What do mental health and race have to do with each other? I’ve written about this intersection in the past (see: “Dealing with Mental Illness as a Person of Colour”), but it’s a topic I want to explore further. People of colour do face unique mental health challenges with regards to representation and stereotypes, which can make it harder to access treatment – but what about the day-to-day impact of living as a visible minority? Some people may not register that much of a difference, or they may be able to shrug it off. Others feel that difference more keenly, to the point where it creates anxiety and distress.
I recently read this piece by Nicole Chung called “What Goes Through Your Mind: On Nice Parties and Casual Racism” that really resonated with me, as a biracial woman. She describes an awkward dinner party experience where the joyful mood is suddenly shattered (for her, at least) when a (white) guest asks her an inappropriate and ignorant question about being Asian. Chung writes, “I know I should be able to come up with an answer, something brisk and witty, and bury this moment in the same place where I keep all such awkward memories. But for some reason, my brain just won’t cooperate. My face is burning, my heart pounding too loudly, and it’s painful to even consider making eye contact with anyone at the table.”
We can all recognize her embarrassment – no one likes to feel that way. But what’s unique in this situation is that Chung, like many other people of colour, has been humiliated specifically by someone else’s ignorance about race and culture. Someone was rude enough to bring up Chung’s race in a completely inappropriate way, and in a social setting where she feels like it is now her responsibility to smile through her embarrassment and keep the peace.
For some people of colour, this is not an issue. For others, it’s a constant source of distress and a frustrating use of their energy. The physical and emotional reaction Chung described actually reminded me of a panic attack. Face burning, heart pounding, a million thoughts rushing through her head: humiliation, anger, frustration, hurt. She is agonized, not sure what to say next. The social pressure to take the high road is overwhelming, as much as the shame she feels for not defending herself or her culture. As someone with social anxiety, this kind of experience is a nightmare for me. My social anxiety is exacerbated by feeling like I stand out in a bad way, like people are looking at me and judging me. These feelings are magnified and focused on a particularly sore spot when the discussion involves race. Am I going to have to defend myself? Is someone going to make a joke at my expense? Will my reaction determine the mood of the party? Like Chung, I go over these questions in my mind again and again, sometimes hours or even days after the event.
Comments like this often make people of colour feel exposed and uncomfortable, to the point where they may experience strong anxiety or a reluctance to participate in similar social gatherings. White people cannot pretend to understand how this particular kind of alienation feels, even if they can empathize with feeling embarrassed in front of a group of people. People of colour have to navigate these kinds of social minefields more often than you’d expect, smiling politely through small, yet significant, comments from friends, coworkers or even strangers. This is just one way that our mental health and stress can be impacted. I encourage the mental health community to fully embrace and explore the intersection of race and mental health, to better understand people of colour’s unique experiences.
Photo credit: “carved of soft stone” by meeralee on Flickr.
About Jasmin Yee
Jasmin Yee is an Ottawa-based young professional who has dealt with mental illness since the end of high school. Now 24, she has a passion for mental health advocacy and breaking down the barriers that make it so hard to talk publicly about mental illness. She writes about her experiences with depression and anxiety on her blog, as well as her thoughts on how to reduce stigma. Jasmin aims to develop a career in health promotion so that she can connect with at-risk communities and enable them to take care of their mental health.