Dear Therapist: Racial Identity Development

Racial Identity Development

Dear Therapist:

I’ve been going to protests the past few weeks. Not every day, but enough to put it into my days on a pretty regular basis. I feel it’s really important to be out there standing side-by-side with my community demanding change. Yet, many of my friends are not only not attending, they don’t seem interested in the least. They seem to live in a vacuum where none of this awakening is happening. I want to call them out on social media. Quite frankly, I am ashamed to call these people my friends. How can I convince them to care?

Sincerely, A Protestor Who Wants His Friends to Care Too

Such a good question. Thanks for writing in with this conundrum. It has been a very busy, fruitful, and engaging few weeks as people in communities across America have come together to protest the police and how systemic racism is often guiding their actions as they serve the community. The fact that the protests continue daily with a commitment to not ending until real change and reform takes hold also marks a turning point in the struggle.

At this critical moment, I hear your anger at your own personal community of friends who are not participating in the protests or even seem to be engaging in any part of their lives. One thing to remember is not everyone is in the same place of being “woke.” This is what makes systemic racism so difficult to break. There may be millions working toward change and justice, and yet there are millions of others who aren’t even thinking about the problem. And, I bet, even more people who fall somewhere in between these two positions.

I consider each person to be on a journey of racial identity development. To me, this means people looking at who they are through a racial identity lens and what does this mean for them in their thoughts, ideas, attitudes, and how they choose to live their lives. People are at many different points along this path. Some can only name their race. Others have tuned into the news and make a judgment of things occurring being good and bad, but feel it sits outside of themselves and who they are. Still others are not ready to do anything public, but are reading and thinking about these ideas. Then there are others who are educated, woke, and taking action. Finally, there is a group who have dedicated their entire existence to this cause and creating the change they want to see in society. It is quite a spectrum.

Before deciding to call these people out as “bad” and publicly shame them, take a moment to become curious about where they may be in their own racial identity development. This may be very difficult to do as it may be easy to say they should be where you are and anything else is plain wrong. And it may be wrong, but I am not sure it is a question of right and wrong. People are somewhere along this spectrum of racial identity development and shaming people may or may not get you what you want.

Rather, is there a way you could hold and encourage an open dialogue about what is going on? Rather than attacking, engaging them in discussion. If it is just not on their mind, is there a way you could form a book group and read a relevant text and engage in discussion? Perhaps there are hard discussions that need to happen in a space that is safe and open. Being able to engage the other in a way that honors the other, but also brings forth the importance you feel of doing something to help your friends wake up to the importance of this moment.

Too often it’s a good-bad paradigm. If you are doing what I see is right and important you are good. If you are not, you are bad. From there, society and personal relationships break down. This type of schism is often too what keeps systemic racism in place. Approaching with openness and with a spirit of seeking understanding, educating, and thoughtful dialogue may open a sliver of hope toward real change that shame and attacks can never overcome.

Little Women Viewed from a Multicultural Lens

I was perusing the New York Times the other Sunday and came across an interesting article regarding another Oscar contender, Little Women. The author’s point of view on the film was written from an African-American perspective. The article is titled The Bearable Whiteness of Little Women.

The author’s take is that Louisa May Alcott has written a book about the March sisters that transcends their whiteness and simply inhabits their times and offers one filter on how to move in the world as women navigating difficult waters in the 19th century. When the author talks about being black and watching the film and says,”empathy looks less like identifying with the other and more like emotional hegemony” I can understand her perspective.

Little Women is certainly a book of Alcott’s time and her characters and their struggles do offer only one lens through which to view it and is not the only defining way to have interacted during those times. However, reading the book today, seeing this movie on screen during the times we live in today, it is hard to suspend one’s feelings regarding race, particularly if one is made up of more than one race.

I look at the March sisters and I identify with them, not only on an emotional level, but in looking like them, i.e. white. I am not wholly white, but the March sisters invite me into their world and into myself that is racially made-up of two parts, I find it easier to embody my whiteness and abandon my color so I too can be like them.

It is one thing to say clearly, I am wholly another race and I can appreciate this film not by identifying with the white characters, but by being emotionally present with them and their experiences. It is another to be half white and half color and be seduced by these characters to the point that biracial and multiracial people end up forgetting a part of their racial identity – even if only for a time.

In watching films like this, I notice how I am apt to completely identify with one part of my racial make-up and sort of feel grateful that I look like these courageous characters. Simultaneously, I can see myself abandoning my East-Indian identity, grateful that I don’t appear Indian as then I would not be like them, i.e. the other. The cascade of shame descends upon me.

When one is half white and half color, the line one walks is one that challenges us to remain whole in our identity — neither putting down the side that the media glorifies nor feeling shame for taking distance from our color.

I loved Little Women. However, after the film, as I thought about the March sisters and their trials and turbulations, I found myself completely identified with them. Where did my Indian side go? I didn’t see her there nor did I want to.

Book Review: Good Talk by Mira Jacob

Looking for an interesting memoir that is hip and takes on the uncomfortable topic of race, particularly for those of us who are biracial?

Then, let me recommend Good Talk A Memoir in Conversation. I heard the author, Mira Jacob, discuss this book on NPR earlier this fall and I knew I had to read it. If you are interested in hearing an interview with Mira Jacob via PBS. To my surprise, it is a graphic memoir.

Don’t let this format fool you, though. this book takes on the tough topic of racial identity, especially for those of us who identify as biracial. The author was inspired by her son, who started asking many questions after he got into Michael Jackson after his parents, the author being one of them, gave him all the Michael Jackson albums to listen to. Out of curiosity, her son starts asking about Michael Jackson and if he is black or white or both? And, whatever the answer his parents came up with, they knew their answer was going to have a profound influence on him.

As usual, the issue of color often comes out in our daily activities, such as the music we share and listen to each day.

The author was asked during her NPR interview about the faces she had drawn on the characters’ throughout her memoir. There was the comment that the people in her graphic memoir do not appear to be sad over the experiences she is drawing our attention to. This was a deliberate choice on her part to allow the reader to carry their feelings and not have the characters do more of the “feelings work” for the reader. Aha! This is a hard-hitting book!

For my part, this is a thought-provoking book about one’s own racial identity. Her message across these many conversations is delivered in an interesting medium that seeks to get at truths, universal ones experienced intimately by this author and her family, in an interesting, culturally relevant way.

I would love to hear if you have any books on racial identity that you would suggest I read.