Melanin and the mind

  • Mental health and racism are highly correlated
- Swikriti Kattel
As a brown woman living in a white-dominant first world country, I can confidently say that this is the story of numerous migrants. After sharing these experiences with a few people, it was surprising to find that others went through the same thing

Jan 4, 2019-The global rise in multiculturalism is perhaps one of the best things that has happened to the world. But it carries a flipside: multicultural societies are certainly prone to racism. Nepal, despite being a multicultural society from the very beginning, never learnt to be racially inclusive when it came to the Madhesi population. Madhesis still face racism in its malignant forms such as maltreatment in the streets and public spaces, as well as casual racism in movies, comedy shows and such. It also goes beyond the cultural level to a nationalistic fervour that consistently accuses Madhesis of being anti-nationals. Even with the presence of such racism in Nepal, I was not fully aware of the pain caused by being at its receiving end and its long-term effect on mental health till I fell victim to it myself. After attending a few counselling sessions and getting diagnosed with social anxiety disorder and clinical depression, it became clear to me that my mental health issues were triggered by frequent racist experiences that I had during my first two years in Australia. 

I worked what they call the ‘graveyard shifts’—from 11pm to 7 am—at a fast-food joint. The shifts would be quiet entertaining as they were frequented by nocturnal oddities. From intoxicated folk urinating on the floor to enraged people who would vandilise the store for not getting their food for free—I encountered a wide assortment of humans during these shifts. But beyond these relatively harmless sights, what was saddening to me was the fact that several racist remarks as well as some hate comments were thrown at me because of my skin colour. Few of these experiences that I can vividly remember are:  a gentleman who expressed to me that he was scared to enter the store because he thought that I might be hiding some explosives and another gentleman belting at me that I should ‘hop on a camel and go back to where I come from’. In addition to this, other forms of racism that migrants like me commonly experience is overt bias, stereotyping, being refused the same kind of treatment at work, school, shops, restaurants and such. A security personnel at a retail shop commonly asks people of colour to reveal the contents of their bags after letting a few fair-skinned individuals to go through without the same scrutiny. A supervisor attempts to micro-manage your work more than other employees. These experiences were obviously upsetting but I believed that I would get over it soon, oblivious to the fact that enduring and supressing all of this would result in several psychological distress.

Social anxiety is primarily based on the fear of being judged, humiliated, and rejected. Direct and indirect racism feeds to this exact fear of being judged and rejected. We are judged and humiliated based on our skin colour or because we belong to a different ethnic group. The hatred thrown at us serves as a constant reminder that we don’t belong to a certain community and we don’t deserve respect as well as equal rights just because we are blessed with a little more melanin. Several strong minds have built resilience against racist experiences; however, numerous young and vulnerable people are deeply affected, making us feel rejected in many levels. The sense of rejection becomes so strong that we choose avoidance as our coping mechanism. We avoid speaking up and voicing our ideas and opinions due to the fear of being judged. We avoid public spaces and public interactions-spaces and encounter we believe hold embarrassment and humiliation—simply to escape. This hinders the opportunity to reach our full potential in several aspects such as academics, career and social life, which can consequently result in mental health issues like depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.

As a brown woman living in a white-dominant first world country, I can confidently say that this is the story of numerous migrants. After sharing these experiences with a few people, it was surprising to find out that there were several others who went through the same thing or are going through it. What is worse is that because there is very little awareness regarding this issue, people are hesitant to share their stories and seek help, leading to further deterioration of their conditions. Wiping out racism in its entirety will possibly take  hundreds of years with the current revival of neo-nationalism and emergent white supremacist groups globally. Starting a conversation about the emotional toll racism can have on mental health could prove to be cathartic. It could also create more awareness regarding the correlation between racism and mental health. This in turn would motivate people to carry out further research on the matter and contribute to providing aid to people in need of help for their mental health issues.

Kattel is a student at Edith Cowan University, Western Australia.

Published: 04-01-2019 07:22

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