The Mental Health Consequences of Being Labeled 'Other' in America
I was waiting for the subway with a colleague after a meeting where we were discussing how to attract more diverse faculty members into the trauma studies program curriculum that I chair. My colleague is a progressive social worker who has been promoting antiracist conversations for many years.
As we were talking she used the term “people of color” to refer to me, consciously or unconsciously seeing me as “other.” Because of her characteristics, I felt free to make the comment that I didn’t like the term because instead of inclusive, it sounded really divisive to me — as in “all the others.” She looked at me in disbelief and said “I don’t care, I like it. It’s convenient.”
Her comment didn’t land well on me even when I didn’t show it. I felt disrespected, unseen, dismissed, ignored, and angry. “Convenient?” So, is your convenience more important than my identity? I’m not talking about being bothered by the label per-se. I was disturbed by feeling in my skin the way systemic racism has denied us the possibility to discover and define ourselves on an individual level — in situations from the mundane to the monumental.
Carrying labels imposed by the dominant groups has a negative impact on mental health.
Oppressed and oppressors in America have both become used to nullifying individual identity through the act of assigning and carrying categories that dictate collectively who one is. Identity is a very important component of mental health. Identity depends on how we view ourselves, which is reflected (and affected by) the way others see us, as well as the way we feel about who we are according to the way we learn to identify our characteristics.
Let’s explore further:
Almost all approaches in psychiatry and clinical psychology view individuals’ mental health as at least partly influenced by positive self-conceptions, high self-esteem, or maintaining valued social identities.
Peggy A. Thoits, a former sociology professor at Indiana University, stated that psychological disorders have been attributed “to unconscious conflicts within the ego (Freud, 1933), arrested or inadequate identity development (e.g., Erikson, 1963), threats to self-conception or self-esteem (e.g., Abramson, Metalsky, & Alloy, 1989), and identity loss (Breakwell, 1986; Brown & Harris, 1978; Thoits, 1986), among many related processes.”
Research has found that injuries to identity or self-worth not only are precursors but are key-markers of mental disorders (e.g., Beck, 1967; Abramson et al., 1989).
Categories have been one way that those who hold power officially, or through simply belonging to dominant groups, oppress others by creating and marking limits. These categories always come with implied higher status for the ones in power or, with a denigrating tone, leaving a sense of disenfranchisement in the categorized. I have never been asked how I identify myself, I’ve always been assigned an identity that is entirely dependent on how others see “me,” a perception that is shaped by “their” limited conception of history, culture, language, migration patterns, politics, etc.
It is too common to get the typical question, “Where are you from?” Normally, my best American friends ask me what is the best way to refer to me, but what they’re really doing is giving me a pre-set menu to choose from: “Are you Hispanic? Or are you Latina?” Even when the question is asked politely, it’s evident that they don’t really care; they have already made up their minds and have me in a box with a profile and a set of concepts that make them believe they are different –and most often superior — to the members of my box.
I have felt many times the need to tell my story; other times I haven’t felt like talking about it — an opportunity that should be afforded to everyone who is ever put in a position to explain themselves in order to be categorized. What’s remarkable in these moments is to experience the way that my need to be seen as a person is overridden by the act of being seen as a “conceptualization.” This diminishes a person’s ability to have confidence in each of the elements that make up that concept and challenges our personal loyalties and our sense of belonging, which makes us doubt who we really are.
I have observed that dominant groups in general, but especially in colonizer countries, lack the curiosity to learn about the identity of other people. I imagine it is more “convenient” to ignore the needs of the ones who have to submit as a way to avoid facing the consequences and responsibility of colonization, enslavery, invasion, capitalism, or imperialism that got us here.
I can see how it’s comfortable to write history as the winner and ignore the crude reality of the damage involved — and how that has affected the identity of the oppressed. We, as a species, have cultivated a whole set of atrocities that bring shame, guilt and confusion; mechanisms like racism make it easy to avoid confronting our dark actions. If the aggravated gets silenced, it becomes normal to keep pretending those things never happened, and transfer those negative emotions to the oppressed.
The psychological result is that being more “white” has become aspirational; our individual identities have been replaced by a collective definition of what’s better, and our connection with ourselves impoverished. The oppressed doubt individually whether we can or should feel proud of our origins, our family and ancestry, or our culture since they have been looked down on systemically. Even the oppressor forgets its own to keep his superior stance and to conform with their assigned role.
I remember the day a client who is from Puerto Rico told me “I grew up as white when I lived in PR, but I guess I’m not”, with his head down and shame and confusion reflecting in his face. I saw at that moment how the dominant group had stolen my client’s identity. He felt as if he had been wrong and as if he had made the mistake to identify himself as someone he was not; as if he had been an impostor all those years, just because of how others saw him in this new context. In this case, the dominant group had tried to remove him from what was “theirs” just because it threatened their understanding of the “white” identity.
Although the “impostor syndrome” term was coined by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes (1978) to describe a phenomenon in professional circles as the internal experience of intellectual phoniness despite evidence of high achievement, it has also been applied many times to situations of race and identity. Cokley et al (2013) found that impostor feelings may be the more probable reason for individuals with minority status and race‐related stress to present poorer mental health.
Not having the freedom to grow an identity free of impositions or labels is not only limiting but detrimental to the mental health of each individual. I don’t need to go through all the emotional challenges that Black and Hispanic communities struggle with in America; all the emotional challenges of being “an other” in America have been described in astounding detail.
Even when it is understandable that writers, academics and all of us in daily conversations need to use acronyms or labels as a way to reference large groups of people with shared characteristics, those categories create a separation and a sense of “otherness” that has damaged the integration of America — and the mental health of its citizens. I acknowledge that some identifiers could have political benefits and solidarity among the non-dominant groups is a powerful force; I’m focusing here only on the individual’s cost of having an identity assigned to them — what we lose on an individual level when it comes to agency, empowerment, confidence, etc., as we are categorized without our involvement in the process.
My proposition here is that categories should be agreed upon at the individual level. Questioning our sense of self, our purpose and our values can help us gain a better sense of who we are and who we want to be. That “questioning” is called an identity crisis, and if resolved, it helps our psyche and our emotional development. In daily lives, individuals should demand to be recognized by their own identities, and not by an identification that may differ from their own. Assigned categories steal the real individuality from the person; oppressor aggrandizes their sense of self and their freedom; create separation and detachment from the herd.
Mentioning our background should be a choice and a moment of joy and of cultural contribution. It should be used as a way to grow our understanding of the richness of being humans and the wealth of possibilities that culture generates; not as a patronizing or denigrating tool. As Sylvia Obell, a host of the Netflix podcast “Okay, Now Listen” said recently, “When you blend us all together” like in BIPOC, “it’s erasure.” Chelsey Luger, from the Native Wellness Institute said that “the fact that people think that we’re one homogeneous group and don’t acknowledge our diversity contributes to our dehumanization,” which applies to many groups that have been packed together as in the case of Asian (48 countries), Latin-American (33 countries), Native American (574 different groups) and so on.
The dominant class keeps referring as “immigrants” to everyone who comes from other countries even when their own ancestors came from somewhere else too. Isn’t it evident how those names have been used to position the dominants as superior, invalidating each person’s unique circumstances?
But we, the “dominated” group, have become so used to being referred to by those labels that we take small victories like having our categories capitalized — as in Black or Hispanic. Or we ourselves create a bigger box like POC to put all of us brothers and sisters together to create a bigger Other.
If you visualize those two boxes, which one is bigger? The one that says minorities? Or the one that says whites? The Census doesn’t give the option to Hispanics to choose race. The options are either a color — as in White or Black — or Hispanic. But Hispanic is not a race. People who speak Spanish come from all over the world, like Americans, but they were taught Spanish instead of English. I’m sure it’s designed that way to avoid white losing the status of majority. If “people of color” are so many, why don’t we regain our identity by proposing the names ourselves from now on? Not as a way to separate ourselves again from “them,” but to be recognized in our situation and overcome our identity crisis.
Before agreeing on what to be called, let’s start asking who we really are without the systemic labels that carry a legacy of oppression. With that space, with a new perspective, we could get creative, looking at ourselves and finding out that instead of having the self-image of an “immigrant” we could see ourselves as “explorers” or “American guests.”
Instead of legitimizing the color of our skin, we could honor our diversity; someone of fair skin can identify themselves as “non-diverse American” or as part of the “dominant group” and having “oppressor’s advantage” instead of using the comfortable term of “white privilege.” I think that the day someone can see themselves as an “original American” instead of “native,” the day we normalize terms to talk about multiracial or third-culture-kids, and when a “person of color” talks proudly and openly about their particular characteristics and the unique attributes and circumstances of their families and backgrounds — racial, ethnic and otherwise — we will be a progressive and healthier society.
What if every circumstance when we are given a menu of options, or just one label as a statement and not a question, was instead a moment when the other person asked us, “How do you identify yourself?” Or “How do you like to be called?” instead of “Where are you ‘really’ from?” If it comes from pure curiosity, then, after they have an answer, let’s invite curiosity to continue questioning and learning — to those interested in finding out about the different backgrounds of people who have been segregated.
And let’s also agree that they may receive the answer “My Name is…” and “I’m from California” taken as valid. No offense taken on either side. Actually, I suggest that we ask the questions back with a similar openness about the diversity of each person’s background. We could all be curious about each other’s stories, right? That “equity” can build a connection between two people and with our sense of self. By putting each one’s identity into the picture, it can create equilibrium. If you ask me, be prepared to be asked as well.
The antiracist movement that we are experiencing is an amazing opportunity to redefine “systemic.” We have the opportunity to start anew; to repair all the pain that ignorance, denial and lack of understanding had created. We could start by thinking that each one of us shares the same type of needs. We need to know who we are, we need to be seen and understood, we need to be accepted and recognized; we need to feel that we belong. That’s universal!
At this point, developing the awareness that we as a collective have not been free to find out individually what defines us could be a start. That the categories that have been used are most of the time misleading, limiting and denigrating. That the denigrative quality comes from the word itself, from the imposition, and from the fact that we want to see progress on a societal level but don’t have enough people thinking about it on a psychological level. That the way we have used labels indicate a hierarchy that is part of what we understand now is how racism has been practiced. If each one of us asks for and receives the respect and acknowledgment we deserve, we will be dissolving the systemic racism one person at a time.
Photo by Jose Escobar on Unsplash