In earlier posts, I’ve talked about how being Muslim has impacted how people see me, and for the most part, being non-white blurs with that. My cultural identity, and identity as a person of colour has been so tied to my religious identity that sometimes it’s hard to separate the two.
I don’t always like engaging in rhetoric that supports the idea that it always has to be a battle of white people vs people of colour. But I’d be lying if I said that the colour of my skin hasn’t impacted my mental health. Racism and discrimination isn’t always hate crimes and the vile things you read on the news. It’s not always perpetuated by white supremacists or the KKK, Sometimes, racism is decievingly innocent, and comes from those that have nothing but good intentions. But that doesn’t make it okay.
Most of my mental health struggles with being a person of colour stem from often feeling underrepresented. I never saw people on TV that looked like me (thankfully, that’s starting to change), there were no books with kids that looked like me, or had names like me, and most of the people I went to school with were white and didn’t share the same culture as me (nor were they genuinely interested in learning about it, aside from a Russell Peters punchline here and there).
Growing up in Canada is interesting, because although I didn’t necessarily experience blatant racism, there were subtle things I noticed growing up. Casual racism, or racism disguised as something else (be it humour, curiousity, or something else) was rampant while I was growing up, and still is. I remember when I was in middle school, we had to wear shorts in gym class. I noticed pretty quickly that my legs looked harier than the other girls, because my hair was thick and black and most of theirs was light and blonde. We were too young to start shaving, so I tried to pull my shorts over my knees and sit with my calves under my thighs. The other girls made comments about it once, and unsure of how to deal with my embarassment, I decided to make a joke out of it, calling myself a “gorilla”. They thought it was hilarious, and it became a casual nickname for me that stuck during gym class. I didn’t think about how racist it was. I didn’t think about how I was perpetuating that racism, and making myself feel more ashamed in order to brush past the fact that I didn’t fit in. It’s a pretty normal thing for any teenager to feel like they don’t fit in or don’t look like the other kids, but my experience was compounded by the fact that race played a role in it, and no amount of makeup or shaving could change that.
I didn’t always have bad experiences about the colour of my skin – sometimes people would be genuinely trying to show how culturally aware they were. People would often wish me “Happy Diwali!” or say “Namaste” to me to show their awareness of people of colour. I’d then have to politely explain that I wasn’t Hindu, and that somehow always offended them. Eventually, I stopped explaining because they wouldn’t understand what that meant anyways.
Sometimes the experiences are not as innocent. I hate flying – not just because the idea of being trapped in a tube 30,000 feet in the air is anxiety inducing, but because I always get checked at the airport. I’m always randomly selected for extra screening, or the security people aren’t as nice to me, even though I do everything I can to make it as quick and painless as possible. I always get to the airport extra early, so I can account for the racism and scrutiny I’ll face along the way. When I explain this to a lot of my white friends, they’re usually shocked because they’ve never been “randomly” screened before.
Somewhere along the way, I started trying to play up my whiteness, and diminish my brownness. I was so ashamed to be brown, and so ashamed to not be white that I began to “kill” my already weak non-white “plant”. I asked my mom to stop making more ethnic food, and demanded pasta, or lemon chicken. I’d ask my parents not to cook if I ever wanted to have a sleepover, and would hide our Bollywood DVDs at the back of the cabinet, showcasing the Hollywood movies.
We were driving a friend home once, and I turned the music on in the car thinking it was the radio, but it was a CD my aunt had made of indian music. As soon as I realized what was playing, I switched it as fast as I could to whatever was on Top 40. As soon as we dropped my friend off, I quietly put the CD back in and listened to it the rest of the way home.
God forbid any of my friends actually noticed I wasn’t white. Maybe it was because I thought I would be judged for it, and my friends would think I was weird or less than them. Maybe it was because I thought I’d make them uncomfortable. Maybe it was really me who was uncomfortable with exposing how non-white I really was. I wore nicknames like “Oreo” or “Coconut” (brown on the outside, white on the inside) like a badge of pride, when really it was just a shield from more shame.
The constant anxiety of wanting so desperately to be white, but not being able to be, still causes me turmoil. I wish I could say I’m so above that now, and never feel ashamed of my race or ethnicity, but I do and I have a lot of work to do to confront that internalized racism still.
I talk to my therapist a lot about never feeling like I quite belong, and how that makes me feel really lonely and isolated sometimes, like I’m the only one even if I’m surrounded by people. A ton of that has come from not being white, and looking “different”. It’s come from people reinforcing the idea that Canada isn’t my home, that I’m a foreigner and come from elsewhere. Even though it isn’t intended maliciously, every time someone asks me where I’m from, they’re really telling me that I’m not from here. They’re telling me I don’t belong. They’re saying I’m a visitor here, but I don’t have any other home to go back to. This is my home. Being brown in a white world is my home, and it’s all I’ve ever known.
I should also point out that it took me a long time to find a therapist that understands the impact being non-white has played in my life. Our mental health system is generally designed by white people, for white people, and the type of care optimal for white people is actually different from what works for people of colour. I’ve done a ton of reading on how in more “brown” parts of the world, mental health issues present themselves more physically than mentally. People report physical symptoms (headaches, stomach aches, etc) more than mental symptoms (hopelessness, sadness, etc) in Eastern parts of the world. This can significantly change the way we diagnose mental health issues, and could play a large role in why people of colour don’t get access to the mental health care they need. I experienced this when it took such a long time to make the connection between the physical symptoms I was experiencing, and my mental health issues. I also didn’t always get enough mental health care because I didn’t present symptoms in the way people expected (read: I didn’t present the same way a white person might). Finally, all my therapists have been white, and were working from their own lens which often didn’t recognize (or know how to address) how race and systemic racial oppression contribute to mental health issues.
I have a lot of friends that say they don’t see colour, and that they don’t see me as different because I’m brown. It’s a nice idea, but I hope they change, and start to see that I’m different. Because maybe if they can see my brownness, and accept it, then I can share my culture with them. Maybe then I can show them the songs I like to listen to, or the movies I watch when no one else is around, and introduce them to foods beyond just butter chicken. I hope they see that I’ve had to struggle with the color of my skin, and see that I’ve asked myself way more questions about color before the age of 10 than they likely have in their whole lives.
I often think about how lucky I am to be in a country where I’m not punished every day for the colour of my skin. I also think a lot about how it could be better. Some people think about how much easier or better their life would be if they had more money, or a nicer house, or lived in a different city, or were more physically attractive. I wonder about what would be different if I was white. Would I have different job opportunities? Would I have different people romantically interested in me? Would I travel more? Would I be less anxious, less depressed, less “damaged”?
Yeah, I wonder, but I’m also starting to embrace and love my non-whiteness more and more every day. I’m starting to engage in more critical conversations about race and ethnicity. I’m more culturally sensitive and aware, and hopefully more supportive to other People of Colour who are likely far more marginalized than I am. Finally, I’m starting to get excited about sharing parts of my culture with the people around me, because I think it’s pretty great, and maybe they will too. So, if you ever want to learn a bit more about my culture and teach me a bit more about yours, I’m 100% here for it.
Keep Surviving by Living.