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.
“There’s also the underbelly of that where we want to be careful,” she said, “because there’s always problems around fetishization or objectification that East Asian cultures have always been subjected to, meaning being revered for these kinds of exotic characteristics but not really fully seen.”
Race as a construct
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.”
‘Changing races’ using subliminals
Alisa began posting to her account, @rcta_ctdr4lifer, on TikTok in the beginning of June. While she has found a community of like-minded people, she has also encountered a slew of hate messages and even death threats. Her account, like those of many other RCTA TikTok creators, features walls of rambling text about her progress and goals and addresses the haters over videos of fashionable East Asian women dancing to Japanese and Korean music.
“Ever since I was about 9 years old, I’ve always loved Japanese culture, and I’ve always wanted to move there, even before I discovered RCTA,” Alisa said.
In the first video she posted on TikTok, she introduces herself through a combination of Japanese and English text, writing that she is Japanese, loves cats and is looking for friends. The white text written by Alisa overlays a video originally posted by TikTok user @simcard_x, in which she dances to the pop song “LOVE & JOY” by the Japanese singer Yuki Kimura.
Subliminals, which are audio files or videos intended to evoke certain outcomes, such as growing taller or achieving good grades, exploded in popularity during the pandemic, Cohen said. They emerged as part of a larger trend in which people hope to manifest changes and bend reality to achieve certain goals, similar to meditation, he said.
Subliminals often feature soothing visuals and ambient music, and they purportedly include subconscious messages and affirmations that rewire a person’s neural pathways or DNA or both. Creators of subliminals post on YouTube with eye-catching, hyperbolic titles and promise their viewers instant gratification: good grades, clear skin or weight loss.
Alia, 14, who asked to be anonymous for fear of being doxxed online, was born Egyptian but wants to be Japanese and Korean. She said that after she let YouTube videos featuring images of monolid eyes and ambient music play on repeat while she sleeps, she thought her eyes had developed monolids and she lost roughly 2 pounds overnight.
“It starts with a spiritual, mental thing, and then it’s your choice to change if you want to change yourself physically,” Alia said.
Some people said they were initially drawn to RCTA because of a special connection with a race or an ethnicity different from their own. Alia, who goes by the Japanese name Sayaka Hashimoto online, said that she has always felt connected to Japanese culture and that she was elated to discover RCTA last year. Her TikTok account, @5starbunny, is full of reflections on her progress toward becoming Japanese and dreaming about being in Japan.
A video features what she calls a progress update from Alia, who claims her mother bought her a “skin whitening mask” without her having asked for it. The text commentary overlies a video originally posted by TikTok user @esoeso_q, which has garnered over 233,000 views.
Some psychologists say people’s inclination to change their race can stem from many motivations, including a desire to be more “exotic” or shame associated with their race, but the specific motivations can vary from person to person.
Alia said that growing up, she was mocked for being Egyptian: “I’ve had many people call me ‘fiery’ or that I get angry quickly just ’cause I’m Middle Eastern. It might also have been a reason why I transitioned.”
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.
“If you hold a highly privileged position in society and that is brought to your awareness, it can give you feelings of guilt or shame,” Torres-Mackie said. “A lot of people try to find refuge from that shame.”
A case of cultural appropriation, not appreciation
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 YouTube account MISU, which has gotten over 30,000 subscribers and nearly 6 million views, was one of the largest subliminals creators catering to the East Asian-hopeful crowd. Since she began making subliminals in 2018, MISU, who claims to be Asian, has leaned heavily into the distinctly Japanese anime aesthetic. Four of her top 10 videos purport to give viewers East Asian features or to help them look more like East Asian influencers and stars, such as Jennie from the K-pop group BlackPink.
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. “Maybe this isn’t the way to respectfully engage with the culture,” Rhee said.
Cohen said: “The problem, to me, isn’t the curiosity; it’s the obsession. Some of them go too deep; they get lost in the sauce. They’re really in it to the point where it’s unhealthy, and they start owning an identity that isn’t theirs.”
Joy, a Korean American creator on TikTok, said people taking part in RCTA often overlook the unsavory aspects of being Asian in countries like the U.S.
“They are exercising their privilege when they say they want to change races,” she said. “When I was younger, I wanted to be white, because I was sick of facing all the racism, but they’re not changing their race because of racism. They’re changing their race because they think it’s cool.”
Subliminals that aim to make someone more East Asian can also inadvertently use antiquated, erroneous stereotypes. One subliminal, which has been viewed over 200,000 times, says watching it will give a viewer a “mongoloid skull” — an outdated and harmful anthropological category, according to a 2019 statement by the American Association of Biological Anthropologists. Another subliminal, viewed over 100,000 times, claims to be able to give a viewer a “flat face.”
However, concerns about the problematic implications of changing their race seem to have fallen largely on stubborn ears. Addressing the criticisms of racism, Alisa said those who practice RCTA are not harming anyone: “We only live once, so I think we should do everything we want to do in life, even if others think it’s not OK or you can’t achieve it.”
Nadal gave a few words of advice to people who are struggling with their racial identity.
“I would say the same thing that I would say to somebody who’s struggling with any part of their identity,” Nadal said. “Talk about what it is that makes you want to change that part of you.”