilt is what she calls “white shame,” and it can lead white people to want to escape from the guilt through RCTA or transracialism.


Although a person can in theory be motivated to try to change into any race or ethnicity, the overwhelming majority of the RCTA community wants to be East Asian, and similarly, most race-related subliminals aim to transform listeners into East Asians.


The intense fixation on and enamoration with East Asian traits and appearances has led some members of the East Asian community to criticize RCTA as fetishistic and harmful. Some scholars say it is another case of cultural appropriation, rather than appreciation. {snip}